One of the best ways to see America is by rail: it's glamourous, cheap, and crosses glorious landscapes
Anything can happen on a train, and when the Broadway Limited paused early one evening at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a young Amish couple came on board. The man had a neat beard, a wide-brimmed hat and a long, black coat. He looked like Gary Cooper. His wife wore traditional dark clothes, black boots and a bonnet, and carried their baby asleep in a black shawl. Suddenly we were in the middle of a scene from Witness. All afternoon we’d been travelling among the flat fields and white farmhouses of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the churches have wooden bell towers and cars are scarce. Now and then a horse-drawn buggy would trot surreally along a dusty road or wait beside the tracks for our train to pass. By the time we reached Lancaster it seemed quite natural to have an Amish family join us and share their picnic.
Chance encounters are part of what makes an American train journey such a rewarding experience. One day it might be a group of Korean schoolgirls heading for Niagara Falls, the next it’s Australian backpackers in New England. US trains are friendly places and you’re sure to run into someone interesting. You can learn a lot by sitting next to a Kansas City mortician or a drag artist on her way to entertain the troops in San Diego. Between the small towns and big cities you also see the country’s sheer size and variety, and get a feel for what this land must have been like before McDonalds and Coca Cola. Railroads opened up America more than a century ago, carrying hundreds of thousands of settlers west and enabling the natural resources to be exploited. Few Americans then lived more than twenty miles from the tracks and this intense folk memory still cuts deep into the national psyche, inspiring countless songs, movies and legends. Evocative names such as Union Pacific and Santa Fe continue to flourish and trains still sound a long, mournful horn as they round the bend at midnight.
A few hours before the Broadway Limited paused at Lancaster I’d been riding in a taxi through Manhattan to New York’s Pennsylvania Station. By tomorrow morning I would be in Chicago, having crossed the Susquehanna River on the world’s longest stone-arch bridge and travelled a giant horseshoe curve into the Allegheny Mountains. The Broadway Limited, like many trains, was almost full by the time it reached its final destination. Passengers tended to be either younger or older than the general population, since the middle-aged and families mostly go by car or plane.
More people travel with Amtrak each year though and many told me they were on a train for the first time ever. Some were afraid of flying. Others thought trains glamorous, nostalgic, ecologically sound or more agreeable than the bus. Flying is faster but on a train you stay in contact with the country as it unrolls outside the wrap-around windows. Even glimpses of city backyards can be fascinating, though the run-down steel mills of Gary, Indiana, are dispiriting to wake up to on a wet morning. Trains are scheduled to go through the less prepossessing places by night and you can always take a copy of War and Peace for the occasional boring bits.
Federal government set up the Amtrak Corporation in 1971 to rescue long-distance trains after mass car ownership, interstate highways and increasing air travel had brought years of neglect and decline. Passenger services seemed likely to disappear for good. The last twenty years have seen a remarkable transformation, with new rolling stock brought in, lines reopened, running times improved and stations spruced up or completely renovated. The ornate building in Washington DC has been restored to its original grandeur, incorporating dozens of fancy shops and restaurants as well as a nine-screen cinema. Chicago’s Union Station has a marble and brass waiting room as big as a cathedral. Downstairs, there is a shower room where you can get cleaned up, share cigarettes with the attendant and listen to tales of when Al Capone came in for a shoe shine.
Amtrak’s 25,000 mile network now takes in almost every state, giving a choice of more than five hundred destinations. US trains have been called “the last civilised means of transport known to man” and they’re really hotels on wheels, complete with room service. Gleaming aluminium twin-decked Superliner coaches feature air-conditioning, cafes, rest rooms, dining rooms and observation cars. The reclining seats are big and soft and have leg rests so that you can snooze after a meal or sleep through the night. This is a good way to save on hotels and not at all difficult thanks to dimmed lights and a free pillow from the attendant. Choose a seat towards the middle of the car, away from the doors. Snacks and coffee are always available in the lounge car, where you can become better acquainted with your fellow passengers. Americans like to talk and on trains they’ll tell you their life story in hair-raising detail. Video films are shown most evenings, when the bar can become lively with impromptu parties. Poker games have been known to last until dawn. During happy hour, the cocktails are half price and the dips free, so get there early or you’ll be trampled in the rush.
Overnight trains incorporate sleeping cars with snug bedrooms which range from single ‘roomettes’ to family size affairs. Even if some tend to be snug to the verge of claustrophobic it’s still a rare treat to be rocked through the night in a cosy bed. Sleeper fares include breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, as well as coffee and a newspaper delivered each morning. Otherwise, dining car meals cost around $12, with lunch being best value. Favourites include New York steak, grilled chicken and some good American wines. When the steak becomes monotonous you can try a regional special such as freshly-caught trout or barbecued spare ribs. Some people come on board loaded down with their own supplies of food, beer and sodas, though this isn’t encouraged.
Almost all long-distance trains require reservations and you should book as far ahead as possible. This is especially important during summer months on popular routes like that of the Desert Wind, travelling between Chicago and Los Angeles. In the 1930s heyday of passenger trains the Desert Wind was frequented by such Hollywood luminaries as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Judy Garland. Sometimes a private car would be included, complete with dance floor and orchestra. After crossing the Colorado plains to Denver, the Desert Wind follows the original Oregon Trail towards the Rockies. Some people make this trip just for the scenery, so timetables are arranged to let the train chug and wind its way through these spectacular mountains by daylight.
After a night-time halt at Salt Lake City, where coaches to San Francisco and Seattle are disconnected, the Desert Wind crosses the Escalante Desert to Las Vegas, rising mirage-like out of the wilderness. Trains stop for half an hour virtually inside the Union Plaza Hotel, giving time for a quick burst on the slot machines. Clocks are suspiciously absent from Las Vegas casinos and the conductor told me that passengers sometimes become so engrossed they’re left behind. It’s worth staying over anyway to admire or scoff at the latest garish additions to the Strip or take advantage of some of America’s best value hotel rooms. The Union Plaza has a laundromat you can use without actually staying there. Like most of Las Vegas, it never closes. After leaving the “entertainment capital of the world” the Desert Wind travels through the Mojave Desert, haunt of jackrabbits, buzzards and Joshua tree cacti. If you’re lucky you might see coyotes. California’s gentler landscape intervenes before the train pulls into Los Angeles station, an atmospheric Art Deco building now sadly underused. Easy to imagine those pre-war Hollywood stars strolling beneath its Spanish arches or lounging in the huge brown leather armchairs.
When the first transcontinental railroad reached Los Angeles in the 1860s only 10,000 people lived in southern California. One-dollar train fares soon brought many more. Today’s Sunset Limited crosses the country from coast to coast between Miami and Los Angeles by way of New Orleans, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. This epic journey of 3000 miles takes you through Louisiana bayous, where alligators sun themselves beneath oak trees draped in Spanish moss, to the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. From there you spend an entire day crossing the Texas prairie, where hours go by with no sign of human beings apart from an isolated crumbling shack or single storey house. Great excitement broke out approaching “Judge” Roy Bean’s town of Langtry when we saw a pair of cowboys dressed in immaculate Tom Mix outfits. They rode snow white horses and posed with supreme nonchalance for a moment before vanishing into the endless sagebrush and mesquite.
Each long-distance train seems to acquire its unique personality. This may be because of the terrain it travels through, the nature of its passengers or the temperament of its staff. Amtrak attendants mainly act as if they’re in a 1930s movie and have the uniforms to prove it. The conductor maintains overall responsibility for the train and its crew but the person you see most of is your car attendant. This man (or as likely woman) helps with boarding, finds you a seat, brings your pillow, answers questions and generally cossets you throughout the journey. He may be funny, familiar, loud, laconic or bossy, but he’s always helpful and a mine of information.
Staff on the Coast Starlight seem particularly friendly, perhaps because they deal with predominantly young passengers. The Starlight goes from Seattle, close to the Canadian border, through the forests and mountains of Washington and Oregon to the palm trees of California. I spent most of one trip in the observation car, talking sixties music to a hippie woman with a surfer’s tan and cut-off jeans. She was fifty years old, once sang with the Grateful Dead and wasn’t ready to settle down yet. After her buddies got off at Oakland for a bus ride across the bay to San Francisco we continued through the vegetable fields of the Santa Clara Valley. She showed me Gilroy (the town which elected Marilyn Monroe its “garlic queen”), Castroville (where in 1949 an unknown Marilyn was the first “artichoke queen”) and Salinas (boyhood home of John Steinbeck).
Other people crowded to our side of the car as we began riding on cliff tops high above the Pacific Ocean. The stunning views of surf and rocks and off-shore oil rigs were shared solely with browsing cattle, since much of this area is owned by the military and only accessible by train. My hippie friend told me that in spring and autumn she saw migrating whales.
Many Amtrak trains have names which reflect the golden days of US railroads. The Empire Builder is called after a 19th century tycoon, James J Hill, and runs for 2000 miles along the track he built from Chicago to Seattle. It accompanies the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers past old riverboat towns before crossing hundreds of miles of North Dakota and Montana, a part of the country still inhabited by Native Americans. At Wolf Point I met a Blackfoot Indian who pointed out several ancient settlements and burial grounds located among the parched grasslands. Successive dry summers had turned the great northern plains yellow and uninviting so it was a relief when we started a steep climb into the Rockies. After passing through the longest rail tunnel in the Americas we crossed what Indians call Mystery Pass into Glacier National Park, packed with waterfalls and gorges of snow and ice.
The Southwest Chief also runs along a famous historic route. It’s Amtrak’s fastest train between Chicago and the Pacific, running partly along the path of the original Santa Fe Trail. This was first used by Indians and Spanish conquistadors then by fur traders, pioneer wagon trains and stage-coaches. At Dodge City you can look out on Boot Hill, where gunfighters lie buried next to the hanging tree. I stopped off at Flagstaff to take an Amtrak bus across the Arizona desert to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. Steam railway enthusiasts can visit this phenomenon in a 1920s Pullman car pulled by a vintage steam locomotive. Services operate throughout the year from Williams, thirty miles west of Flagstaff, to the original 1910 South Rim Depot, just a few steps from the canyon edge.
Other steam trains are kept going by rail buffs throughout the country, mostly in picturesque areas or along historic lines. The Durango & Silverton Railway travels the Animas River Valley among the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, using a narrow gauge track constructed to transport workers to the Silverton mines. The Cumbres & Toltec Railway crosses the continental divide at Cumbres Pass, 10,000ft above sea level, and trundles through the beautiful Toltec Gorge. Anyone interested in North American railroad history should take time to visit one of the many excellent transport museums. California’s State Railroad Museum in Sacramento includes reconstructed Central Pacific buildings, a library and dozens of restored locomotives. Among the passenger, freight and mail cars is a sleeping coach which simulates sound, light and motion, making you feel as if you’re hurtling through the night.
Routes east of the Mississippi mostly use single-deck coaches, because bridges and tunnels can’t always cope with the bulk of a Superliner. Some older coaches have a battered, lived-in appearance but are often preferred for their smooth ride. When choosing your seat on one of these “Heritage Fleet” cars, especially if you’re travelling overnight, it’s advisable to check that the reclining mechanism still works. Silver Star and Silver Meteor trains use modern single-level coaches between New York and Florida, rolling through the pine forests of Georgia and South Carolina to Savannah and Charleston. A hurricane devastated Charleston in 1988 but when I visited the city soon afterwards its brightly coloured mansions and cobbled streets had largely recovered. Silver Service trains continue south to Orlando (for Disney World), Miami (for Miami Beach and the Keys) and the beach communities on both coasts. During college breaks, these trains are alive with partying students on vacation. At other times you’re more likely to find sedate flocks of retired “snowbirds” escaping the northern winter.
Amtrak currently operates over two hundred trains, spanning the USA from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Some trains, such as the International and the Montrealer, cross the border to link up with Canada’s VIA Rail network. Ticket prices are often less than half the air fare and overseas visitors can buy 15 or 30-day passes. By combining long-distance trains with local networks and buses you can travel cheaply almost everywhere in the United States. Buses are routinely scheduled to connect with major train routes and through tickets can be booked via Amtrak, making it easy to plan an itinerary which lets you see more in a short time than would be possible any other way. American trains are not for those in a tearing hurry, but when the bell clangs and the conductor calls out “All aboard!” you’ll discover why the railroad experience remains so addictive. And you probably won’t get past page 100 of War and Peace.