You can find an Amtrak flag stop on many routes, where the train only stops if passengers are ticketed to get on or off the train. Sadly or thankfully (depending on your personality), you do not have to wave flags to get the train to stop; you only have to purchase a ticket.
This article is here to set your expectations on flag stops and help you prepare if one is on your next adventure on trains such as the City of New Orleans.
What is an Amtrak Flag Stop, and how do they work?
An Amtrak flag stop is where the train only stops if passengers get on or off. If no passenger gets on or off, the train will likely not halt or may slow down and keep going.
How did flag stops used to work?
Years ago, if you wanted the train to stop, the station agent would wave a flag to alert the train; hence the term. So, if no one was a flag(s), the train did not stop, and it would continue along the route. I am not sure if they used one or two flags.
How Amtrak Flag Stops Work Today
As you learned, these days, with modern ticketing, no one has to wave flags; I know this is a disappointment for some.
Amtrak conductors have a tool that looks like an iPhone that informs them if passengers are getting on or off at any station in real time. So, the train will stop if at least one passenger has a ticket to board or get off the train.
As the train gets near a flag stop, the conductor checks the device to alert the engineers whether they can keep going or need to stop. This technology eliminates the need to wave flags to get the train to stop.
So, if you want the train to stop, buy a ticket in advance; that is how you wave in the new electronic flag.
What’s the difference between a flag and a regular stop?
With flag stops, the train will only stop if people have tickets to get on or off the train, so they can leave early if that happens before the scheduled time.
If people have tickets, the train will wait until the scheduled departure time, but the train could leave without them if they are late. In that case, the responsibility falls on them, like any stop.
For a regular train stop, the train will stop regardless of whether people are getting on or off, and if the train arrives early, they will wait until the scheduled time.
This action helps to keep the trains on schedule and to space trains out.
Why do passenger trains use flag stops?
Flag stops help railroads operate more efficiently in areas or communities with low passenger traffic.
It takes time and energy to stop and get a train going, So if a railroad can keep a train moving by not stopping when it is not needed, it makes sense.
Even if a train slows down for a flag stop to see if there are passengers, it uses less energy than coming to a complete stop as it would at a conventional stop.
There is something else not stopping can do; if they can pass some stops, it will help get a late train to get back to schedule or at least make up some time.
Is Amtrak the only railroad that uses flag stops?
Amtrak is not the only passenger railroad that uses flag stops; commuter railroads like Metra, South Shore Line, and others across the United States commonly use these stops. (Those are the closest to me that I ride and know the most).
Things are slightly different if you use a flag stop on a commuter rail. Sadly, there are still no flags to wave, but for some people, that is a selling point.
At commuter flag stops, ensure you are on the platform before the scheduled time so engineers can see you. Sometimes, you may need to hit a button for a light to go off so they know to stop the train.
Can the station be both a flag and a regular stop?
That is a loaded question; some stations are flag stops for long-distance trains and regular stops for regional trains.
A great example is the somewhat famous Kankakee (IL) stop.
The reason for this is passenger traffic trends. In comparison, regional trains may have more passenger traffic at those stops than long-distance ones.
While these stops may not have a lot of traffic, they are already there and have enough occasional traffic to keep them on the schedules as a stop on demand or flag stop. Some stops could be more seasonal than others.
Boarding a train at an Amtrak flag stop
If you are getting on an Amtrak train at a flag stop, keep an eye on the time, and before the scheduled time, stand out on the platform so the engineers can see you.
Standing out confirms that someone is getting on the train. The train will stop and listen to the conductors and onboard crews for instructions for boarding.
How do I know if my station is an Amtrak flag stop?
A few years ago, Amtrak had schedules that would indicate flag stops at a glance. These days, it is a little more complicated. If you have a ticket for the train, you have nothing to worry about, and you can treat it like an unstaffed station.
But one way to tell is to click on the link on the Travels with Kev Amtrak schedule page, or you can search the Amtrak site.
Parking At Unstaffed Stations
There are hundreds of Amtrak stops within the system, and for me to know what each one offers for parking is impossible. Also, since communities own the stations, they set the parking regulations or rules and change them anytime.
The best advice is to research parking before leaving for the trip.
But how do you do that?
If you are old school and like to chat with people, call the city hall first, and if they do not know, try the authorities, a.k .a. the police or sheriff.
What I would do, because I do not like to call people unless I have to, is see if the community posts parking info on their website or stop by the station and look for signs. Nearby businesses may be able to help you out. If that does not work, see the above paragraph again.
This is best done in advance, for nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to do with the train’s headlights shining in the distance. When the train arrives, it is too late, and they can leave without you.
If you cannot be bothered, hire a rideshare or taxi or get whomever to drop you off because parking is not an issue.
How to check the train status for Amtrak Flag Stops
There are a few ways to check your train’s status; the first is to sign up for email/text alerts when you buy your tickets. If you forget to do this or the option is missed or not asked, you can still get them afterward. You do not need a reservation number to receive the messages, so if someone picks you up, they can get them.
Amtrak tries to run their trains on time, but sometimes outside forces, like freight rail traffic, weather, and other fun opportunities, can cause delays. Remember, the train can’t always go around things or take a different route.
Setting Expectations for Amtrak Flag Stop
There will not be Wi-Fi at these locations unless there is community-free Wi-Fi.
Bathrooms might be unavailable, and baggage service is unavailable to or from these stations.
Check the amenities available at your station before leaving. Enter the stations you use on the Amtrak Planning Trip page, and hit enter. Then click the Station Info Button, which will help illuminate what amenities are at that stop.
The onboard staff will help you get on or off the train once it arrives.
How To Prepare For Amtrak Flag Stop
To be best prepared, come with your ticket printed out (or show the barcode from the email) or the app. Taking a screenshot won’t hurt because sometimes you do not have cell service at the station.
If you are in a sleeper, note your car and room numbers.
Packing a power stick or brick will help if your electronic device runs low until you get back on the train and can plug in and charge.
Here are also a few essential pointers to make your trip successful.
- Know the parking rules before you go
- Pack as light as you can, with all your bags under 50 pounds
- Have your tickets ready when the train arrives, electronically or on paper.
- Get there early!
- If you are not on the platform at the scheduled departure time, the train can and will leave without you.
- The train will not leave before its scheduled departure time if there are ticketed passengers who have yet to board.
- For those who need assistance, let Amtrak know when booking.
- When boarding, Amtrak has a box to check indicating you may need help or accommodation.
Don’t Forget Snacks & Food
One travel hint is to find a place to get a snack or wait for your train.
If you get to the station early, you have a place to wait for the train if the train is running a little late, and maybe treat yourself before your trip.
Coffee shops and cafes work well for this. Make sure you return to the station to start your Amtrak adventure in plenty of time.
Amtrak Flag Stop Wrap-up
Flag stops are nothing to worry about; your trip will go well if you know what is happening. Don’t pack more than you can handle getting on and off the train. While this article covers the basics of what you need to know, I would check out the articles on unstaffed and platform stations for a more in-depth look.