Back on Track

A Rail Renaissance Connects Trains to Natural Destinations

While it’s true that trains use about half the energy per passenger-mile that planes do, and less than cars, too, most travelers have a more pressing concern: Are trains a viable alternative to flying and driving? Train service in Europe is fast and convenient, but in most of the U.S., passenger rail has been in a long, slow decline. Train routes have shrunk while airports and highways have sprawled.

The California Zephyr passes through Canyon, Colorado on one of the most spectacular rail routes in the world. The train offers views you can"t get from the highway.© Amtrak

This neglect seems finally to be ending. After years of trying to shrink itself, Amtrak is working on growth again, with measures including more fuel-efficient locomotives and high-speed Acela service in the northeast. Rail ridership also increased dramatically after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and time-consuming new airport security measures may give rail a permanent edge for some trips.

Amtrak has taken steps in recent years to promote and enhance service to state and national parks. "We think of trains and parks as natural partners," says Debbie Hare, Amtrak’s senior director for government and public affairs. "We’ve been working really hard in the last few years to increase our ability to serve these important destinations."

New Guides, New Rides

One aspect of Amtrak’s improved service is the "Trails and Rails" program, which provides live, on-board commentary about passing sights. Some routes have had this for years, like Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Chicago and L.A., but the program is expanding. Last May, for example, Amtrak announced a similar offering aboard its daily Empire Builder service between Chicago and Seattle. A guide boards the westbound train in Williston, North Dakota and provides commentary in a viewing car about scenic and historic points of interest.

Amtrak is also making it easier and more affordable to get to natural destinations, instead of just watching them go by. In May, Amtrak and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced a Florida Resident Rail Pass, which provides a year of rail travel within the state for $199. The agencies also announced a joint effort to promote the train as a way of reaching Florida’s 154 state parks. "We anticipate a long and valuable relationship with Amtrak," says Fran P. Mainella, Florida DEP’s director of recreation and parks.

There are rail-to-nature options elsewhere as well. Amtrak directly serves some popular ski resorts, such as Winter Park, Colorado, and the agency provides extensive details about connections to dozens of other ski resorts around the country in a brochure called "Take a Peak: Ski Amtrak." Additionally, good connections and package vacations are available to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Glacier National Park, where pre-arranged bus service can take you directly to the park entrance if the train itself doesn’t stop nearby. Stops in Canada are available too, such as Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. A joint North America Rail Pass between Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada provides 30 days of unlimited travel in both countries for $674 in the peak season.

With a little initiative, it’s also possible to reach other destinations. Near Amtrak’s stop in downtown Denver, for example, a Boulder-bound public bus departs with stops near the entrance to Chautauqua Park, at the base of the Boulder Flatirons. Connections like these aren’t necessarily highlighted in brochures.

The Journey is the Destination

On some of these routes, the trip itself is a unique experience. The Southwest Chief provides striking views of the desert southwest. The westward climb into the Rockies from Denver on the California Zephyr is one of the most spectacular rail routes in the world, offering views you can’t get from the highway.

Those views might look even better when you consider that rail is a relatively low-impact way to see them. Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Association of Rail Passengers, says most rail service can be expanded without sprawl. "We can squeeze a lot of capacity out of existing rail corridors without acquiring land, and we don’t think that’s true for airports and highways."

Whether it’s deserved or not, Amtrak has a reputation for delays and occasional headline accidents. Defenders, however, argue that passenger rail needs further support, both from travelers and the government. Fuel efficiency per passenger-mile improves with more people on the train, and highway and airport developments get far greater subsidies than Amtrak. According to Hare, the U.S. invests only a little more than Tunisia does in infrastructure for passenger rail.

"Planners have been talking about the congestion in our skies and on our highways for years," says Hare. "Amtrak’s improvements are happening at a time when Americans need rail most."