Riding the rails from Pa: Train-travel tips from an Amtrak Fan

Joseph W. Smith III and his long-time friend John Murdock in their deluxe bedroom on Amtrak’s Silver Star. JOSEPH W. SMITH III/OnthePULSE

Imagine wending your way through the Rocky Mountains, enjoying vistas that cannot be seen in a car or on foot—all while enjoying a glass of wine or beer, and maybe even a three-course meal.

Imagine having your own car with you in Florida—without having to make that grueling 18-hour drive.

Imagine a cross-country trip where you can bring along practically anything: tons of drinks, snacks, a pocket-knife, a cooler, a pile of carry-ons; and you need not take off your shoes or your belt—or endure long lines and all the usual TSA airport crap.

These are just a few possibilities when you choose to travel by train.

But that requires some effort from Lycoming County, which hasn’t seen passenger service since Penn-Central’s DC-to-Buffalo run ceased in 1971.

Nonetheless, I manage two or three Amtrak treks every year; and whenever I do, numerous friends always sigh wistfully, “Gee, I’ve always wanted to take a train trip!”

If that describes you, here are suggestions from an Amtrak veteran:

DAY OR NIGHT

For those seeking a simple day-trip, the nearest Amtrak station is in Harrisburg, where you can choose several daily trains to Philadelphia and back. Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian (yes, most of its trains have names) also runs west to Pittsburgh, but you have to stay overnight to catch the return.

I assume, however, that most folks yearning nostalgically for the rails would prefer long trips—likely overnight to the south or west.

  In that case, your best bet is driving to Baltimore or DC, where you can catch overnight trains to Florida, New Orleans or, better yet, Chicago; the latter offers connections to classic multi-day runs: the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles; the California Zephyr to San Francisco; the Empire Builder to Seattle or Portland; the storied City of New Orleans to Memphis, Mississippi and Louisiana; or the three-night Texas Eagle through Dallas to L.A.

Smith’s father, the late Doug Smith, enjoying a chat and a drink while departing DC on Amtrak’s Capitol. JOSEPH W. SMITH/OnthePULSE

GET A ROOM

For modest rates, choose “coach” class, which offers a comfy reclining chair with capacious legroom; you can really stretch out, and it isn’t hard to sleep. But this option is not ideal for more than one night. Indeed, on any overnight trip, I strongly urge a costlier sleeping-car bedroom.

For this, you generally have three options:

The cheapest is a roomette, where two seats face each other beside a huge window, with a small pull-out table between; at night, the room converts to upper and lower bunks. However—speaking diplomatically—while roomettes are okay for the young and trim, they can be awkward for those who are older and larger—especially when getting changed for bed!

  I prefer the spacious family bedroom, available on all long-distance trains except those originating in New York City, where tunnels don’t allow for larger bi-level sleepers.

  Because it’s on the lower level, where corridors do not connect to other cars, the family room extends the entire width of the car—more than nine feet. It offers a broad couch, small closet and two chairs, plus windows on both sides—a huge boon on scenic western routes. While one or two travelers can use the family bedroom, it’s designed for small families, converting to a set of large upper and lower bunks, plus another pair of kid-friendly beds, each about five feet long.

  For couples, top-of-the-line is the deluxe bedroom, where a large couch faces a single chair, again with a table between. These rooms have their own toilet and shower, while folks in roomettes and family BRs share common restrooms and a user-friendly shower in each car.

All sleeping cars likewise have one handicap-accessible room, which has its own toilet and sink.

TIME TO EAT

Virtually every Amtrak train carries a lounge or café car, with decent but pricey drinks, snacks and microwaved meals—wraps, pizza, dogs, sandwiches, tacos and so on. Lots of travelers bring their own food.

Costlier sleeping-car tickets include all meals, with various options depending on your route.

The author enjoys a meal while trundling through rural Indiana on Amtrak’s Cardinal; note the camera ready-to-hand for ever-present scenery. JOSEPH W. SMITH/OnthePULSE

Long-distance runs east of the Mississippi—all one-night trains—do not have chef-cooked meals; instead, sleeping-car passengers have a choice of five passable microwaved entrees, along with beverage and dessert. (But note that among these eastern trains, the New York-to-Miami Silver Star—jokingly nicknamed the Silver Starvation—does not provide meals for sleeping-car riders, who must bring their own food or buy it in the café car.)

Multi-night western trains all carry the beloved diner for sleeping-car passengers. In my recent experience, these thrice-daily meals are terrific, including such choices as salmon, steak, chicken and pasta, with tasty appetizers and dessert as well.

Few experiences are more relaxing and nostalgic than rolling over the Great Plains or through the Rocky Mountains while enjoying a fresh-cooked meal and a cocktail or a can of beer.

WATCHING THE WORLD GO BY

You’ll find plenty to look at on just any Amtrak trip, especially as these often wind through places where there are no roads. 

Worthy eastern runs:

The New York-to-Chicago Lake Shore Limited races up the Hudson, then through lovely landscapes in Upstate New York; travelers from PA would board this train in Manhattan. (Note that most trains from Harrisburg press on to NYC after Philly.)

I love the DC-to-Chicago Capitol, which traverses handsome and rugged terrain in Southwestern PA; to catch this, avoid driving into Washington and head to Baltimore instead, taking an inexpensive MARC commuter down to DC. Alternatively, you could catch the Capitol later in Martinsburg, WV,—about the same distance from us as Baltimore or DC.

Then there’s the thrice-weekly Cardinal, which meanders from Manhattan to Chicago by way of West Virginia’s breathtaking New River Gorge; you can board this directly in Baltimore.

Once in Chicago, hop on a return train or connect to one of the legendary two-night trips; I suggest the Empire Builder or the Zephyr. The EB crosses northern America, twisting through Glacier National Park and the Cascade Mountains, then rolling along Puget Sound on its final morning. 

The Zephyr cuts right through the heart of the Rockies, skirting rapid-strewn rivers and threading tunnel after tunnel in places no road or hiking trail reaches. Its 5000-foot descent from the mountains into Denver is downright dizzying.

But even an eastern trip to Florida will yield plenty of hills, backyards, towns, waterways and wildlife just beyond your window.

TAKE YOUR CAR ALONG TO FLORIDA

In addition to two New York-to-Miami runs, Amtrak also offers the unique Auto Train for Florida-bound travelers.

Originating in Lorton, VA,— roughly four hours from Williamsport—the Auto Train departs daily at 4:30 p.m., arriving outside Orlando at 9 the next morning. It’s the longest passenger train in the world, carrying not only numerous coaches, sleepers and dining cars, but also up to 30 car-carriers that bring along your auto—very handy in Florida if you like to shop or bring back seashells, or if you don’t care to travel light on a plane. (However, you do not have access to your car once on board, so some packing strategy is in order.)

  The Auto Train has family bedrooms and—unlike other eastern trains—chef-cooked meals; its 18-hour run is a great way to introduce kids to long-distance train travel.

A FEW OTHER TIPS

When traveling with kids, pack a few games, download some movies and don’t count on cell or internet service in remote areas.

Most rooms have no charging ports and only one socket; a portable power-strip with ports sure comes in handy.

As for luggage: Sleeping-car passengers may bring just about anything they can carry; no one will look at your bags or pat you down. Roomettes don’t have much storage space, but in all three bedrooms you can open the upper berth and stash bags up there during the day.

Tipping is not required but always welcome for hard-working diner staff, as well as your sleeping-car attendant; much of the crew is on duty for the entire trip—sometimes more than 50 hours straight.

Because Amtrak’s long-distance trains all travel lines owned by freight railroads, they can get shunted aside and tend to run late more often than not; keep this in mind when booking connections to planes or other trains.

And finally, sleeper spots are in high demand; six months ahead is a good rule-of-thumb for booking.

IT’S THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION

Every year, an old high-school chum and I take a multi-train trip just for old times’ sake. Though this requires a bit of planning on where to meet and how to get home, we do it simply to ride the train, see the country and get away from it all. 

So far, my favorite was 2021, when we took the Lake Shore and the Builder from New York to Seattle—three nights of nothing but freedom, friendship, food, photos, scenery and relaxation.

If, like us, you believe the journey is more important than the destination, then train-travel is for you.

Visit Amtrak.com for reservations. For questions, there’s a terrific Amtrak Fans page on Facebook; or feel free to contact me directly: robbwhitefan@gmail.com.

Happy rails!

Author

  • Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central PA. His seven books include “The Best Movies You Never Saw” and “The Best of Doug Smith” (a collection of his late father’s writings); both are available at Amazon. Feel free to write to him at robbwhitefan@gmail.com. Or visit josephwsmithiii.com.

Joseph W. Smith III

Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, speaker and teacher in Central PA. His seven books include “The Best Movies You Never Saw” and “The Best of Doug Smith” (a collection of his late father’s writings); both are available at Amazon. Feel free to write to him at robbwhitefan@gmail.com. Or visit josephwsmithiii.com.