Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited…American trains are grand

Amtrak’s big beasts took us safely and speedily across the vast expanse of the American West
Looking out of the big picture windows of Amtrak Southwest Chief's viewing car. All photos: Rashmee Roshan Lall

While on our train trip across the American southwest news came that France was trying to get serious about climate change and had banned short-haul flights.

The idea apparently is that if a journey takes less than two-and-a-half hours by train, you don’t get to fly.

Fair enough. Except that Bloomberg reports that the ban will apply to a grand total of just three routes. According to one estimate, it will affect just three per cent of France’s mainland domestic flight emissions, Bloomberg says.

That’s when France, more than America, could easily and realistically push travellers towards trains rather than planes, Bloomberg noted. It has high speed rail, while the US train system is arcane, “relying on bridges and tunnels built in the days when exhausted donkeys pulled rickety carts over and through them”.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. On multiple journeys – from Chicago’s  palace-like Union Station to Lamy, New Mexico, to Williams, Arizona, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Phoenix, Arizona, San Antonio, Texas and on to Houston, Texas – we travelled very comfortably on Amtrak’s big beasts. They had grand names – Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited – and they took us safely and speedily across the vast expanse of the American West. As the Amtrak write-up puts it, the Southwest Chief makes the 40-hour journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, “across the mighty Mississippi through eight states — past wheat fields and ranches, missions and pueblos, mountains and deserts. Carving through curving canyon passages only a few feet wider than the train itself, you’ll see spectacular landscapes and pristine vistas not visible from interstate highways”. That’s absolutely true. On one leg of the journey, we got off before Albuquerque; on the second one, at Flagstaff.

Catching the Texas Eagle at Maricopa in Arizona, we travelled to San Antonio, “where the legend of the Alamo and the Riverwalk attract people from all over the world,” says the Amtrak write-up. Again, the journey was simply magical.

Each time we got on the train, the journey felt like a curated show – of the changing countryside, which we observed through the giant windows of the viewing car. Yes, the trains need a bit of an update, with the rest rooms, for instance, being rather old fashioned. They could do with water-saving faucets and flushes and a general tune-up overall.

But Amtrak does a remarkable job as it is. It employs sufficient staff on each train to guide and serve passengers. And Amtrak police maintain constant and visible patrols throughout the journey. That said, America is preparing to throw huge amounts of money at its trains. We’ll look at that next.

Amtrak police keep an eye on everything

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac