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The Best Way to Travel

Ever since they came on the scene, American trains have had a strong hold on the popular imagination, inspiring countless stories, songs, films and legends. A rugged charm sets them apart from more mundane means of transport and their ecological soundness is again in vogue. Trains pollute less, rarely suffer from weather delays and won't give you jet lag. You can choose your companions, read a book, have a snooze, sleep horizontally and enjoy most of the comforts of home. One reason for traveling by train is especially compelling: it's much more fun.

American passenger trains go to all the big cities as well as to Disney World, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. Pampered by helpful attendants, you can travel from coast to coast, explore the Rocky Mountains and ride directly alongside two oceans. You cross rivers, lakes and deserts and see places which sometimes cannot be visited any other way. Less expensive than flying, more comfortable than the bus, trains keep you relaxed and in touch with an ever-changing landscape.

Amtrak coaches provide generous reclining seats, observation domes, air-conditioning and snug bunks. This may not be the fastest way to travel, but the civilized pace is perfect for sightseeing and if the scenery palls you can always go for a stroll, enjoy a meal, make friends in the bar or watch a movie. At night a gentle rocking and the steady rhythm of the wheels are sure to lull you to sleep.

Not many people would mourn buses if they became obsolete, and few entertain fond thoughts about airports, but children still count freight cars and wave as trains go by. Instead of leaving you exhausted and surly, trains create a sense of adventure and romance. No wonder people still find the plaintive sound of a locomotive horn at midnight a sure sign that it's time to move on. As the bell clangs and the conductor calls out "All aboo-aard!" you soon discover why the railroad experience remains so beguiling.

Pitt's book cover USA byrailw.jpg (15193 bytes)Many exciting long-distance Amtrak trains operate in the United States, often traveling through spectacular scenery not easily accessible any other way. Full details and route guides can be found in the guidebook USA by Rail and on the Web site at website.lineone.net/~johnpitt. The following are among those most highly recommended.

The Coast Starlight One of Amtrak's most scenic routes and a particular favorite with young people. A party atmosphere often develops, starting in the lounge car and spreading throughout the train on its journey between Seattle and Los Angeles. You see snow-covered mountains, forest valleys and long stretches of Pacific shoreline.

The California Zephyr One of the world's great trains, taking two days and nights to travel between Chicago and San Francisco, crossing farmland, prairies, deserts, rivers and the Rocky Mountains. Western pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the Pony Express and the first telegraph line. The Zephyr follows America's earliest transcontinental rail route for much of its 2,420-mile journey.

The Southwest Chief Amtrak's fastest trip from Chicago to the Pacific is along part of the Santa Fe Trail first used by Native Americans then by Spanish conquistadors, mule caravans, wagon trains and stage-coaches. You travel 2,230 miles through eight states, past wheat fields, ranches, missions, pueblos, mountains and deserts. Sometimes the canyons are only a few feet wider than the train.

The Sunset Limited The only way to travel from coast to coast on a single train. After going north from Orlando to Jacksonville in Florida, the train heads west into two sunsets. You see the swamps of bayou country and flirt with the Mexican border before crossing Texas rangelands to the mountains, deserts and orange groves of California.

The Empire Builder Between Chicago and Seattle the train crosses the Mississippi River and travels more than 2,200 miles past wheat fields, cattle ranges, forests, mountains and glacial lakes. America's northern plains were mostly wilderness until the freewheeling tycoon James J. Hill built his Great Northern Railway between St. Paul and Seattle. Amtrak's Empire Builder takes its name from a train called after him, which ran on this route during the heyday of passenger travel.

The Adirondack You go between New York and the Gallic charms of Montreal by way of the Hudson Valley, the Adirondack Mountains, Lake Champlain, Vermont and the St. Lawrence River. This daytime journey is particularly beautiful during the fall.

The Silver Star Silver Star travels between New York City and Florida's subtropical resorts, passing through historic Virginia, tracts of pine forest and Old Savannah along the way. Beyond Lake Okeechobee you see many of the beach communities leading to Miami.

The Crescent A leisurely journey between New York and the more relaxed city of New Orleans. Southern hospitality envelops staff and passengers alike as Amtrak's friendliest train travels the Northeast Corridor before passing through Civil War country to Atlanta, Birmingham and the south. The Crescent goes through 12 states and the District of Columbia.

For more information, visit the Amtrak Web site at www.amtrak.com

John Pitt is the author of the guidebook USA by Rail plus Canada (Bradt Publications - ISBN 1 898323 83 6) available in book stores and from enquiries@bradt-travelguides.com and the Globe Pequot Press