The train tracks that criss-cross the US showcase a different side of the nation, discovers Sophie Barclay.

Rail travel was once a grandiose affair. After its heyday in the early 20th century, rail enjoyed one last hurrah in the 50s, when the latest models of luxurious, sleek rail cars were the top choice of travel for musicians, sports and film stars (a la Some Like it Hot). Many of these beautiful 1950s rail cars were lost, pulled apart or destroyed when America's love affair with the motorcar saw rail relegated to a second-class citizen.

In 1971, Amtrak, the national rail carrier, took over the intercity rail service, operating a no-frills service across the country. It now connects more than 500 destinations across the States, traverses the Californian Coast, links tourist hotspots like New York and Niagara Falls and even delivers travellers over the border to Canada.

Trains also offer carbon-conscious travellers a chance to deviate from fossil-fuel hungry transport. Amtrak's services are 30 per cent more efficient than car travel and nearly 20 per cent more efficient than domestic airline travel. Impressively, Amtrak was also the first transport company to sign the Chicago Climate Exchange, a legally-binding greenhouse gas reduction and trading programme.

Its comfort, superb views, relaxed pace and city-to-city convenience (no more mucking about with airport taxis) means train travel is perpetually popular with travellers without time restrictions.


Plus it offers families with younger sprogs plenty of space and opportunity to unleash their offspring on to friendly grannies or a chance for some family time playing cards or puzzling over crosswords.

No truck stops are necessary; bathrooms and culinary options can be found just a stroll away. The latter is a simple but tasty affair including pancakes and oatmeal for breakfast, burgers, pasta and steak for lunch and dinner (some routes offer regional specialities).

The highlight is being paired with other dining couples or singles, and digging a little deeper into the American psyche.

Like the food, the accommodation options are far from five-star, but it's part of the family fun of the train - utilitarian but functional. It ranges from "Coach" service, with a reclinable seat, to snug bunk "roomettes", through to family suites which boast four bunks and a private shower and bathroom.

Take time to explore the compact made-for-train features of each room, among them a barely 15cm-wide closet and a fold out tray-table-come-chessboard (the black and white pattern is etched into the grey plastic).

Looking for something a little more palatial? Chicago-based Pullman Rail Journeys offers revamped railcars, dating from 1917 to the 1950s, which chug along Amtrak's City of New Orleans route, connecting New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago.

Relive rail's glory days including spectacular service, a small, attentive crew in old-fashioned get up (white suit jackets and bow ties), a red-carpet entrance, three-course meals served around a large table with customised martinis, 1950s-style decor, and shoe shine services (Pullman restored all the shoe lockers on board which, in some cases, had been removed or sealed up). You'll need to book ahead as services are infrequent.

Whatever option you choose, one thing remains consistent - the views. Head straight for the observation lounge and its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, comfortable seats and tables to contemplate sunsets with stripes of shocking pink and moody purple over the mountains of Texas, tiny Western ghost towns complete with boarded up swinging saloon doors, dusty, ochre-coloured deserts and signs of the state's intensive agricultural practises (meticulous rows of pecans and fields of sugarcane as far as the eye can see).


Train travel offers a feast for the eyes; plus you'll discover a side of America that can't be found along the touristy highways.

Train tips
Book ahead, especially for the Sunset Limited, which takes travellers from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 48 hours and only runs three times a week.

Travelling overnight? Opt for a cabin and enjoy meals included in your fare.

No cabin? Choose from Coach, Business or First Class - meals are included in First Class (prices vary depending on the route).

The writer travelled courtesy of Pullman Rail.