David Whitley enters the US by train, and discovers that life on the rails doesn’t necessarily have to be an unpleasant experience.


It’s fair to say that you’d never see this in Britain. The conductor wanders over the table, takes a perch on the seat arm and starts chatting to the passengers about what they can see through the window. “Keep an eye out for the big rocks – that’s where they like to hang out.”



We’re trundling down the Pacific Coast of British Columbia towards the American border, and looking out to the ocean following an announcement telling us to watch out for bald eagles. The public address system bursts to life moments later. “There he is! Anyone on the right hand side of the train should take a look out up at the tree we’re about to pass – there’s one just sitting right there.”


OK, so you don’t get bald eagles as you trundle through the badlands of Northamptonshire, but can you imagine conductors dropping by to help you spot cows and sheep? Can you imagine the surly train manager breaking off from the interminable announcements about having the right tickets to play tour guide? Of course not – getting on board an Amtrak train is a fundamentally different experience to suffering the East Midlands Trains service from Sheffield to London or trying to avoid the dirt on a First Crapital Connect carriage.


In the UK, you generally get the train because it’s the quickest and cheapest option – although it’s not necessarily the case on either score. In the US, the knee-jerk response if you have to get between two cities is to either drive or take a flight. They’ll almost certainly be the quickest options. If money’s tight and people don’t have a car, then it’ll generally be a case of sitting on the Greyhound bus where beards outnumber teeth.


You basically go on an Amtrak train because you want to. They’re almost never the quickest way of getting from A to B, and they’re very rarely the cheapest. And that means that a degree of effort has to go into the service. There are big comfy seats with plenty of legroom – even in cattle class – plusfree wireless internet throughout the train. Even the sandwiches served in the buffet car are edible.


The Amtrak Cascades service trundles down from Vancouver to Portland. For much of the way, it teeters on the shoreline, allowing for views of pine-covered headlands, tempestuous grey seas, fishing boats and lonely piers. The pace is slow, while delays due to over-officious customs officers, bridges opening for barges and passing freight trains are hardly uncommon. Back home, this would drive you nuts, but on American trains no-one seems to care all that much. If people were in a rush, they wouldn’t have gone by Amtrak in the first place. 


This makes for a wonderfully convivial atmosphere. Looking over the shoulder of the chap next to me, I could see him tapping out an e-mail to his daughter. He was saying it’s the first time he’d been on a train in his home country, and that the scenery was stunning. Another convert, then.


Read our Guide to Amtrak here