Last month, I purchased a rail pass and set out to see America. This trip has been on my bucket list for almost forty years. In the mid 1980s, I traveled around Western Europe, on rail passes. I purchased a two week UK pass and a two month pass for the rest of Western Europe. I had to buy a separate train ticket for West Berlin, to cover the additional cost of traveling through East Germany. I also had to spend several nights sleeping on trains, because of my limited funding.
For this recent adventure, I did mostly long haul trips. I rode from the beginning of a train’s route to the end. All thirty days were done in coach. Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass can not be used for accommodations in Business Class or Sleeper Cars. That also meant that I would not be able to eat any of my meals in the dining car. All my meals were purchased from the lower level Café, in the Observation car. There’s also no way to shower, in coach. Unless… you’re a three time Peace Corps Volunteer and able to shower using a tiny pint of water. You’re welcome, my fellow Amtrak passengers!
I began my travels in Durham, North Carolina. I purchased a ticket to New Orleans via Greensboro, rather than use two of my ten rail pass segments (one for Durham to Greensboro and a second for Greensboro to New Orleans). So, what’s a segments? According to Amtrak, a segment occurs when a customer boards and disembarks a scheduled train. The USA Rail Pass allows you to use ten segments, over a 30-day period. An unused pass is valid 120 days from the date of purchase.
From September 3rd until October 2nd, I traveled on a total of 14 trains, ten in the USA and four in Canada. I paid out of pocket for the Via Rail trains in Toronto, Windsor, and Montreal. During the month, I started long haul trips in Chicago four times. I took trains to and from Los Angeles and Seattle twice. All in all, I was able to use nine of my ten segments. So, what happened to the 10th? Keep reading, as I rank my top ten!
The California Zephyr is why we create bucket list in the first place. This route from Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Emeryville (San Francisco) is a must do for any fan of train travel. California Zephyr highlights include: the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevadas, Moffat Tunnel, Colorado’s Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, Truckee River, Donner Lake, and the San Pablo Bay. If you can only take one long haul train, this is the route you want. For my trip, I got on in Emeryville and off in Denver. I was offered a three night comp in Las Vegas. More on that in another blog.
I love this route. For my birthday, in July, I took it from Los Angeles to Seattle and then used the connecting bus from Seattle to Vancouver. Amtrak is set to begin offering train service between the USA and Canada, on this route. For now, your train ticket from, Los Angeles to Vancouver, includes the bus. It waits for passengers out front of Seattle’s King Street Station and drops off at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver. My train was four hours late arriving in Seattle, moving the scheduled thirty five hour ride closer to forty. Luckily, the connecting bus waits. The most scenic section of the Coast Starlight is in California, from Oxnard to San Luis Obispo. The train hugs the Pacific Ocean in ways you just can’t do in a car. On my rail pass trip, I only went from Los Angeles to Emeryville, to catch the California Zephyr.
The Empire Builder is one of Amtrak’s most popular routes. It’s scheduled daily between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. On the west coast, can choose Seattle or Portland, as your start or end point. Highlights include views of the Mississippi River, traveling along major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail, and four train stations near Glacier National Park. Amtrak’s East Gate station stands adjacent to the historic Glacier Park Lodge. Take note that the train is known for being late. I started out in Chicago. We arrived in Seattle too late for me to hop back on a returning train. I booked a hotel for the night. The following morning, I was on the Empire, heading back to Chicago. The thing that I enjoyed most, on this scheduled forty six hour ride, was pretty much set in stone. The views of Puget Sound, as you make your way out of Seattle, are amazing.
I actually had no idea that I was going to be on Sunset Limited. I booked a ticket from Chicago to Los Angeles, on the Texas Eagle. Once in San Antonio, the Los Angeles bound cars were detached. We were told there would be a three hour layover, while the Sunset Limited made its way from New Orleans. The train station is ten minutes from the famous River Walk. I made my way to The Yard House, for an Ahi Tuna salad, then returned to the station. We were connected to the Sunset Limited around three in the morning. We awoke, the next day, on our way to the US/Mexican border. Everyone in my car began taking photos, as soon as the wall separating the two countries came into view. We arrived at LA’s Union Station, on time, at 5:30 am.
I really wanted to like the Southwest Chief. The 40 hour route claims to be an American West adventure between Chicago and Los Angeles. I was excited about seeing the spectacular landscape. In reality, I ended up loving the 35 minute break in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There’s a grocery store a block away from the train station. As soon as the conductor told us about the deli, prepared sandwiches, and hot dinner options, my train car went from Amtrak passengers to participants on the Amazing Race. A better experience for this route would have been departing at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and/or making a side trip to Santa Fe. I only had time for long hauls, so I pushed ahead.
I caught Maple Leaf in Buffalo, after my overnight on The Lake Shore Limited. There was a really long wait, almost five hours, between connections. To make matters worse, the train station in Buffalo is next to nothing. There was a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, about a ten minute walk from the station. Other than that, the industrial area is bare. One guy waiting with us booked a walking tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright House. Once we were all finally on the train, we made our way to the US / Canadian border, at Niagara Falls. At that point, a new crew took over and the train went from Amtrak to Via Rail. Although the train is a quick 12 hour ride, we arrived in Toronto a few hours late. We had a late start from Buffalo.
The City of New Orleans is a short 19 hour ride, with the majority of the day spent in Mississippi. This is another example of my using a train for a good night’s sleep. I wanted to take the Southwest Chief, from Chicago to Los Angeles. I was in New Orleans, as it was a quick way to reach Biloxi, Mississippi, via Greyhound. I arrived in New Orleans on the Crescent. After returning from Biloxi, I did an overnight in a French Quarter hotel and then headed to Chicago on The City of New Orleans. This train is perfect for a music lover. You could hop on in Chicago, after touring Blues Clubs, make a stopover in Memphis, visit Beale Street and Graceland, then finish your trip in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Amtrak can even assist with hotels and rental cars.
My dislike of the train was immediate. Not only is the Texas Eagle the longest route on Amtrak, it’s also a pain. You really need to be hardcore to sit on a train, in coach, four days and three nights, traveling 2700 miles, over a sixty six hour period. The views heading out of Illinois and traveling through Missouri and Arkansas, did little to hold my attention. The dozen or so stops in Texas were long. Once in San Antonio, there’s a three hour wait, as the Texas Eagle cars, going to Los Angeles, must be attached to the Sunset Limited. I would suggest skipping this one, unless you love trains and remember to pack compression socks. I did not and my ankles may never be the same.
I hadn’t planned on taking this train. My plans changed, after receiving an email from Amtrak canceling my next segment. Luckily, I was almost at the end of my ride on the Southwest Chief. When the train pulled into Chicago, I had four or five hours to figure out what to do next. Due to a rumored rail strike, in September, Amtrak began canceling all long haul trips. My overnight in Chicago, to catch The Empire Builder, the following day, had to be put on hold. The Lake Shore Limited provided an overnight to Buffalo. I used the time to figure out my next steps. I decided to head to Canada and wait out the strike. The train was fine. Most of the 19 hour ride was at night.
The Crescent route goes from New York City to New Orleans. It was already three hours late, when I entered my roomette, around 1:00 am, in Greensboro, North Carolina. And, unlike many of the long haul trains going to and from Chicago, the Crescent doesn’t offer traditional dining. My three daily meals were all prepackaged microwaved mush. There wasn’t even an opportunity to enjoy the mush in the dining car. The containers were bagged, tagged, and delivered to our rooms. The sleeping room attendant had already checked out long before North Carolina. The train’s staff all huddled together in the dining car, until we reached New Orleans. Avoid this train!
I saved my final segment for the Pacific Surfliner. I planned to catch the train at LA’s Union Station. Unfortunately, Amtrak had to suspend the route due to coastal erosion. The train could only go to Irvine, in Orange County. All passengers would then be bused to San Diego. So, much for the amazing views of the Pacific. Rather than end things on that note, I opted to just not use that segment. I made my way from Los Angeles to Emeryville. I arrived at 9:30 pm, did an overnight at the Hyatt House, across from the Amtrak station. The next morning, I hopped aboard my final train! Turned out, I had saved the best for last. The California Zephyr was the perfect way to end thirty days on the rails.
It’s also a perfect way to end this post. My Via Rail and Viva Las Vegas posts are coming soon! XOXO— GGT .