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Amtrak passenger trains (14) help you see the U.S.

By | August 25, 2021

Oh, the places you can see ... if you take a long-distance passenger train

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Passenger train near station among trees in fall.
Passenger train near station among trees in fall.
Eastbound Amtrak California Zephyr at Lisle, Ill., Oct. 25, 2019. Photograph by David Lassen

Amtrak passenger trains you can ride

Amtrak offers 14 passenger trains in each direction serving end points that allow for overnight travel, most of them operating daily but some on a triweekly basis. In the east, the Lake Shore Limited offers nightly service between New York and Chicago, with a separate section serving the Boston-Chicago market, combining with the New York train at Albany. Other key trains between the Midwest and the East Coast include the daily Capitol Limited and the triweekly Cardinal out of Washington, D.C.

In addition, Amtrak has two separate conventional New York-Washington-Florida overnight trains — the Silver Meteor and Silver Star — both of which serve Miami, with the latter offering a separate section to Tampa. There’s also the popular Auto Train running between the Washington suburb of Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., giving both coach and sleeping-car patrons the opportunity to bring their automobile along for the ride. Rounding out Amtrak’s Eastern service is the daily Washington-Atlanta-New Orleans Crescent.

Chicago is the hub of several overnight trains, including the daily City of New Orleans to its namesake city, as well as the daily Texas Eagle, which links Chicago with Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Some of Amtrak’s best-known service comes aboard its Western trains, including three daily West Coast departures to and from Chicago: the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles; the California Zephyr to Oakland, Calif.; and the Empire Builder, which serves the Pacific Northwest with separate sections to Portland and Seattle. Along the southern border, Amtrak runs the Sunset Limited, a triweekly train serving the New Orleans-Los Angeles market. In the Far West, the daily Coast Starlight links Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle.

passenger train on bridge over lake with boats beneath
Westbound Amtrak Empire Builder at Wisconsin Dells, Wis., Sept. 20, 2019. Photograph by David Lassen

Comfortable Amtrak passenger trains

Amtrak’s overnight trains offer a variety of comfortable accommodations, including coaches, sleeping car, lounge cars, and diners. In the East, most trains operate with single-level equipment, including some with the latest generation Viewliner II cars. An exception is the Capitol Limited, which boasts Amtrak’s high-level Superliners. The popular Superliners also hold sway on all the Western trains.

Most trains offer two levels of first-class sleeping-car accommodations, including the bedroom, with two full beds as well as private bathroom and shower, and the cozier roomette, with room for two passengers and shared restroom facilities elsewhere in the car. Sleeping-car patrons enjoy complimentary meals in the first-class-only dining car, which offers a selection of meat, chicken, fish, and vegetarian entrees; coach passengers have a variety of sandwich and snack options in the lounge car.

passenger train next to shoreline with ferry
Northbound Amtrak Coast Starlight at Steilacoom, Wash., June 25, 2018. Photograph by David Lassen

Look out those big windows

When Amtrak boasts about the scenery, it should be taken seriously. Some of America’s most glorious sights are visible through the big picture windows of Amtrak’s coaches, sleepers, and lounge cars. In the East, these vistas include the majestic east bank of the Hudson River north of New York City, visible for long stretches from Lake Shore Limited. The Boston section offers great views of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. Equally scenic are portions of the rugged Allegheny Mountains traversed by the Capitol Limited, as well as the Cardinal’s run along the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia.

The best scenery is reserved for trains running in the West, where passengers can enjoy the glass-topped Sightseer lounge car, with casual seating on the upper level and a full snack bar below. Perhaps the most famous of the Western trains is the California Zephyr, which boasts daytime running across the rugged Colorado Rockies, as well as spectacular views of California’s Sierra Nevada and Donner Pass, depending on the time of year. From the windows of the Southwest Chief, you’ll see the seemingly endless buttes, mesas, and cliffs of the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. The Empire Builder winds its way through gorgeous scenery in Montana’s Rockies (including Glacier National Park) and Washington’s Cascade Range.

Just as spectacular is riding the Coast Starlight along the Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles, with views of the ocean or mountains on either side of the train. The Coast Starlight also cuts right through the heart of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, hugging mountainsides and winding through deep forests.

And when you’re not marveling at the scenery, Amtrak’s trains offer the other timeless advantages of train travel — a chance to relax with that book you’ve been waiting to read, maybe catch up on some work (Amtrak offers Wifi throughout its trains), or indulge in the simple pleasures of meeting new people in the lounge car or the diner. Mystery author Agatha Christie had it right when she wrote, “Trains are wonderful. … To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers, in fact, to see life.”

That’s still true every day on Amtrak’s overnight trains.

4 thoughts on “Amtrak passenger trains (14) help you see the U.S.

  1. I live in the UK and have been fortunate to ride some of these trains. It really is a great way to see the country from suburban areas through desert to the amazing mountain ranges. As a tourist i see two areas where it would be good to see improvement. Firstly the sleeping accomodation is OK in the two berth compartments but the roomettes are only just OK for one person. It would be good to see a better quality option offered. Most importantly the quality of food is pretty dire. Having pretty well the same menu throughout the country doesn’t help matters. The non-availability of a decent hot meal on trains such as the south bound City of New Orleans is a sad omission. To be able to get on the train later afternoon/early evening and then watch the sun go down over a decent meal with a glass of wine is one of life’s great pleasures. Is there anyway to get Amtrak to upgrade these long haul journies and turn them into a tourists delight?

    Tim
    Sudbury
    Suffolk
    UK

  2. My wife had never been on a train until the day before Amtrak. Now we both enjoy traveling by train, usually getting at least one long distance trip each year. Until we retired, we traveled by train on business to cities like Chicago, Ann Arbor, East Lansing, New Orleans, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Quite often we would beat colleagues who flew because they experienced flight delays and we were always in a better frame of mind. I cannot imagine being stuck in an airplane on the tarmac for more than 6 hours waiting for the weather to change.

  3. Great article, and something to add to my wishlist. It would be great to see a map within the article to know where these routes pass through. Thanks.

  4. Excellent article! I completed a round trip between Chicago and Portland on the Empire Builder on 8/23/21 We were in a sleeper westbound so were able to sample the new full service dining car menu. Every dish we tried was excellent. I have always thought that the full service dining car offerings were excellent & do not see need for improvement beyond a full return to traditional dining car access for both coach and first class passengers. I have ridden around 120,000 miles on Amtrak long distance trains, mostly in coach, and highly recommend Amtrak long distance service to anyone hesitant to try it, including parents with young children. It is easy to sleep in coaches especially on the second or third night of a cross country trip, so one should not hesitate to go if he can only afford coach seating. Coaches are cold at night so warm clothing and an inflatable neck pillow will improve the experience. In addition the scenic views from coach are better anyway.

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