American trains have long had a strong hold on the popular imagination, inspiring countless songs, stories, scandals and legends. Their rugged charm sets them apart from more mundane means of transport and, as Homer Simpson has said, ‘Nothing beats flying across the country on a train.’ Serendipity is one of the great things about travelling this way as you can mingle with fellow passengers, watch a film in the evening, have a drink at the bar or just quietly enjoy the passing scene. Trains are safe, pollute less and rarely suffer from weather delays or long security checks. You won’t be surcharged or given jet lag or made to take your shoes off. You stay in touch with an ever-changing landscape, and between the cities and small towns you comprehend America’s sheer size, seeing what this country looked like before McDonald’s and Coca Cola.
The government owned Amtrak corporation operates almost all US passenger trains, which have real style and old-world charm as well as attendants who seem to have stepped out of a 1930s Hollywood movie. Lounge cars give great views through huge windows that extend part way over the roof, and rest rooms often incorporate showers as well as the usual facilities such as razor sockets. Some trains, including the Maple Leaf, are operated jointly by Amtrak and Canada’s VIA Rail.
Passes: Available to citizens of any country, including the US and Canada, Amtrak rail passes can be booked on-line. They are valid for 15, 30 or 45 days of coach class travel anywhere on the network, so you can visit 46 states and more than 500 destinations. Business class and sleeping accommodation upgrades are available at an additional charge. You have up to 18 flexible segments with each pass – one segment being equal to each boarding and disembarkation of a train or City to City pair. For example, Washington to Chicago with a connection in Pittsburgh would be considered two segments. California’s 7-in-21 Day Statewide Pass includes over 90 destinations throughout California. The Florida Pass is available only to Florida residents.
Things to Take: You are allowed two substantial pieces of checked baggage, so pack any other bags you carry on board as lightly as possible. Apart from a pillow case and a coat or blanket (see below) other things to take include your passport, ISIC Card, travel insurance documents, a pair of binoculars, a good book, a deck of cards, maps (preferably showing rail lines), earplugs or an eyeshade if you are a light sleeper, bathing and grooming items, a pocket torch, sunglasses, a cheap digital watch with an alarm, a small first-aid kit, bottled mineral or spring water (which will probably taste better than that provided at the drinking fountain), fresh fruit, nuts and other snacks. Wear comfortable clothes, especially shoes. There are no places on board to obtain cash so take enough money to last the journey.
Sleeping: Sleeping on board is a secret pleasure not to be missed, and getting a comfortable night’s rest is easy even in coach class given a certain amount of practice. There are thick reclining seats, dimmed lights and a free pillow from the attendant to complement a gentle rocking and the hypnotic rumble of the wheels. The pillows provided by Amtrak are fairly small so you may prefer to take a larger one of your own. Alternatively, you could bring a pillow case and ask the attendant for two pillows to put inside. For the best results you should choose a seat in the middle of the car away from the sliding doors, and take a coat or blanket to ward off the sometimes over-enthusiastic air-conditioning. Overnight trains also usually come equipped with traditional sleeping cars where bedrooms range from snug ‘roomettes’ to family sized affairs. You get extra privacy this way and it’s a real thrill to hurtle through the night in your own personal travel capsule. Try to make reservations as far ahead as possible, especially at holiday times or if you require sleeping car accommodation, which is often in big demand. Reservations can be made easily via the internet.
Eating: Most long-distance trains offer a complete dining car service providing breakfast, lunch and dinner. Regional specialities such as barbecued spare ribs or fresh salmon are often added to the regular steak, chicken and vegetarian menu. Lunch is usually better value than dinner for those on a tight budget. Many people bring their own supplies of food and drink on board, though this isn’t encouraged and may be impractical for longer journeys. You can also buy snacks such as sandwiches, pizza, soup, salad, drinks and sweets on board to take back to your seat or consume in the dinette or café car.
Costs: Train ticket prices compare well with other forms of transport since you save on hotel bills by sleeping on board and normally travel between city centres, so don’t have to pay for airport taxis, etc. Senior citizens and those with a Student Advantage card can get 15% off most Amtrak fares as well as reductions for hotels, car hire and theatres.
The best routes: You can go from coast to coast, cross deserts, explore the Rocky Mountains and ride alongside two oceans, often seeing places impossible to visit any other way. The following are some of my favourites:
The California Zephyr is one of the world’s great trains, going from Chicago to San Francisco by way of America’s heartland and the high plains of Colorado then climbing into the Rockies via the Oregon Trail. Pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the pony express and the first continental telegraph. After Salt Lake City, you cross Bonneville Salt Flats and the beautiful Sierra Nevada.
The Southwest Chief travels between Chicago and the Pacific, following part of the Santa Fe Trail first used by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, wagon trains and stage coaches. You cross the Mojave Desert and pass Dodge City’s famous Boot Hill burial ground. From Williams in Arizona you can travel to the Grand Canyon by steam train.
The Crescent goes from New York to New Orleans through the Blue Ridge Mountains and idyllic Shenandoah National Park with its dogwoods and cedars. Beyond Atlanta lie sleepy southern towns with quaint general stores and sun-bleached houses. The train also makes a dramatic crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, skimming a few feet above the water on a six-mile causeway.
The Empire Builder crosses the Mississippi River on its way between Chicago and Seattle, travelling more than 2,300 miles past wheat fields, cattle ranges, forests, and the magnificent mountains and lakes of Glacier National Park. America’s northern plains were mostly wilderness until freewheeling tycoon James J Hill built his Great Northern Railway, and Amtrak’s Empire Builder takes its name from the train called after him.
The Coast Starlight operates between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Washington, Oregon and California. It passes some of America’s highest mountains, such as volcanic Mt Hood, as well as the emerald forests and waterfalls of Twin Peaks country. Beyond San Luis Obispo it runs along tracks set high on cliffs, with splendid views of the Pacific surf and beaches.
I’m the author of Bradt’s USA by Rail guidebook, which has detailed guides for all Amtrak routes and tells you what to look out for along the way. You can find more information about rail passes and train travel throughout the USA and Canada on my USA by Rail website.
photo by Paraflyer