Last year, I took the Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco in coach, and loved it so much that I did it again. So this summer, I decided to take four more long-distance trains: San Francisco to Seattle, Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to New Orleans, and New Orleans to Los Angeles. (I flew from Los Angeles home to San Francisco because of timing issues, which is a big problem with US rail — something we’ll get into later.)
Along the way, I learned about America. I saw the quaint lakes of the Upper Midwest, the humid clouds of the Mississippi Delta, the breathtaking mountains of Montana, and the endless hills of West Texas. I saw beautiful sunsets in northern Washington and Chicago and the Arizona desert. Most of all, I met people with wildly different life experiences from me — people rebuilding their homes after Hurricane Ida, blues musicians from Chicago, overnight commuters through the Great Plains for work, people talking about their experiences in the military, or farming, or being grandparents.
Taking the train is not only more scenic, but is much more environmentally friendly than either driving or flying. UK data shows taking even a less-efficient train has about one-sixth to one-fourth of the carbon footprint of flying, and about one-fourth of the carbon footprint of driving a non-electric car. An analysis from areas of Europe with more environmentally friendly trains found the environmental benefits to be even higher. It can also be inexpensive: I did this all with a flat-rate rail pass, which allowed me to take a certain number of segments within a set time period — more on that later, too.
Despite all its positives, rail in America has serious issues. Long-distance trains in the US are abysmally slow, and until (unless?) we get high-speed rail it’s an inefficient and sometimes frustrating way to travel. But if you’re willing to put up with the delays, it’s also (in my opinion) the most rewarding way to travel around the country, with beautiful views you can’t see anywhere else, more comfort than a car or plane, and the opportunity to meet people from all over the US — and world. So if you’re thinking of making the journey, here’s what to expect, and how to make the most of your trip.
Long-distance trains in the US are very, very slow
A hundred years ago, the US was a rail innovation leader. Unfortunately, things haven’t improved much since then. Passenger rail is actually slower now than it was in the 1920s.
The reasons for the decline of rail are many: fewer tracks paired with the rise of freight trains, the rise of highways as cost-effective competitors, and most simply and most crucially, the fact that new rail isn’t being built.
It doesn’t seem like high-speed — or any speed — rail will be able to be built at scale any time soon. Rail projects in the US face a lack of federal investment — recently, the Inflation Reduction Act focused $50 billion on cars and only a few billion dollars on any transit alternatives; and the US funds only 25 percent of infrastructure at a federal level, much less than many European countries — and also a lack of state-level support, in part due to high cost of land and construction.
This Vox video gives some reasons California’s high-speed rail is “decades late and way over budget”: Local politicians want it to run through their towns, which continually delays the project and makes the train slower and less efficient; people misuse environmental reviews to stop trains from coming to their neighborhoods, which creates legal costs for the government; and the government, in contrast to Europe, hires more expensive consultants instead of full-time engineering experts.
Adding to the slowness, freight rail, which transports cargo, not people — and which came to national attention in the narrowly averted rail strike in September 2022 over working conditions — owns the tracks in all of the US outside the Northeast Corridor from Washington, DC to Boston. This means passenger rail will often stop, sometimes for hours at end, for freight; and is a major reason that over 40 percent of long-haul Amtrak trains arrive behind schedule. In the Northeast Corridor, performance is much better.
While the US has regressed, other countries have progressed. Even lower-speed regional rail and streetcars, common in other parts of the world and the US past, are missing in much of the US due to disinvestment in favor of cars; and high-speed rail is essentially nonexistent. Critics of rail argue that the US is too big to feasibly have high-speed rail outside of population centers, but China does. The fastest rail lines in Europe and Asia travel on average upwards of 150 mph — and have capacity to go even faster — while the only classified high-speed rail in the US (the Amtrak Acela, which goes up to 150 mph and travels at about an average of 67 mph) travels at less than half that speed.
Next month I am traveling from NYC to Chicago, the 3rd busiest air route in the country, which takes 19.5 hours via Amtrak on a daily train. This is the same distance as Beijing to Shanghai, which takes only 4.3 hours and leaves every 20 minutes. This country can do better. pic.twitter.com/bfV0pGG5Vg— Hayden Clarkin (@the_transit_guy) August 17, 2022
Because we don’t have high-speed rail, the major downside of rail travel is speed. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, flying — even with all the time you have to spend getting to airports far outside the city center — is much faster. It’ll take you a couple days to get from Chicago to any West Coast city via train, and even regional travel such as Chicago to Minneapolis takes about 8 hours — a trip that would take between 2-3 hours in many European or Asian countries.
How to take the train
If you have the time, there are many reasons worth looking into taking the train for long-distance trips. On the train, you don’t have to worry about driving your car or paying for gas or stopping for food. In sleeper trains, meals are included with the price; in coach you have access to a cafe car with limited food offerings — I usually choose to bring my own food.
Trains in coach are often cheaper than air travel, particularly during times of high demand. I couldn’t have afforded to fly to Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, and LA during this summer of high prices — and I did this all using the $499 USA Rail Pass, which allows you to take 10 trips of any length (as long as you don’t transfer trains) in a 30 day period. I would’ve been able to travel to New York, San Diego, and any of the cities along those routes at no extra cost. If you’re transporting a lot of luggage, it’s also a potentially budget-friendly option. Last year, I had to figure out how to get my bike from Chicago to San Francisco, and I was able to take it on the California Zephyr for only $20. You also get two 50-pound suitcases for free.
There are downsides to coach. It has no showers and the bathrooms aren’t great, although in certain models of car the bathrooms are more spacious and give you more room. The only food offered is for purchase in the cafe car and has limited selection, so I’d recommend bringing your own food. But coach is, unfortunately, probably the only truly affordable way to take the long-distance train.
If you have the money, there are multiple types of sleeper cars, the most common of which are roomettes — the cheaper option with your own space and shared restroom and shower — and bedrooms, which are larger and have their own bathroom and shower. Roomettes start at just under $700 per person for the long-haul (2-day) trains, while bedrooms will run you over $1,000. There are also accessible bedrooms and family bedrooms. Traveling with kids can obviously be a barrier in terms of time and cost, but for those who can afford it, it’s easier for families to travel in roomettes or sleeper cars for long-haul trains, and kids under 2 travel for free. A friend with a baby recently booked a Chicago-Seattle roomette for his family around Christmas and said that even with the cost, it was cheaper than flying that season.
A final thing to watch out for is the train might make you or your traveling companions motion sick. After I finished my journey, I got land-sickness for a couple of nights after being on the train for so long — I’d wake up and feel like I was still on the train, which was somewhat unpleasant. In general, if you’re traveling in coach you’ll want to pack a blanket and pillow, and whether you’re in coach or sleeper I’d recommend motion sickness medicine and slip-on shoes to walk around the train.
People and places
The best things about the train are the scenery and the people. There’s no better way to see the scope of America. One of the most incredible experiences of my life was waking up in the middle of Glacier National Park in Montana; I saw the sun rise and set on Mount Shasta, the Great Plains, the deserts of Arizona and Utah, and the mountains towering over California’s Inland Empire cities. The scenery in Colorado, Washington, and Montana is the most spectacular, but I also loved the quiet beauty of Mississippi’s wetlands and Wisconsin’s lakes. Slow travel is an almost meditative experience, with nowhere to go or be except to watch the world pass by.
The train is one of the few places in American public life where people really want to talk to each other. It’s also one of the few places where you meet people with a diversity of life experiences (excepting public transit, though most people on the subway and bus don’t want to talk). People who take the train, particularly in coach, are pretty representative of the US.
I had incredible conversations on the train, from learning about the Great Migration and Chicago’s transformation over the last 50 years from a couple who’d experienced it, to hearing about flooding and community in Louisiana from the mostly local passengers and crew on the train to New Orleans, to discussing moving to California by train with a young couple and their kids. Meeting such a diverse group of people and traveling through less-traveled areas of the US was also a sobering experience — the train stops not only in big cities, but in small towns with high poverty and infrastructure in ruins, and regional passengers are often from areas that the United States’ vast wealth has left behind.
Be sure to spend time in the observation car and talk to people — I also talked to people in the coach car, but the observation car is specifically set up for being social.
The train isn’t viable for every journey, but it is a wonderful way to see and learn about all sides of America: the good and the bad, the strange and the beautiful. Long-distance rail may change the way you see the country — I know it did for me.