Around the U.S. by Train: Overview (March 2017)

Between the buffalo trace and the Interstate Highway System, there were the railroads. The iron rails are what knit the United States into an ocean-to-ocean nation after the Civil War and were the means for long-distance travel until the advent of better roads, cars, and airplanes.  Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It in the World” and Bain’s “Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad” are excellent reads on this topic.  The freight railroads are still an integral and essential part of the U.S. economy but passenger rail service has not fared so well.  That reached its zenith in the 1940s, at which time it was possible to access every major city, and a surprising number of remote hamlets, by rail.

After World War II, cars and planes began sucking the life out of passenger rail as the preferred means of long-distance travel in the U.S.  Many classic old railroad stations (e.g., New York’s original Penn Station) were demolished and by 1965, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation, 85 percent fewer than in 1929.  In 1971, the National Rail Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) – a for-profit corporation that is partially government funded – took over most of the remaining U.S. passenger rail services.  Amtrak’s financial history (and its dealings with Congress) have been rocky to say the least but if you want to see the U.S. by train, it’s the only game in town.  And, because Amtrak is, per passenger mile, overall 30 to 40 percent more energy-efficient than commercial airlines and automobiles (and is very competitive with other transportation modes in terms of safety per mile), it’s also an environmentally more friendly option (short of staying home) for long-distance travel.

While we’re not train obsessives, we do like riding the rails a lot.  Rails go many places that cars don’t, so riding them can be a unique way of seeing remote parts of the country at ground level.  In the past, we’ve gone between Seattle, Portland, and Chicago on the Empire Builder and made a loop from Portland to Chicago to San Francisco on the Empire Builder, California Zephyr, and Coast Starlight.  The Zephyr’s route over the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada is amazing, as is the Starlight’s transit along the Pacific Coast.  We’ve also gone across Canada (Toronto to Vancouver, BC) on Via Rail Canada – a totally stunning journey across a great country through forests, plains, and mountains – and across the Nullabor Desert from Adelaide to Perth in Australia on the Indian Pacific.  There have also been some miles logged on trains in Britain and Europe.

So we were easy, easy targets when our best friends Wayne & Diane suggested a train loop around the U.S.  Starting in Los Angeles, we took the Southwest Chief to Chicago, then the Capitol Limited to Washington DC, then the Crescent to New Orleans, and finally the Sunset Limited back to Los Angeles – 6,192 miles of railroad fun.  While Amtrak (thanks mostly to Congressional incompetence) can’t quite get to the level of service found on other, better subsidized, national carriers, its people do try hard and our on-board accommodations (roomettes), meals, and service were fine.  We should also note that all of our trains were essentially on time at their final destinations, despite the fact that Amtrak must often yield to freight traffic!

(1) Southwest Chief, (2) Capitol Limited, (3) Crescent, (4) Sunset Limited

In a few subsequent posts, we’ll provide a synopsis of this non-hiking, very motorized adventure, enlivened by snapshots of a quality only obtainable by being taken through the window of a fast-moving train, with the optics enhanced or obstructed by dirt or raindrops or glare or telephone poles or bridge spans or some combination of these. So, once again, despite having visited their museum in Washington, DC, we’re not expecting a call from National Geographic.  Sigh (again).

Our journey on four trains:


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