Ten Great North American Rail Trips

Train Travel
Photo by Freeimages/Carlos Paes

As Michael Portillo's Great American Railroad Journeys starts tonight, we select our favourite rail trips around North America. 

Michael Portillo’s travels by train break new ground tonight with the screening of the first in his latest television series: Great American Railroad Journeys.

Over the coming three weeks fans of the politician-turned-rail aficionado will see Mr Portillo embark on a series of adventures on two major journeys: from New York City up the Hudson River to the Great Lakes and from Philadelphia, site of the Declaration of Independence, to Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement. Along the way he will revisit the great age of the American railway network, look at the lasting legacy of the American Civil War and tune into the tastes and textures of contemporary America.

With no Bradshaw guide to the United States, Mr Portillo turns to Appleton’s General Guide to the US of 1879, a book which he says provides a detailed snapshot of the still war-scarred country in 1879.

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He revisits Gettysburg, the site of a famous battle and Abraham Lincoln’s powerful Gettysburg Address; he rides in a pony and trap with members of the Amish community in Pennyslvania, he swings through the trees Tarzan-like on a zip-wire experience in the Catskill Mountains and, attired in one of his trademark bright jackets, he demonstrates a unique talent for dancing the Charleston.

And he meets a host of colourful characters along the way.

“If you stop an American in the street of sit next to one on a train they have a high level of energy and passion,” he says “They are articulate and extrovert: the programmes have an extra level of energy because they are populated by Americans.

“Travelling by train through the country gives you insights and takes you to places you might not see any other way. And scenically it is spectacular.”

Great American Railroad Journeys will run nightly at 6.30 pm Monday to Friday on BBC2 over the next three weeks.

Want to travel in Michael Portillo’s train tracks? Here’s our guide to the best journeys by train in the United States and Canada.

1. Rocky Mountaineer

The daytime trains of Rocky Mountaineer were created to showcase the magnificent mountain landscapes of British Columbia and Alberta, with overnight stops in hotels so that none of the scenery is missed. In partnership with Holland America Line and VIA Rail, dozens of packages are possible within the two provinces, travelling right across Canada between the Atlantic and Pacific, or taking an Alaskan cruise. Circular packages from Vancouver have become popular, and Rocky Mountaineer most recent new service is south from Vancouver to Seattle to increase cruise options.

All three Canadian routes through the Rocky Mountains and canyons are spectacular, but perhaps the most varied is the Rainforest to Gold Rush route from North Vancouver to Jasper. It begin with a succession of scenic highlights, such as the idyllic views across the waters of Howe Sound and the coastal mountains, the foaming waters of Cheakamus Canyon – best enjoyed from the heritage open-air observation car – and the summer and winter sports resort of Whistler. From the lovely farmland around Pemberton to the ranching country of the Cariboo plateau, the waterside passage of Anderson and Seton lakes to the journey’s end climax of Mount Robson, the highest summit of the Canadian Rockies, there is not a moment when one feels the need for a book.

From Jasper the Journey through the Clouds route can take you back to Vancouver. This route offers a different perspective of Mount Robson before taking the Yellowhead Pass and following the North Thompson River to give magnificent views of Pyramid Falls and the Albreda Glacier. After an overnight stop at Kamloops, the line follows the Thompson River through snow and avalanche shelters to its confluence with the Fraser at Lytton. Hugging the Fraser River, the railway clings to the increasingly vertiginous valley sides as the waters and iron road are pinched through the cauldron of Hell’s Gate.

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Alternatively a road coach over the dramatic Columbia Parkway to Banff, perhaps for a stay in the majestic Banff Springs Hotel, allows a return to Vancouver by the First Passage to the West route. This follows a succession of rivers along some of the most breathtaking sections of railway through the Rockies, pausing at Lake Louise on the climb to the Continental Divide followed by the descent through the spiral tunnels beneath Cathedral Mountain and Mount Ogden. The defile of the raging Illecillewaet River and the houseboat-fringed shores of Shuswap Lake bring you to the overnight stop in Kamloops and the same route back to Vancouver as Journey through the Clouds.

The new Coastal Passage route to Seattle is full of contrasts: once Vancouver and the immense bridges over the Fraser River are left behind, the line passes heron-stalked creeks, ploughs through fields of blueberries and corn, and skirts the sea for mile after mile with bleached and stripped tree trunks littering the shore.

The Rocky Mountaineer has been running for more than 25 years and more than two million people have travelled in its panoramic cars and listened to the trains’ friendly and knowledgeable storytellers.

First Passage to the West (Vancouver – Kamloops – Lake Louise – Toronto) two days; £888 to £1300, plus taxes. Journey Through the Clouds (Vancouver – Kamloops – Jasper) 2 days / 1 night; from £888 to £1300 + taxes. Rainforest to Goldrush (Vancouver – Whistler - Quesnel – Jasper) 3 days 2 nights; from £1288 to £1850 + taxes

2. Canadian (Toronto–Vancouver)

This epic 2,775-mile journey between Toronto and Vancouver is the flagship train of VIA Rail, which operates Canada’s depleted passenger services. Running three times a week in each direction, its refurbished silver 1950s carriages are still a joy to travel in, with vista domes from which to appreciate the most spectacular parts west of Edmonton, an observation lounge and dining cars. In high season this village on wheels is so long that staff cleaning the windows at Jasper wear rollerblades to zip along the platform.

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It is an unrivalled way to appreciate the immensity of Canada: crossing the rock, lake and forest landscapes of the Canadian Shield in Ontario alone takes one of the three-and-a-half days. Some while away the prairies with a book or chatting to fellow passengers, but others find delight in the immense skies, filled in autumn with clouds of migrating birds. Seats are at a premium in the dome cars for the section through the Rocky Mountains, and the engineer (driver) even slows down for such scenic highlights as waterfalls.

Canadian (T–V) - £261.00 seat only. £1,010.00 in a cabin for 1.

3. Silver Meteor (New York–Miami)

After leaving New York by burrowing under the Hudson River, the daily overnight Silver Meteor parallels the eastern seaboard for 1,389 miles, with views of the sea around Chesapeake Bay, Charleston and along the Florida coast. Landscapes include peanut and soya bean farms, tobacco and cotton plantations, forests and swamps, orchards, dairy farms and alligator-infested lakes.

Major attractions at the stops en route are Princeton University’s art gallery and Einstein’s home from 1936 until his death in 1955; Baltimore for the splendid roundhouse containing the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum – the city was the birthplace of the country’s first major railway; Washington for its many museums; Richmond for the outstanding American Civil War Center among the remains of the Tredegar Iron Works, which made the cannon that fired the opening shot of the war; Charleston for its fine mansions along cobblestone streets and the country’s oldest museum, founded in 1773; Orlando if theme parks are your thing; and West Palm Beach for the Flagler Museum, located in the sumptuous home of Henry Flagler, the oil billionaire who created Miami and built the railway between Jacksonville and Key West. Among the reconstructed rooms in the Flagler Museum is a dining-room from Warwick Castle.

Travel between October and April to enjoy cooler temperatures and lower humidity, though the train is air conditioned. Silver Meteor (NY–Miami) - From £112.00 seat only. £506.00 in roomette.

4. Crescent (New York–New Orleans)

This one-night, daily train meanders for 1,377 miles through 12 states passing many places redolent of the Civil War. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson got his nickname from the two fierce battles fought around Manassas; Culpepper was a Union headquarters, and the photographs of bombarded rail yards in Atlanta became some of the most telling images of the conflict.

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The train trundles through the northern Birmingham suburb of Irondale where the book and film Fried Green Tomatoes were set. It threads the forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains and skirts the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains (both best in autumn), passes by peach orchards and cotton fields, and ends with the spectacular six-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain.

Good places to break the journey are Alexandria for its hundreds of restored historic buildings and cobblestone waterfront and Charlottesville, named after George III’s wife, for Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful home at nearby Monticello. Britain’s first female MP, Lady Astor, was born in the Virginian town of Danville where her childhood home still stands.

Crescent (NY–New Orleans) - From £117.50 seat only. £247.00 in roomette.

5. Cardinal (New York–Chicago)

Running three times a week, the overnight Cardinal is the most scenic way to travel the 1,146 miles between the Big Apple and the Windy City.

The train scales the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains and threads valleys in West Virginia whose white waters can be seen only from the train or on foot. Charlottesville is the stop to visit the Shenandoah Valley, the fictional setting for the poignant 1965 Civil War film Shenandoah and now part of a 200,000-acre National Park.

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In the Alleghenies is the extraordinary Neo-classical Greenbrier resort, set in 2,600 acres and reached from the Cardinal’s stop at White Sulphur Springs. The New River is followed through the Appalachians, America’s oldest mountains, for 120 miles with the 1,500ft-wide Sandstone Falls as the highlight. The wooded slopes are at their most spectacular in autumn.

There are long stretches beside the Kanawha and Ohio rivers before Cincinnati is reached where the Art Deco station’s rotunda is topped by the world’s second largest half dome (after Sydney Opera House). The station houses two museums and an IMAX cinema.

Cardinal (NY–Chicago) - From £80.50 seat only. £426.50 in roomette.

6. Maple Leaf (New York–Toronto)

One of Amtrak’s shorter journeys, the daily 544-mile Maple Leaf takes about 12-and-a-half hours depending on the time spent in border formalities. The exit from New York parallels the Hudson River and offers good views of the George Washington Bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when completed in 1931.

The train follows the Hudson River valley to New York’s state capital at Albany and joins the Erie Canal to reach Rochester, home of Eastman Kodak since 1880. Leaving Buffalo the line joins Lake Erie which narrows as its water flows north to become the Niagara River which is crossed on a high bridge before the Ontario border.

Farms, orchards and vineyards introduce the Canadian landscape before the train reaches Lake Ontario and follows the shoreline of the most easterly of the Great Lakes to reach Toronto

Maple Leaf (NY–Toronto) - From £114.00

7. Empire Builder (Chicago–Seattle)

A train a day takes Amtrak’s most northerly transcontinental route for 2,206 miles, much of it close to the Canadian border. Amtrak’s busiest long-distance service heads north west into cattle country and the home of Harley-Davidsons at Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. Crossing the farmland of Wisconsin, the train joins the Mississippi at La Crosse – named by French settlers after a game played by Native Americans there – and follows it through forests and farms for 40 miles.

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Leaving the Twin Cities of St Paul-Minneapolis, the train reaches the Great Plains at Fargo, named after one of the founders of Wells Fargo. The prairies and lake country of North Dakota are followed by the sheep and cattle lands of Montana. Grain elevators dwarf prairie stations as the train rolls across the plains and passengers begin to look out for the first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Summer-only stops are made at East Glacier Park for those wanting to see Glacier National Park. The train descends to the coast from the seven-and-three-quarter-mile-long Cascade Tunnel and reaches Seattle after 46 hours – barring delays from freight train congestion.

Empire Builder (Chicago–Seattle) - From £135.00 seat only. £493.50 in roomette.

8. Coast Starlight (Seattle–Los Angeles)

Often attracting a younger clientele, this 1,377-mile single-night journey along the Pacific coast begins at the magnificently restored King Street station of 1904–06. South of Tacoma the coastal scenery is spectacular, with views across Puget Sound of the Olympic Mountains while, inland, rises the volcanic peak of Mount Helens.

The daily train takes 35 hours and crosses numerous rivers finding their way to the sea. One of the US’s greenest cities, Portland, is a good place to break the journey, not least for its fine art museum. The varied landscapes range from soft-fruit farms to buttes before the train winds into the Cascade Mountains, clothed in Douglas firs and streaked with waterfalls. White pelicans may be seen in the vast Upper Klamath Lake as the train drops towards the Californian border with views of the highest peak, Mount Shasta, at 14,160 feet. Rail buffs may wish to pause in Sacramento for the imaginative displays in the California State Railroad Museum before continuing to Emeryville (from where a free shuttle bus goes to San Francisco).

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Fertile farmland is followed by the Santa Cruz and San Benito mountains and mission country. The climb through the Cuesta Pass into the Santa Margarita Mountains is spectacular as the train describes great horseshoe curves to reach the palms of San Luis Obispo for Randolph Hearst’s nearby castle. The journey concludes with mile after mile beside the ocean, enlivened by lighthouses, birdlife and surfers, and a final mountain section before Los Angeles.

Coast Starlight (Seattle–LA) - From £89.50 seat only. £274.50 in roomette.

9. Southwest Chief (Los Angeles–Chicago)

Leaving the Spanish-style Union terminal, this daily train crosses the Mojave Desert to a stop at Williams for connections by the Grand Canyon Railway to the south rim of the canyon. Ponderosa pine forests give way to another desert and dramatic rock formations, backdrop to pueblos and mission buildings. Famous for hot-air-ballooning and as the setting for Breaking Bad, Albuquerque heralds the Sandia and Ortiz mountain ranges.

There is a fearsome climb to Raton Pass and the summit tunnel in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as the train parallels the old Santa Fe Trail. Farmland devoted to cereal crops and livestock surrounds the cow town of Dodge City, whose marshals included Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Mennonite wheat farms are passed on the way to Kansas City and a crossing of the Missouri River. But the most impressive bridge on the 2,265-mile journey comes at its end as the train crosses the Mississippi River by the world’s longest double-track, double-deck bridge before arrival in Chicago.

Southwest Chief (LA–Chicago) - From £130.50 seat only. £396.50 in roomette.

10. California Zephyr (Chicago–Emeryville for San Francisco)

Linking the Windy City and the west coast, the daily two-night California Zephyr is Amtrak’s longest route at 2,438 miles. It cuts right across the centre of the US, traversing cornfields, cattle country and the Great Plains before climbing great S- and U-shaped curves to reach the Continental Divide inside the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel at 9,239 feet above sea level and the highest point reached by an Amtrak train.

You cross the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, follow the Colorado River for more than 200 miles, cross the Oregon Trail, touch the old Rock Island Line immortalised by Lead Belly and Johnny Cash and pass the wooden covered bridges featured in the film The Bridges of Madison County.

In spring and summer National Park Service rangers give a commentary during the section through the canyons of the Rockies, but a winter journey has its appeal with snow on mountains.

California Zephyr (Chicago–Emeryville, for SF) - From £126.50 seat only. £524.50 in roomette.

Train and tour operators

Amtrak (0800 033 7810; amtraktraintickets.co.uk ) The US passenger train operators offers Saver tickets and periodic sales, but fares vary according to the day of travel. Seniors (62-plus) enjoy discounted fares.

Rocky Mountaineer (0800 088 5541; rockymountaineer.com ) for direct booking of its trains

VIA (0845 644 3553; 1stRail.co.uk or viarail.com ) The Canadian passenger train operator.

For unescorted packages

Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030; ffestiniogtravel.co.uk ) provides a complete rail booking service as well as general travel arrangements, with profits supporting the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland railways.

Railbookers (020 3327 0862; railbookers.com )

For escorted rail packages

Great Rail Journeys (01904 521961; greatrail.com )

PTG Tours (01235 227288; ptg.co.uk )

Railway Touring Company (01553 661500; railwaytouring.co.uk )

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This article was written by Anthony Lambert from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.