OK, here’s a question for you about VIA Rail’s iconic train, The Canadian: Is one direction more scenic than the other? This would probably not occur to someone planning a long-distance train ride for the first time, but I can assure you that train travel enthusiasts have very clear preferences. It all has to do with each train’s schedule and what scenery or place of interest you’re missing because you pass them at night.
In my opinion, traveling east to west, from Toronto to Vancouver on VIA Rail’s Train #1 is the better option. For one thing, the scenery keeps getting better and better, evolving from farmland to dense forests to the Great Plains to the spectacular Canadian Rockies. But the main reason—for me, at least— is that when you wake up on your last morning the train will be following the Fraser River through the most incredibly beautiful valley all the way into Vancouver. The eastbound train leaves Vancouver at 10:00 p.m. and you miss all that.
Personally, I think for most of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, traveling east-to-west is preferable if only because the scenery gets more interesting as you go. The California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief leave Chicago in the afternoon and it’s pretty much corn and soybeans to the horizon until dinnertime when the trains cross the Mississippi. The real scenery begins the next morning.
One of the more spectacular parts of the Zephyr’s route is the climb from Denver up through the Flatirons and into the Rockies. You’re sure of seeing all of that on the westbound train because you leave Denver at 8:00 in the morning. The eastbound train isn’t due into Denver until 6:38 p.m. and, if the train is running more than an hour or so later, it could be dark when you’re coming down through that remarkable stretch.
I prefer the westbound Empire Builder for the same reason. When you wake up on the last morning, the train is passing through the magnificent Cascade Range and then emerges into the beautiful Wenatchee Valley, where something like 90-percent of the apples we consume are grown. The eastbound Builder doesn’t leave Seattle until late afternoon, so you miss all that.
Amtrak publishes route guides for all its long-distance trains and they will be helpful in choosing trains and deciding which ones to take and in which direction. It does make a difference.