Sunday, May 16, 2010

America's Greatest Train Rides

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 and longer trips such as to Scotland and Wales.

And here 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. Warren Buffett recently made a $44 billion investment in a railroad company. And with gasoline prices on the rise again (just in time for summer vacation), not surprisingly, the last two years have been the best in Amtrak's history. With the increased amount of time you need to arrive at the airport prior to departure, the reduced number of flights which creates longer wait time when you need to change planes for a connection, even a short flight takes a lot longer than it used to.

The Travel Channel on cable television has a couple of episodes about scenic train travel in America.  One show is about a luxury train tour of several of our National Parks.

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 expansion west from the 1800s. The train trip lasts a little over forty hours, traveling through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and the famous wild west town of Dodge City. From there it continues into Colorado and New Mexico. Then across northern Arizona with the availability of a side trip to the Grand Canyon. And finally into downtown Los Angeles' Union Station.

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 famous highway of the days before Interstates criss-crossed the country—Route 66.

Here are five more great rail journeys.  Many of the stops along the route offer the availability of getting off the train to check out local tourist attractions.

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 to 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 to San Antonio where it connects with the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.

Because of daily commuter traffic, the East Coast relies much more on rail service than the rest of the country, especially the heavily used tracks 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.

But maybe you're not planning a vacation by train, but would like the train experience. There are lots of day trips and even two or three hour tours 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. And 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?

Over the last few decades, train travel in the United States went into serious decline while air travel increased its dominance.  But with the dramatic resurgence of train travel in the last two years, you might want to check with your travel agency or on the internet and see what type of vacation railroad travel packages are available.

Next Sunday, May 23, is one week before Memorial Day weekend which is the traditional start of the summer vacation season. That will be my last post in this series of Getting Ready For Summer Vacation blogs. I'll be talking about flying.


Mary Ricksen said...

We did a train thing in North Carolina, going through mountains, it was soooo much fun!!

Samantha Gentry said...

Mary: I haven't done a long distance train trip since I was a little girl, but I have done the short 2-3 hour touristy train rides. They really are fun.