Hit the rails in the USA

Trains are magnificent!

See, the thing with trains is – they offer the most relaxed way of travel. There is also a romanticism that makes the journey an experience and not a chore. Train travel in the USA, is not that simple though.

Compared to their European counterparts, Amtrak trains are large, slow and very old fashioned in their approach to the travel experience. You still check your bags in and they are escorted into a special luggage car (or wagon). All very timeless and evocative, but most journeys can be measured in days – or part thereof.

In the journeys that we have made, both overnight services and day/night time trains; regional and cross-country; it seems that that the population of the USA is largely oblivious to the service Amtrak offers. All stations are clean and well organised and the service – if you buy an entry level ticket – is very cheap (Orlando to Tampa – US$12 in coach class).

The mystery as to why the locals rarely use the train must lie in the service offering then?

With the exception of the North East (Washington through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York to Boston), and their regional services, the country has a very limited railway network. The only train that is comparative to any European standard, being the TGV or similar, would be the Acela service that operates hourly between Washington and Boston, both ways – and which is a pleasure to ride.

It isn’t all doom and gloom: the US offers a wonderful network of overnight trains with stunning names like the Crescent Service (New Orleans to New York), The Empire Builder (Seattle to Chicago), The Texas Eagle (Chicago to Los Angeles), The Capitol (Chicago to Washington) and our favourite: The California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco). You will notice that quite a few of the routes mentioned are in and out of Chicago. There are many more routes…

The country is divided in terms of rail connections into an East Coast, Central and West Coast zone. Trains run up and down these zones and connect across only through one or two cities (as a rule). For example, San Francisco to New Orleans (West Coast to Central) is possible only with changes in other cities, in this case, Los Angeles or Chicago, yet Chicago to New Orleans is direct.

Do not frown upon train travel in the USA. Yes, we know the country is just too big to compete in the same league as the European networks. But, what better way to see the country than by train?

Jump on Amtrak’s specially created Amtrak Vacations holiday programme. You’ll get to stay in proper hotels, you get transfers and tours pre-arranged and you can do it at-leisure, by yourself – no ‘know-it-all’ tour leader and tag-along groups holding you up or directing you somewhere you don’t want to go.

Amtrak Vacations will deliver a holiday that corresponds completely to the timeless romantic ideas you have of train travel.

Updated – January 2018

Mark Buck is the Managing Director of United Europe Travel Services (Pty) Ltd, a travel wholesaler based in South Africa

Get your share of the USA with United Europe’s 11-night Great Am

erican “Majestic Landscapes” – New York / Chicago / Denver / Salt Lake City / San Francisco package starting from R46 670 per person sharing. Valid for August 2016, the package includes the following:

  • One-way Amtrak from New York City to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited; Chicago to Denver; Denver to San Francisco on the California Zephyr, in coach accommodation.
  • Eight nights hotel accommodation – two nights in New York; two nights in Chicago; two nights in Denver and two nights in San Francisco.
  • Three nights on board Amtrak in coach – Roomette accommodation, private cabin with toilet facilities. New York to Chicago; Chicago to Denver and Denver to San Francisco.  Optional upgrades are available for bedroom accommodation.
  • Two meals included (two dinners).
  • New York City 2-day Hop-on / Hop-off Tour.
  • Chicago Trolley Tour.
  • Admission to the Shedd Aquarium, SkyDeck Chicago, and more with the Chicago CityPASS.
  • Sightseeing Highlight Tour of Denver.
  • Day trip to Napa Valley’s wine country.
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The NEC is home to one of the busiest, most complex, and most technically advanced rail systems in the world, with over 2,000 trains on Amtrak-controlled segments each weekday. This traffic mix includes freight trains traveling at speeds of 30-50 mph, commuter trains at speeds up to 125 mph, Amtrak Regional trains at 110 or 125 mph, and Acela Express trains that can reach 150 mph. This makes it the fastest railroad in the Americas, and among the ten fastest in the world.

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