Giving Amtrak Its Due.

I typically make my travel plans well in advance. In fact, I’m already thinking about what trains I’d like to take when I travel to NARP’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, next April. As usual, I’ll start by flying to the West Coast and taking one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains from there.
If I decide to take the Empire Builder, I’ll fly from here to either Seattle or Portland. The Builder’s Seattle and Portland sections join in Spokane and the consolidated train continues east past Glacier Park and Fargo and Minneapolis/St. Paul. It terminates in Chicago.
The eastbound California Zephyr departs from Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco, so I could fly to either Oakland or Sacramento to catch that train. Like the Builder, the Zephyr will also take me to Chicago, but by way of Salt Lake City, Denver and Omaha.
Or I could choose to begin the rail portion of my journey from Los Angeles, in which case both the Southwest Chief and the Texas Eagle will take me to Chicago. The Chief runs daily and takes pretty much a direct route by way of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Kansas City. The eastbound Eagle operates three days a week from Los Angeles to San Antonio, but runs every day from there to Chicago.
There is one more option: the Sunset Limited. It also leaves from L.A. and, in fact, it’s actually part of the Texas Eagle’s consist as far as San Antonio. That’s where the two trains separate. The Eagle, heading northeast, passes through Dallas, Little Rock and St. Louis before reaching Chicago. Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited continues southeast to Houston, crossing Louisiana to it’s ultimate destination, New Orleans.
If I decide on one of the trains that terminates in Chicago, there are two trains that will take me from there on an overnight ride directly to Washington: the Capitol Limited and the Cardinal. I prefer the Cardinal, but it only operates three days a week, which means adjusting my departure date from the West Coast. Either that or I’ll have to spend an extra night in Chicago to make that connection.
If I decide on taking the Sunset Limited, I can stop for a day or two in New Orleans, then continue to Washington on the Crescent. It runs every day from there to New York City by way of Atlanta, Charlottesville and Washington.
Planning a cross country rail journey is always eye-opening for me. Many of us fall into the habit of complaining about Amtrak and its shortcomings. We envy the French and the Germans and pretty much everyone else in the world for their fast, efficient and frequent passenger trains. But when you consider the size of this country, Amtrak’s long-distance network is actually quite extensive and it offers more than a few options. It’s not without some gaps, of course, and it’s a pain trying to work around those three-days-a-week “frequencies”. But the reality is that on Amtrak you can get to a lot of places and see a lot of the country.
And it beats the hell out of flying!