Classic rail journeys in America
* One of the best ways to tour the USA
* Discover the romance of the railroads
By Donna Dailey and Mike Gerrard, Editors of 101 USA Holidays
Anyone who has ever heard an American train whistle blow, especially at night, knows the haunting sound it makes. There is something both powerful and plaintive about it, and even if you know it’s only a freight train, it still inspires the longing to be on that train and on the move, travelling. It must be the hobo in us all.
Trains opened up the American west. Why did Las Vegas grow up in the middle of the Nevada Desert? Because there was a natural spring there, and trains could stop to take on water. Trains have inspired songs, and the very names of the railroad companies have a kind of poetry about them – the Detroit and Toledo Shore Line, the Peoria and Pekin Union, the Lackawanna Railroad.
The names of some of the most famous rail routes in America also have haunting names, imbuing the journeys with a magical quality before you’ve even bought your ticket. Who would not want to climb on board the City of New Orleans, the California Zephyr, the Coast Starlight, the Wolverine, the Silver Meteor or the Southwest Chief?
Here’s the 101 Holidays suggestions for some recommended rail journeys, with a note of how to book them and some USA rail travel advice for planning your trip.
The Southwest Chief
The Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, and sets off from Chicago in mid-afternoon. You’ll go to sleep around Kansas City and wake up in Dodge City, with the best of the scenery then ahead of you. It goes through New Mexico and Arizona, with a stop at Williams, Arizona, allowing you to hop off for a side visit to the Grand Canyon – by train, of course. While taking a break you can explore some more of the stunning Arizona mountain and desert scenery, then hop back on board to continue on to Los Angeles. Alternatively you can take a direct British Airways flight back from Phoenix to Heathrow.
The Empire Builder
Head west from Chicago for 2,200 miles on the daily Empire Builder service and you wind up in Seattle. On your way you’ll cross the Mississippi River, experience the vastness of the Northern Plains, pass through both the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains, see glacial lakes, and finally arrive in the exciting city of Seattle. Archers Holidays offer the chance to combine the Empire Builder with an Alaska cruise out of Seattle at the end.
The Coast Starlight
Though crossing the country from coast to coast is an amazing experience, one of the best scenic train rides is to travel almost the whole length of the Pacific Coast, between Seattle and Los Angeles, on the Coast Starlight. Many people prefer to drive it, on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the rail alternative is an equally dramatic journey through the states of Washington, Oregon and California. With the Pacific Ocean on one side for part of the way, and mountain peaks on the other, you’ll certainly want to make use of the scenic viewing car. The other great thing about this journey is that it allows you to spend time in three of the USA’s most vibrant cities: Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Break the journey in San Francisco and you can easily take a side trip into Napa Valley and Sonoma wine country.
City of New Orleans
Reverse the journey the delta blues singers took and travel instead from Chicago to New Orleans. The train on this route used to be called the Panama Limited, as it originally took workers to New Orleans and onwards, to build the Panama Canal. The journey inspired singer Steve Goodman to write a song about it, and when the song later became a big hit for Arlo Guthrie, Amtrak renamed the route: City of New Orleans. The music links are appropriate as the journey allows you to visit those two great music cities at either end, as well as passing through Memphis. Break the journey here to visit Graceland, Sun Studios and Beale Street. Unmissable for music fans.
USA rail travel advice
Buy a copy of John Pitt’s guide USA by Rail (Bradt, 354pp, £15.99) which is the best and most comprehensive guide to rail travel in the USA. It also covers Canada’s main routes too.
The Seat 61 website also has an excellent section of helpful information on travelling by train in the USA.
Remember if you’re on a long east-west journey that the USA has several different time zones, so be ready to adjust your watch while in transit.
We recommend travelling from east to west when coming from the UK, as the jetlag is less at the start of the trip and you can gradually adjust as you head west.
Most of the longer journeys use Superliner trains, which have a scenic viewing car. They also have reclining seats and separate sleeping and dining cars.
Amtrak is the national rail company of the USA, providing inter-city services. You can find out a lot about rail travel in the United States on its website: www.amtrak.com. It includes information about such things accessibility both on the trains and at all Amtrak stations, dining options, special diets, wifi availability and station locations and facilities.
Last updated: 21 February 2016
* You may also be interested in our pick of the best Coach tours of America