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The Secret's Out

15 May 2013

With Amtrak rail-passenger numbers recently setting a new record, Stewart Creasey investigates why "railroad ridership" is growing in the United States.

Crossing the US by rail on impressive "superliner" trains allows you to see a side to the country that most Americans will never even know exists. But rail travel in America is catching on - more and more people are realising what Great Rail Journeys customers have known for years; the very best way to cross the US is to travel by train. This realisation is reflected in the fact that Amtrak, the national passenger-rail operator, has recently released record passenger figures for the last financial year.

Relatively high prices for gasoline, rising costs for airline tickets and improved passenger services such as on-board Wi-Fi access; these are all reasons cited for the rising passenger numbers. But beyond the detail is the reality that Americans, and tourists, are starting to discover the real joy of travelling by train across this incredible country. The tide, it seems, is turning.

Even as little as ten years ago, travelling by train across America was regarded by Americans as a peculiar, even eccentric undertaking. Old fashioned and pointlessly slow, intercity train travel in the US was almost killed off by low cost airlines. Lines closed, routes were withdrawn and services reduced to a minimum skeleton operation. Amtrak, which is owned by the US government, is famous for making a perpetual loss. In the race for convenience, affordability and speed, staggeringly cheap gasoline and ever-decreasing air fares, rail travel was all-but forgotten. Several generations of Americans have missed out altogether. Drive or fly? - for 50 years these have been the only realistic options, and certainly the only options that were given any consideration.

Now, Americans are discovering, many for the first time, the true joy of crossing their vast, diverse and beautiful continent by train. Railroads offer fantastic sights and unforgettable scenery, but also the chance to witness the changing landscape, to see the expansive fields of ripening corn, the huge ranch territories sprawling around a small farmhouse, the open prairies and the deep, endless forests.

When you fly between cities, you'll leave one airport and land in another, and you'll struggle to notice any changes. Even once you reach your city-centre hotel, you'll notice differences, but you will be overwhelmed by the similarities of high-rise America.

Travel by train and you can witness slow, subtle changes as you escape the city through its suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. Then you'll discover the vastness of North America. You'll cross the rivers and creeks, pass through monumental farms and rumbling across bridges over dividing gorges, climbing through the mountains and gliding effortlessly through dense woodland. The train will stop at smaller towns and cities; refuelling in Reno, allowing passengers to board in Salt Lake City, or waiting for a freight train to pass in McCook, Nebraska.

Maybe it is simply the cost - prices are much more competitive today, at least when compared to rising air fares. Maybe it is the improved service on board - Amtrak have certainly invested in their rolling stock and on board offering. But maybe, just maybe, it is that Americans have finally realised what many of us have known for a long time - the only way to really see America is to travel across it by train.