As our train rolled across the Illinois border over the Mississippi River into the little town of Burlington, Iowa, the conductor bellowed over the PA: “Welcome to the Breadbasket of America, the greatest country on earth.” The conductors’ announcements are just one of the joys on the Amtrak trains that took me, coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco – 3,500 miles in four days. Those conductors even keep the quiet cars quiet.
Riding the rail is the best way to see the real America – and real Americans – a million miles from the metropolitan hotspots on the east and west coasts. And this year, the 50th birthday of Amtrak, the national train system, is the year to do it (or at least to plan to do it).
Sitting in your seat – or, if you’re lucky, like I was, your cabin – you have America to yourself. You see one-horse towns way off the beaten track. My train passed just north of Eldon, home to the USA’s most famous little cottage, painted by Grant Wood in his much-lampooned picture, American Gothic. People rave about the Trans-Siberian Express. I’ve been on the 6,000-mile trip and I raved about it, too. But the epic rail journey across the States is even better. Where much of the Trans-Siberian is unrelenting pine trees on flat snow, the Trans-American, as it isn’t called, had me glued to the window – no day was the same as the previous one.
Choose your time of year carefully. I made my trip in the autumn – “leaf-peeping” season, as they call it. As the train moved out of Penn Station, New York, we went up the east side of the Hudson River. The train windows lit up with flaming fire, as a million trees turned yellow, gold, russet and scarlet.
Don’t leave it too late in the year, either. You’ll cross the Fraser River, Colorado, “the Icebox of America”, where temperatures dip to -50 in winter.
And you want to maximise your daylight hours, staring out of the window as the States put on an epic show for you. My train went through Nebraska at night – but I could still make out the eternal prairies stretching to the horizon, cut into a vast chessboard by straight-as-an-arrow roads.
There are several ways across the waist of America. I took the Lake Shore Limited train for my first 19-hour leg from New York to Chicago. As it carved a long L-shaped loop through New York state, I watched clapboard houses teeter on the edge of the escarpment over the Hudson. Further from Manhattan, the train whistled through little towns – past shuttered factories and Christopher-Wren-style spires above gleaming white, timber naves.
The train then flanks the shores of Lake Erie through Pennsylvania and Ohio until it reaches Chicago. I spent a morning in the city, walking the banks of Lake Michigan and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, before boarding the 51-hour California Zephyr train to San Francisco. There are little rest stops along the way on the long-haul train but, beware, they aren’t long enough for you to stretch your legs properly or have a look around town.
The Zephyr took me out of the shadow of Chicago’s Wills Tower, America’s third tallest building, and into the flatlands of the Midwest, past strip malls dotted with breeze-block cubes like the Iowa Shamrock Club, emblazoned with a huge, smiling leprechaun.
From New York and Chicago, you move across the Great Plains of the Midwest, through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. You climb up into the mountains of Colorado. I got off the train at Denver, stayed in the Oxford Hotel, straight out of a Western, and went for an easy, lovely day’s skiing.
It didn’t matter that the train was pretty slow as it lurched up the foothills of the Rockies, past Buffalo Bill’s grave. That meant more time for stomach-churning views out of one side of the train, down near-vertical canyons.
The last time I’d seen this sort of America was in a Western. Doc Holliday, survivor of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, is buried at one stop, Glenwood Springs in Colorado; nearby, Butch Cassidy made his first bank robbery in 1889. Then I was into the wilderness and deserts of Utah and Nevada, and down into the lush beauties of California. The temperatures soar and slump on the other side of the glass from your air-conditioned seat: from the Utah deserts, dotted with mammoth boulders, to the snows of the Sierra Nevada. Only a few fellow passengers were there for the long haul. And, in the land of the car and the plane, the train takes the strain for some poorer travellers: I met an Irish dry-stone waller from Killarney off to work in Reno, Nevada.
The difference in the price of tickets in parts of the train is striking. My room – a Viewliner Roomette – cost £1,030. If I’d been in Coach Class – and slept in my seat – it would have been only £142. My room came with a friendly, jolly attendant and hot meals. Those meals are OK – Caesar salad, hamburger, garlic herb cod – but not great.
The same could be said of the trains themselves. They’re a bit unloved, with an air of faded glory. But that’s the story of Amtrak in the 50 years since it was founded on May 1 1971. It’s been a long time since American train travel was as glamorous as the New York-Chicago trip taken by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest (1959). Amtrak was the nationalised answer to the near-collapse of America’s private railways – thanks to the car and the plane. In 1830, the Tom Thumb, the first American steam locomotive, travelled the 13 miles from Baltimore to Ellicott Mills, Maryland. By 1916, 98 per cent of American work travel was by train, with 42 million people using railways as their first-choice transport. By 2000, that had slumped to 20 million.
In recent years, Amtrak has been recovering. It’s now up to 32.5 million passengers a year and its punctuality is getting better. In an age of environmental concerns, it helps that trains are around 35 per cent more energy-efficient than cars and airlines. It helps, too, that one man in particular will be celebrating Amtrak’s 50th anniversary.
President Joe Biden is known as “Amtrak Joe” for his love of the network. After the tragic 1972 car crash that killed his wife and one-year-old daughter, he commuted by train from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington. He wanted to see his two surviving sons before they went to bed.
And so, for 36 years, he did the 220-mile round trip every day, travelling over two million miles, taking up four years of his life, riding the rail. In 2011, the Wilmington Amtrak station was even renamed the Joseph R Biden, Jr Railroad Station. No wonder he backs trains: as vice-president in 2016, he sorted out a $2 billion loan to help Amtrak update trains and stations. But as president he has already earmarked $80 billion for the rail network.
I’m with Amtrak Joe on this. I adore America’s railways. There’s so much more romance to a train than a car. The Great American Car Trip has been revered ever since On the Road (1957), Jack Kerouac’s elegy to road travel. I prefer life on the railroad.
Five great American rail journeys
Travel restrictions over the past year have prompted Americans to explore more of their own country – by rail. And they have found much to marvel at. As Harry Mount points out, the United States boasts some spectacular routes. Here is a mouth-watering selection. Fingers crossed that soon we can go beyond dreaming about them. Words by Adrian Bridge.
This scenic jaunt along the West Coast links Los Angeles with Sacramento, Portland and Seattle, with an optional trip to San Francisco. Alongside spectacular glimpses of the Pacific, the train passes through lush forests, teeming waterfalls, the Cascade mountains and the network of waterways that make up Puget Sound.
Coast Starlight (amtrak.com) runs three times a week with a journey time of 31 hours, though it is possible to break it. Coach class in September from $50 (£35); sleeper bunks from $350. Read more: The best hotels in Los Angeles.
Head south from the Big Apple all the way to the beaches of Florida and the art-deco riches of Miami. Along the way soak up some of the atmosphere, history, colour and southern spice of cities such as Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville.
Silver Meteor (amtrak.com) runs three times a week and lasts 28 hours; Superliner roomettes in September from about $500 one way. Read more: The best hotels in New York.
Don’t you just love the names the Americans give their classic rail journeys? This one, the Empire Builder, also originates in Chicago with a choice of Seattle or Portland as end station. The route follows some of the pioneering Lewis & Clark Trail from America’s heartland to the Pacific Northwest, crossing the Mississippi, the plains of North Dakota and venturing deep into Big Sky country in Montana.
Empire Builder (amtrak.com) runs three times a week and lasts 46 hours. Superliner roomettes in September from about $1,000. Read more: The best hotels in Chicago.
Jazz, Blues Rock ‘n’ Roll
In addition to the train journeys, Amtrak offers extended experiences with overnight stays and plenty of activities. So, for fans of jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll, this 10-day getaway will come as music to the ears. It starts in Chicago, home to the blues, and moves south to Memphis – the city of Elvis and the point of departure for the Graceland extravaganza. Jump back on the train for the final stretch to New Orleans and the jazz clubs of Bourbon Street.
Jazz, Blues Rock ’ n’ Roll costs from £899pp (020 3780 2300; amtrakvacations.co.uk). Includes train travel, seven nights’ hotel accommodation and city tours of Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans.
Grand Tour of America
San Francisco-New York
Given its scale, this 18-day epic from San Francisco to New York taking in some of America’s greatest hits may be one for 2022. Curated by UK-based Great Rail Journeys, it offers stops in Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls – and journeys through the Grand Canyon and the cactus-filled deserts of Arizona. Icing on the cake? A trip on the legendary Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Grand Tour of America departing April 25, 2022 with Great Rail Journeys (01904 527180; greatrail.com) costs from £3,995pp. Includes rail travel (with two overnights), 14 nights’ hotel accommodation and guided tours. Read more: The best hotels in San Francisco.
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