- The vistas outside of train windows are both impressive and desolate, a slice of rural America that you can’t see from any other vantage point.
- The slow pace harkens back to an era when we still had time to enjoy the journey and make new friends along the way.
- Travelling by train is a delight – here’s why I prefer it to flying.
The train takes longer than flying and, for some trips, it doesn’t make sense. But when I have time, the train is the way I definitely want to go.
I love the rhythm of the train wheels, the sound of the conductor’s “All aboard!” and the stunning views out the big windows. I feel truly transported onboard, which is just what I want when I’m on vacation.
There are a million things that delight me about train travel. Here are just a few.
1. The fun starts the minute you step on board
A trip from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo on the Coast Starlight opened my eyes to the easy-going charm of the train. The view out the windows was fascinating: broken down backyards, abandoned shacks melting into long-forgotten river banks, an eagle hunting over a glistening lake, pronghorn antelope grazing on a remote hillside – things you would never see from a car or an aeroplane.
The inside of the train was full of magic. Someone handed a guitar to the man seated across from us. He started to play, quietly, beautifully. I dozed, lulled by the music.
After getting off the train, my reflex was to collapse for the night from the fatigue of travel. To my surprise, I wasn’t tired. The train ride left me so relaxed that I was ready to bounce out again.
2. Railroad folk
Amtrak train staff deliver old-fashioned hospitality, and I like it.
The conductors, attendants, dining car staff, and station workers I’ve met while travelling by train in the US have been funny, kind, helpful, and generous.
They are interesting people I want to hang out with, like the sleeping car attendant on my first cross-country train trip, who could have taken retirement but kept working because it let him go from his home in Upstate New York to see shows at Yoshi’s jazz club in Oakland.
3. A view of America’s forgotten places
The world revealed out of train windows is a secret America: broken-down towns that were once thriving hubs when the train stopped there, fishing shacks on the water’s edge, eagles soaring over an estuary, piles of railroad ties, charred forests.
During one flood year, we passed a whole town abandoned underwater. Cars still sat in driveways with only their windows showing above a Mississippi River that had taken up residence and wouldn’t leave.
4. Spectacular scenery
The California Zephyr, which trundles between San Francisco and Chicago, is the most beautiful train ride in the US. The train winds along the Colorado River for almost a whole day. Every turn reveals a new box canyon or towering peak.
In the observation car, passengers crowd on the river side of the train like paparazzi, oohing and aahing over the mountain grandeur that passes outside windows that stretch onto the roof of the car. We laugh and elbow each other as rafters bend over to moon the train, a local tradition.
5. Train travellers
The slow pace of train travel is ideal for people-watching and making new friends. A partial list of people I’ve met on the train: a ballet dancer who was afraid to fly, a woman on her way to visit her internet friends in person for the first time, a woman who wanted her kids to see the places they learned about in school, and a college professor taking a break from England to travel the western US.
On one hilariously overcrowded trip in Scotland, I ended up riding in the vestibule along with stacks of gigantic suitcases and dozens of the other passengers in the overbooked car. Despite the intimate quarters, the lurching train, and the precarious luggage, everyone managed to see the humour in the situation. That made the trip not just bearable but a bit of an adventure.
6. The rhythm of the rails
My insomnia goes away when I travel overnight on a train. It’s like being rocked in a womb – the rhythmic clacking of the rails lulls me into a deep sleep. I only wake up when we stop in the middle of the night.
Sometimes I get out at Lincoln or Omaha and smell the fresh, cool night air, the only thing moving on the platform a few anxious travellers, lugging heavy suitcases, helped by tired porters.
7. The sense of community
On one trip, headed west, the California Zephyr was late picking us up in Denver. In the train station, passengers shared information, ate lunch, talked to each other about where we were going and where we had come from while children played between the benches and we waited calmly. When the train arrived, six hours late, we knew each other a little better, happy we could travel in the same direction for a while longer.
This what I like best about the train. Everyone from the crew to the passengers is part of a community, at least for a few stops. Maybe it’s because we aren’t in so much of a hurry. Maybe it’s because the journey is just as exciting as the destination.