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10 Scenic Rail Trips to Take Before It’s Too Late

Congressional budget-cutters are not being kind to Amtrak this year, and the outlook is pretty grim. Whatever your view on the relative benefits of spending cuts and tax increases, you can expect the Amtrak system to face budget paring that will almost certainly degrade performance. That means if you’ve ever wanted to enjoy an extended “land cruise” on one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains, do it soon.

For most people, the main reason to ride a long-haul Amtrak train is to enjoy the scenery. And rail buffs around the country generally agree on Amtrak’s most scenic all-daytime trips (which I list East to West):

  • The Lake Shore Limited between Boston and Chicago. Good daytime segments in both directions through the Berkshires between Albany and Boston.
  • The Adirondack between New York and Montreal, with great all-day Hudson River and Lake Champlain viewing in both directions. Also, The Ethan Allen Express between New York and Rutland, Vermont, covering some of the same line; great for daytime in both directions.
  • The Cardinal between Chicago and Washington, with the best daytime Appalachian scenery westbound.
  • The Pennsylvanian between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, also offering some good Appalachian scenery in both directions and passing through the famous (to rail buffs) Horseshoe Curve.
  • The California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville/San Francisco, with top all-day segments westbound through the Rockies from Denver to Salt Lake City and in both directions between Emeryville and Reno over the infamous Donner Pass.
  • The Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, with a daytime segment passing through some nice West Texas country eastbound between El Paso and San Antonio.
  • The Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, with daytime segments in both directions between Minot, North Dakota, and Whitefish, Montana, passing close to Glacier National Park (but getting to either endpoint isn’t easy) and through the Columbia River Gorge eastbound from Portland to Spokane.
  • The Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle, with a southbound daytime segment from Emeryville or San Jose to Los Angeles along the coastal route of the famed Daylight.

If you’d really like to re-create the glory days of long-haul railroading (sort of), your best bet is the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles, which replicates the route and approximates the schedule of the fabled Super Chief, even if it’s a bit short on the glamour. You spend two nights on the train, and the single daytime segment includes some good scenery between Flagstaff, Arizona, and La Junta, Colorado. The trip is relatively inexpensive in coach (about $150 each way), but the real deal is to spring for a roomette ($952 for a couple, including rail fare and meals). Other overnight alternatives include the Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and New York, a dim reminder of the 20th Century Limited, and two-night trips on the full routes of the Empire Builder and the California Zephyr.

The long-term outlook for Amtrak is cloudy, for a variety of reasons. Those long-haul trains lose money, and they’re really an anachronism for efficient long-haul transportation. Their main appeal is to people who just like to ride trains, and at that level, they’re not very cost-effective. Congress insists on keeping them, mainly because they pass through so many congressional districts and states, not for sound economic reasons, then complain when they don’t make a profit. Moreover, Amtrak is stuck with antiquated high-cost labor regulations, by operating largely over freight railroads that wish Amtrak would disappear, and with inadequate funds to maintain cars and locomotives.

All in all, Amtrak is looking at a very difficult year in 2012. I don’t think it’s going to go away, but service is likely to deteriorate over the coming years if Congress doesn’t decide Amtrak is worth saving. So the sooner you go, the more likely it is that you’ll have a good trip.

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