The Cardinal is not a big train – usually just one sleeping car, three coaches, and a diner – and it runs over a meandering southerly route between New York and Chicago. But in between those frenetic metropolitan centers, the Cardinal passes through some of the loveliest rural and wilderness areas in the entire eastern United States and is one of my favorite Amtrak routes.
Swinging west after leaving Washington, DC, the Cardinal crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains, climbs into the Allegheny Mountains, crosses over the Appalachian Trail, and bores through a long tunnel as it passes under the Eastern Continental Divide. From that point on, all water flows westward toward the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.
A bit later on, the train enters the New River Gorge – thickly wooded mountain walls on either side of the train and, just a few dozen yards off to our left, the river tumbles and foams through the gathering darkness. Every mile or so, we pass fishermen and backpackers who look up from their flickering campfires and wave.
With all this fabulous scenery passing by, the Cardinal should be better known and, more to the point, it should be carrying more passengers. Everyone understands the problem: the Cardinal, you see, operates only three days a week and many potential passengers just don’t want to deal with the connection problems that creates on either end. If you’re heading to Chicago from the East Coast, would you wait an extra day or two for the Cardinal? Or would you just take the Lake Shore Limited
from New York or Boston, or the Capitol Limited
from Washington? Both of those trains run daily?
The same problem exists on the other end. If you’re continuing westward on one of Amtrak’s western trains, would you stay over an extra day in Chicago just for the pleasure of traveling on the Cardinal? Well, I would – and I have – but most folks don’t want to take the extra time and there’s the extra expense to consider.
Happily, that could all be changing. There are serious plans afoot for Amtrak to start running the Cardinal on a daily basis. It’s not an easy decision because rolling stock is already in short supply and there are a lot of other issues to be worked out.