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America by Train

John Pitt

Greyhound buses have been a familiar sight on America's highways for decades, but many people are rediscovering a more comfortable, enjoyable and ecologically sound way to see the country - the legendary passenger train.

The Iron Horse

Railroads opened up this continent a century and a half ago and some of today's long-distance trains still follow those original pioneering routes. They also use many of the great stations built during the golden age of passenger travel, including the impressive example in Washington, DC, decorated in gold leaf and restored to its original grandeur. Chicago's Union Station features a marble and brass waiting room as large as a cathedral and it's said that Al Capone used to stop by for his daily shoeshine in the shower room below.


Hotels on Wheels

Amtrak operates almost all long-distance trains today and they remain romantic, spacious, inexpensive and full of character. More like mobile hotels, they have gleaming aluminium twin-decked coaches, air-conditioning, observation cars and uniformed attendants who make you feel as if you have stepped into a 1930s movie. More modern films are shown in the lounge during the evenings, when the bar often becomes lively with impromptu parties and poker games.

The reclining seats in coach class are thick and soft, with comfortable leg-rests so you can snooze after a meal or sleep through the night (a good way to save on hotel bills). Pillows and subdued lighting are provided. Overnight trains also have traditional sleeping cars with cosy bedrooms ranging from single "roomettes" to family size affairs for people travelling with children. Facilities include folding bunks, your own "restroom", a revolving wash basin and sometimes even a shower. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, and tea or coffee and a newspaper are delivered each morning.


Meals are generally of a high standard, with regional specials such as freshly caught trout or barbecued spare ribs. Prices start from around $12 - lunch being particularly good value. Sandwiches, snacks and coffee are available in the lounge car at almost any time and you can always bring your own food on board.

Time to Unwind

This may not be the quickest way to get about but the pace is perfect for sightseeing. The relaxed atmosphere also makes possible those chance encounters that are a vital part of what makes a train journey such a rewarding experience.

You have plenty of room to stretch out or walk around and instead of racing above the clouds you see an entire continent unroll outside the wraparound windows. Between the small towns and big cities you experience the country's sheer size and variety, sensing what this land must have been like before McDonald's and Coca Cola. Even occasional glimpses of city backyards can be fascinating, although trains are scheduled to pass through less prepossessing areas by night. Children are particularly well catered for with games and other amusements, rarely becoming bored with the thrill of riding the tracks and making new friends.


Most trains require reservations, which can be booked via Amtrak and travel agents or by using a toll-free telephone number available twenty four hours a day (1-800-872-7245).


Today's Amtrak trains go most big cities and cross spectacular landscapes, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico. The following are some of the most exciting and popular routes.

Amtrak Routes

The Southwest Chief

The fastest route between Chicago and the Pacific follows the Santa Fe Trail, first used by Native Americans then by Spanish conquistadors, wagon trains and stage coaches. At Dodge City you can look left and see Boot Hill, burial ground of many an outlaw and gunfighter. Beyond Albuquerque, the train crosses the Arizona desert to Flagstaff, from where you can travel to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. In summer, steam trains travel to a station a few yards from the canyon's edge.

You continue to Los Angeles by way of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Mojave Desert, which often registers the country's hottest temperatures. Luckily, the Southwest Chief, like all Amtrak trains, is fully air-conditioned.

The Sunset Limited

This train leaves New Orleans and makes a dizzy crossing of the Mississippi River by way of the Huey P Long Bridge, a 4.4 mile monster built so that trains no longer had to negotiate the river on barges. You travel on through a land of bayous, white egrets, pretty plantation mansions and fields of sugar cane, where Spanish moss drapes itself over oak trees and you are more than likely to glimpse an alligator basking in the sun.

After San Antonio, the Sunset Limited goes west along the Rio Grande, taking a whole day to cross the sagebrush and mesquite prairies of Texas to the Sonora Desert in Arizona before crossing the Colorado River into southern California.

The California Zephyr

One of the world's great train journeys, the California Zephyr takes over two days to go from Chicago to San Francisco, crossing the high plains of Colorado before climbing into the Rocky Mountains via the Oregon Trail. Pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the pony express and the first continental telegraph. Many people catch the Zephyr just to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Rockies.

After descending to Salt Lake City, you skirt the edge of the Great Salt Lake before crossing the beautiful but dangerous Sierra Nevada by way of the Donner Pass, where blizzards trapped a party of settlers, some of whom starved to death. The Zephyr continues through California to Sacramento and Emeryville, from where an Amtrak bus takes you on a short trip across the bay to San Francisco.

The Crescent


Southern hospitality permeates the train as you travel between New York and New Orleans via the Blue Ridge Mountains, Civil War territory and the idyllic Shenandoah National Park with its dogwoods and cedars. Beyond the concrete cities of Atlanta and Birmingham lie sleepy southern towns with quaint general stores and sun bleached houses. Just before New Orleans, the Crescent makes a dramatic crossing of Lake Pontchartrain, skimming a few feet above the water on a six-mile long causeway.

The Silver Star

Amtrak's main route between New York and Florida links the big cities of the Northeast with Miami and the sunshine state's east coast. The Silver Star also stops at Orlando for the delights of Disney World and other theme parks. A separate section of the train goes to Tampa on the west coast. Before entering Florida, you travel through historic Virginia and North Carolina's pine forests to Savannah, Georgia, with its splendidly restored buildings and attractive squares fragrant with azaleas.

The Coast Starlight

Especially popular with young people, the Coast Starlight runs between Seattle and Los Angeles by way of Washington, Oregon and California. You pass some of America's highest mountains, including volcanic Mt Hood, as well as the emerald green forests and waterfalls of Twin Peaks country. Beyond San Luis Obispo, from where you can take a bus to the amazing Hearst Castle at San Simeon, you travel part of the route on tracks set high above the Pacific Ocean, giving splendid views of the surf and beaches in an area that can only be visited by train.


USA by Rail, by John Pitt, Bradt Travel Guides, 6th edition, 2005
This guide describes Amtrak's long-distance routes in detail, with comprehensive maps, station information, city guides and all the practical advice you need for such things as booking tickets and choosing accommodations. There are additional chapters for steam trains and train travel in Canada.

www.usa-by-rail.com: USA by Rail, more information on rail travel by John Pitt

www.amtrak.com: Amtrak runs the trains in the US. Train information, book online.

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