Americans don’t know how good they have it with Amtrak trains, I would go as far as to say that they are wasted on the majority of them. The number of people we met who had never travelled by train or didn’t even realise there were train lines between certain places was upsetting to me. The best trains are in the west where they are double-decker and include both seated and sleeping cars as well as an observation car with a cafe below and a separate dining car serving three meals a day. Unfortunately the trains east of the dividing Chicago to New Orleans line are only single-decker due to older infrastructure around Washington DC, similar to as in the UK where the older bridges aren’t high enough for double-decker trains to pass under. On the single-decker lines the journey was not as enjoyable as others as they generally lacked the observation cars which is where you’ll spend the majority of the journey, staring out the window while having interesting conversations with local americans. But travelling by train still beats travelling by Greyhound buses, or the even cheaper Megabus…
Below is a map of the routes Amtrak provides (train in red) found at Union Station in Chicago and here is a clearer online route map. It is straight forward to buy tickets through Amtrak’s website with no fees or extra costs. They do offer value and saver tickets so the earlier you book the cheaper it will be. The largest downside to travelling by train in the USA is that priority is given to the freight trains, and there are a lot of freight trains across the country. At any point of the journey, day or night, a freight train company can demand the passenger services to wait in a sideline for an indefinite amount of time to get their cargo through. This means delays are almost inevitable, and statistics show some lines have up to 50% of their trains delayed.
How to ride an Amtrak train
Spend all of your time in the observation lounge. Speak one sentence and someone will turn around and ask where you’re from. Jump off at the longer smoking break stops to stretch your legs. Drink your smuggled on beer instead of the $5 cans. Have your first conversation with a genuine racist white american. Eat the $6 greasy cheese pizza from the cafe and feel gross. Watch the whole of Texas pass by in just under 24 hours. Play cards and read all day. Be late to almost every destination.
Sunset Limited: LA to Tucson
Cost: $61 each (~£46)
Time: 10h 28m
We were super hyped about our first Amtrak journey together. After spending two weeks in LA we were itching to get back on the road again. This ‘quick’ overnight journey gave us an amazing sunrise despite the route name (we were heading in the wrong direction!) and we awoke in the beautiful Sonoran desert in Arizona. Though to our genuine surprise, we arrived half an hour early which was completely unexpected.
Sunset Limited: Tucson to New Orleans
Cost: $122 each (~£92)
Time: 36h 25m
Jumping back on the Sunset Limited took us to New Orleans. The route previously went all the way from LA to Orlando in Florida but the line beyond New Orleans still hasn’t been fully restored since it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina over 10 years ago now. This trip was our longest journey by train in the USA and we genuinely spent about 24 hours just travelling through Texas. To be honest, it didn’t look as nice as I thought it would, or perhaps the line simply passes through a lot of poorer areas. The people who travel by train in the US are interesting. Many don’t wish to or can’t fly, some enjoy the slower pace of travel and some are actually on holiday. On the northern routes around Chicago and up state New York you’re more likely to find Amish people. On this train we met two travellers briefly who were not Amish but of a similar background, and on telling them we were from the England they asked us what language we spoke there.
City of New Orleans: New Orleans to Memphis
Cost: $62 each (~£47)
Time: 8h 35m
This route took us through the swampy watery land skirting Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and through Mississippi state. Here there were houses on stilts one storey high alongside the lake and rivers.
Lakeshore Limited: Chicago to New York
Cost: $109 each (~£83)
Time: 20h 53m
After a while our budget and the lure of cheaper bus travel took us away from travelling by train where we could, but this journey was on my list. Having previously travelled from Seattle to Chicago on the Empire Builder, I have now crossed the country from West to East by train. Travelling alongside Lake Michigan and Lake Erie, the single-decker train was an overnight journey to Buffalo in up state New York before continuing east and then following the Hudson River down through the snow and ice into the tunnels of Manhattan terminating at Penn Station.
Silver Meteor: Miami to Raleigh
Cost: $75 each (~£57)
Time: 20h 44m
For our last long portion of travel in the US we forked out for the train as far as we could. The highlight of this journey was the realisation of how dated some parts of the line is. There are numerous road crossings where the usual trick is for the train to slow down and honk its horn. This time for one particular crossing the train stopped to let off a train guard who preceded to stop the road traffic himself before jumping back on the train afterwards.
For those interested to seeing photos from more train journeys by Amtrak, during my internship in the summer of 2015 I took two trips. For the first, I spent a week on Amtrak from San Jose to Seattle to Chicago and back to Emeryville for San Francisco and I took the Caltrain back to San Jose.
The second journey took me from San Jose to Encinitas to San Diego to LA and back to San Jose.