Do I Need ID to Ride a Train?

Activist Post – by Edward Hasbrouck

We’ve been trying for years to find out what the real story is with respect to ID requirements for travel by train, especially on Amtrak.

Amtrak and Greyhound ID policies and practices are of paramount importance to the mobility of undocumented people and people who, whether or not they are eligible for or have chosen to obtain government-issued ID credentials, don’t want to show their papers to government agents as a condition of exercising their right to freedom of movement. 

Amtrak and Greyhound policies and practices will become even more important if the government and/or airlines further restrict air travel by people who don’t have, or don’t show, ID credentials that comply with the REAL-ID Act.

The latest responses to our requests for federal and state public records reveal more about passenger railroad policies and practices, but still don’t give a clear answer.

What we can say at this point, based on the records disclosed to us to date, is that:

  1. There are substantial discrepancies and contradictions between what the TSA has told Amtrak to dowhat Amtrak tells its own staff about what is requiredwhat Amtrak tells travelers about what is required and the basis for those requirements, and what Amtrak staff actually do. Those variations make it impossible to determine unambiguously what “the rules” are for Amtrak travel, or what is “required”.
  2. Some of Amtrak’s claims, including its claim that passengers are required by the TSA to have and to show ID to travel by Amtrak, are blatant lies.
  3. TSA Security Directive RAILPAX-04-02, cited by Amtrak in its employee manual as the basis for demanding that passengers show ID, requires Amtrak to “request” (not demand) that passengers show ID, but does not purport to require passengers to respond to such requests and does not prescribe any sanctions on passengers for failure, refusal, or inability to show ID.
  4. Amtrak has instructed its staff that “If the customer responds they are 18 or older and do not have valid identification, … the Amtrak police must be notified by the quickest available means away from the customer,” but also that, “Failure to possess the proper photo identification is not, by itself, sufficient reason to have the customer removed from the train.” Amtrak has not yet responded to our FOIA request for Amtrak Police policies and staff directives for what to do in such cases.
  5. Although Amtrak is unquestionably an instrumentality of the Federal government, and transportation by Amtrak is unquestionably a Federal government activity, the list of ID credentials deemed acceptable by Amtrak does not correspond to the list of forms of ID deemed by the DHS to be acceptable for “Federal purposes” pursuant to the REAL-ID Act of 2005.  Amtrak says it accepts several forms of ID that do not comply with the REAL-ID Act. None of Amtrak’s ID policies, procedures, or staff directives disclosed to date mention the REAL-ID Act or when or how it might be implemented by Amtrak, although records of such policies or of discussions related to them would be responsive to some of our pending FOIA requests.

Where does this leave undocumented long-distance travelers, including those who turn to Amtrak as a government-operated common carrier of last resort?

Many people travel by Amtrak every day without having or showing ID. But many other people are harassed for traveling by Amtrak without ID, or are unable to buy tickets.

As with ID to fly and many other requests and demands made of air travelers, there are no “rules” for ID to travel by Amtrak train. Travelers have to guess which of the contradictory published or secret policies might be applied, or what Amtrak ticketing and passenger services staff or police might do if a passenger doesn’t have, or doesn’t show, ID.

Real-world practices don’t always follow policies. Many Amtrak employees, particularly onboard train crews, dislike being ordered to spy on passengers or deny transportation to people without documents. In practice, they often ignore orders to check passengers’ ID, or allow passengers without ID to travel without calling in the Amtrak Police.

Have you traveled by Amtrak without ID, or tried to do so? How did it go? We are especially interested in hearing from people who were asked to show ID on Amtrak, the Alaska Railroad, or any other trains, and did not do so. Were you put off the train? Were the Amtrak Police and/or other police called? If so, what did the police do?

What about other passenger trains?

The Alaska Railroad is subject to the same TSA Security Directive as Amtrak, pursuant to which the Alaska Railroad is required to request ID from passengers, but passengers are not required by the TSA to respond to such requests.

Like Amtrak, the Alaska Railroad lies about this to travelers, falsely claiming that, “The Transportation Security Administration requires that any Alaska Railroad passenger 18 years of age or older present a government issued photo ID, or two forms of ID, one of which must be issued by a government authority.”

Other passenger railroads are subject to a different TSA Security Directive, “RAILPAX-04-01”. This directive is mentioned in the TSA’s regulations for passenger rail operators, but has not yet been made public.

We requested copies of RAILPAX-04-01 from the four largest passenger rail systems subject to this TSA directive  — New Jersey Transit and Metro-North (both of which operate on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor main line over  tracks owned by and shared with Amtrak), the Long Island Railroad, and Metra (Chicago area) — as well as from several California public regional and commuter rail agencies and operators.

Several of these agencies responded with copies of  a consultant’s report describing measures required by RAILPAX-04-1. But the consultant’s report doesn’t mention any ID requirements, and all of the agencies that have responded to our requests to date have claimed that they don’t have any copies of the TSA directive itself.

The US has achieved a situation similar to that in China, where people with too low a social credit score may be allowed to travel by slow train, but not by high-speed train.

If you have ID, you can take a government-operated Amtrak Acela high-speed train directly from New Haven to Philadelphia. If you don’t have ID, you can make the same trip, on the same tracks, but you might have to take local commuter trains that are less comfortable and make many more stops, changing from Metro-North to New Jersey Transit at Penn Station in New York City, and again from NJ Transit to SEPTA in Trenton.

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