Going by train

I've now travelled on a substantial minority of long-haul Amtrak routes, depending on your definition:

  • Empire Builder (entire route, both directions)
  • Coast Starlight (entire route, both directions)
  • Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles)
  • City of New Orleans (Chicago to New Orleans)
  • California Zephyr (Chicago to Emeryville)
  • Acela Express (Providence to New York City)
  • Northeast Regional (all over the place)

This doesn't make me anything close to an expert in Amtrak train travel, but it's given me a lot of experience. Here's what I've learned.

If you can't get to an Amtrak station, Amtrak will probably take you

I've written about this before in the context of Amtrak thruway bus cabotage, but the overall point is that Amtrak contracts with a wide range of local bus carriers in order to ferry people from cities and towns that aren't served by Amtrak to cities and towns that are serviced by Amtrak.

The one thing you need to know about Amtrak sleeping accommodations

There are three (primary) types of Amtrak sleeping accommodations: roomettes, bedrooms, and family bedrooms.

These are basically ordered by size, with roomettes being the smallest (a tiny room with two fold-down beds), bedrooms having some room to stretch, and family bedrooms being the largest, capable of accommodating up to 2 adults and 2 children.

That's all academic: the key thing to know is that only bedrooms (the middle category) have en suite toilets and showers.

Now, maybe that's a big deal for you or maybe it isn't. But either way, it's the primary difference between the room types (besides square footage).

If you choose a room type without en suite toilets and showers, you can use the toilets and showers downstairs in each sleeping car.

The food is pretty good, with limitations

As a sleeper car passenger on an Amtrak train, everyone in your compartment is entitled to breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining car.

These meals are pretty epic. You can order anything off each menu, and each menu has very elaborate offerings: omelettes, french toast, or pancakes for breakfast, burgers and sandwiches for lunch, and steaks, pasta, or specialty items for supper.

Of course, since you're confined to a train for anywhere from 24 to 70 hours, you should definitely not be eating that much food.

Did I mention dessert is served with both lunch and dinner?

Basically, your best move is to pick a few entrees you'd like to try over the course of a long-haul trip, and order one per day. Other than that, eat salad.

The views are completely unique

This is where you accuse me of burying the lede. Traveling by train gives you a view of the terrain of the United States that you literally can't get anywhere else.

These train routes are carved through landscapes that don't have any roads, sidewalks, or even hiking paths.

You will never see this view of the Colorado River anywhere except on an Amtrak train:

That's because there's a mountain on one side and train tracks on the other. If you're not on the train, you're out of luck.

Conclusion: go by train, while you can

Long-haul train routes in the United States are an endangered species. Some of them are subsidized by local governments seeking tourism revenue, some are subsidized by Congress, and others are subsidized by redirecting revenue from the few profitable routes, primarily on the coasts.

But that's a far cry from suggesting that such long-haul passenger train routes are "a waste." They're remarkable and unique ways to view parts of this remarkable country which are inaccessible by any other means of transportation.