If it weren’t for railroads, America wouldn’t have experienced such rapid growth and prosperity. Railroads were able to restructure the economic, social, and physical foundations of the country.
These early foundations still form the basis of the rail network today. In the US, railways were built to transport freight, while in Europe they were used to transport people.
From a US tourism perspective however, traveling by train offers a new world of discovery and opportunity that one wouldn’t experience on a plane.
Cross-country routes run from East to West, and North to South. Each route has its own personality, shaped around stops along the way.
The Southwest Chief is one of the most well-known, covering the 2,200 mile journey in 43 hours from Chicago to Los Angeles.
This train journey can be started at Chicago’s Union Station. A few blocks away, Route 66, which is somewhat mirrored in the Southwest Chief, begins. It is filled with history, and I can imagine how many people have made their way there over the years.
Chicago’s Union station, like many American buildings, is oddly familiar. However, it should not be surprising considering the numerous movies made there. The most well-known being The Untouchables’ stairwell shootout scene.
As a traveller with a relatively small home rail service, the sheer size and weight of the train is overwhelming. The silver carriages in gleaming silver seem to extend far down the platform. As the train departs I quickly locate my couchette which will be my base for the next two nights and then wander off to find my way back.
I quickly claimed a seat in the observation car with its large windows and coffee bar so that I could take in as many views as possible. There is so much to see, from the Midwestern countryside to deserts in the southwest to the Tehachapi Mountains in southern California. Armed with my guidebook I eagerly awaited the adventure.
We see buffalo herds, wild deer, large ranches, and even ghost towns. I have seen houses in the middle of nowhere.
The journey takes 43 hours. However, you will find many stops along your route where you can stretch your legs or purchase local crafts from trackside vendors. It is a good idea to pay attention to the train guards at these stops. You don’t want them to miss your boarding signal and you might end up in a remote rural area, far from civilization.
It could take up to 24 hours before the next train arrives.
We pass huge ranches, ghost towns, herds deer and wild buffalo as we travel along the road. I pass houses in the middle of nowhere. They are many miles away from their nearest neighbors. Others have most of their belongings outside.
It is easy to have a conversation on the train, especially when you are dining or in an observation car. I have a conversation with a middle-aged woman who boarded in Kansas City. Seven hours later, as we leave Dodge City (the setting for many Wild West movies), the plains of Kansas give way to the foothills and Colorado Rockies.
The lady suddenly stops mid-sentence, and exclaims “Oh my …. that’s a mountain!”
My curiosity takes over and I ask her why it was so surprising. She replied that it was the first time she’d ever been to Kansas. We continue to discuss the matter with others and it becomes clear that Kansas is so flat that Mount Sunflower, the highest point of the state, is barely visible from a field on a ranch near the Colorado border.
When I hear that my passenger is traveling to Los Angeles, it becomes clear that she will soon be experiencing the ocean for the very first time in her entire life.
Soon, I realized that she would soon see the ocean for the very first time in her entire life.
You can’t help but hear conversations during the journey as you lounge in the car. As two experienced train travelers from New Mexico and New York battle it out to share their worst journey stories, I am able to hear them both. They have shared many horror stories about the journey from delays of eight hours to encounters with tricky travellers.
I met a couple who were travelling to meet their first grandchild. Another couple is moving from one end of the country to another.
The Southwest Chief is part of Route 66, and the Santa Fe Trail. The trains transport the carriages across the Raton Pass, between Colorado and New Mexico. This is where you will notice a significant change in the architecture and landscape. The mountains are now replaced by a desert, before reaching Albuquerque.
Arizona is known for its 12-foot tall cacti. The scene changes once again in Arizona. Winslow, AZ, where a street corner has become a rock and roller landmark, is another example of this.
The trip’s final 12 hours mostly takes place in California, with stops such as San Bernadino (the original McDonalds location) on the final leg into Los Angeles.
Like many other places in LA Union Station has been used in hundreds of movies. This makes it a familiar place that I return to when I get off the train and step into the morning sunlight.
After seeing the Route 66 start in Chicago two days prior, I feel it only fair that I make my journey to Santa Monica Pier. I look out at the Pacific and reflect on the past 50 hours.
Although I could have flown there in four hours, at 35,000 feet you are limited to sleeping, reading, or watching a movie. It was a richer experience and I will be returning soon.