Saturday, July 16, 2016

America's Greatest Train Rides

It's summer vacation time. This year you might want to consider a train trip.

Train travel in Europe is very commonplace. Whenever I travel to the UK, I always buy a Brit Rail pass before I go and use it for traveling all over Britain—day trips out of London to such places as Windsor, Oxford, Bath, Stratford-Upon-Anon and longer trips such as travel to Northern England and Scotland.

And in the U.S., with more and more restrictions and inconveniences put on airplane passengers and airlines constantly adding fees and surcharges on top of the ticket price, train travel has had quite a resurgence. And even though gasoline prices are down, not surprisingly the last few years have been the best in Amtrak's history. With the suggested arrival time at the airport now being two hours prior to your flight departure and you still have to contend with long security lines, the reduced number of flights which creates longer wait times when you need to change planes for a connection, and even a short flight now takes a lot more of your time than it used to.

The Travel Channel on cable television has a couple of shows about scenic train travel in America.

One of the nation's best rides is Amtrak's Southwest Chief that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles and gives the traveler a way to relive America's 1800s expansion west. The train trip lasts a little over forty hours, traveling through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and the famous wild west town of Dodge City, setting for the long-running television series Gunsmoke. From there it continues into Colorado and New Mexico. Then across northern Arizona with the availability of a side trip to the Grand Canyon on a historic old steam train. And finally into Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

With only a few exceptions, this ride is on the same tracks that were once the Santa Fe Railway which was built along the old Santa Fe wagon train trail, a route that also inspired the highway of the days before Interstates crisscrossed the country—the famous Route 66.

Here are five more great long-rail journeys to consider.

The West Coast's Coast Starlight is considered by most travelers to be Amtrak's most scenic route.  It runs along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, traveling through some truly spectacular scenery.

From California, the classic route east is the California Zephyr, following the path of the first transcontinental railway between San Francisco and Chicago. It visits such places as Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, across the Rockies to Denver, through Nebraska and Iowa to Chicago.

By taking the Southwest Chief in one direction and returning on the California Zephyr, you are traveling what the Gilded Age tourists in the 1880s and 1890s called the Grand Tour of America.

If you want a ride that goes through the heart of the country, try the Texas Eagle starting in Chicago. It crosses the Mississippi River at St. Louis, travels down through the Ozarks, across Arkansas into eastern Texas, and continues through Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and on to San Antonio where it connects with the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

The East Coast relies much more on rail service than the rest of the country, especially the heavily used tracks in the high traffic corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

One of the country's first scenic rail routes is the Empire Service from New York City up through the Hudson River Valley where Washington Irving's Ichabod Crane encountered the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hallow.

And if you're on the East Coast and are heading to Florida, you can take the Auto Train where your car travels with you. Passengers board just south of Washington, D.C., and their vehicles are loaded on the train. The trip terminates just outside Orlando, Florida.

Maybe you're not planning a vacation by train, but would like the train experience. There are lots of day trips in various parts of the country, including vintage steam and narrow gauge railroads.  My personal favorite is the Napa Valley Wine Train in California, which includes winery stops. Alaska Railway's White Pass & Yukon Route offers a three hour tour through some truly dramatic scenery.

Have any of you taken a train vacation? A day trip train tour?


Vonnie said...

Well, what an interesting post! Such a refreshing change. As a non-American (a New Zealander living in Australia), I have to say I found this informative. Thank you!

Shawna Delacorte said...

Vonnie: Daily commuter train travel in the U.S. seems to be very geographically oriented. In the northeast, heavy train commuter travel in the Boston/New York City/Washington D.C. corridor. In the wide open spaces of the western states the car is still king.

I've always wanted to visit Australia and New Zealand.

Thanks for your comment.