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Long-haul adventures on Amtrak

SmarterTravel

Despite Amtrak‘s travails, many Americans still find trains fascinating, and some of them are curious about exactly how Amtrak can serve them. One reader put it this way:

“What with the ghastliness of airplane travel, I’m curious about taking a train to my next destination – specifically, The City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans. Do you have any idea of how good/bad the Amtrak service on that line is nowadays?”

The short answer is I have no personal knowledge of that route—or even of Amtrak’s long-haul routes, generally. For answers to these sorts of questions, I rely on my friend Don, a dedicated rail buff. He usually rides two or three Amtrak trips every year, and he thoroughly enjoys them—subject to the qualification that actual schedules often bear little resemblance to what the timetable says. But he does it for fun, not because he really has to get somewhere.

The City of New Orleans

According to Amtrak’s website, the City of New Orleans uses “Superliner” equipment—its best double-deck sleeping cars. Accommodations in coach are comfortable; seats are much wider than those in coach on planes, and legroom is ample. Sleeping accommodations are all in private rooms, ranging from small roomettes to bedrooms. Even showers are available. This train also carries a dining car and a lounge, although Don reports that Amtrak meals leave something to be desired, compared with the fare on long-haul Canadian trains.

Certainly, the train is much slower than flying: You leave Chicago at 8 p.m. and don’t arrive in New Orleans until 3:30 the next afternoon, for a total trip of 19 hours. Nonstop flight time is 2 hours, 15 minutes. But the train is a lot more comfortable and relaxing, with daytime sightseeing between Memphis and New Orleans. The one-way Amtrak fare in coach is $108; the fare in a roomette is $200. The best airfares I could find are $99 each way, with one stop, on Southwest, or $238 round-trip for nonstops on a legacy line.

This look at the City of New Orleans raises the broader question of exactly what our reader—or anyone else—really wants from Amtrak. In my view, Amtrak’s long-haul trips can serve three distinct market niches.

Land cruises

My friend Don enjoys the occasional land cruise, on Amtrak as well as on VIA Rail Canada. Amtrak runs four land cruise routes where you spend two full nights on a train: The California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville (Oakland/San Francisco) California, the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles, and the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle may also qualify as a land cruise, taking two full days but just one night.

You don’t take a land cruise for speed. Amtrak’s fastest long-haul train, the Southwest Chief, takes a bit over 40 hours from Chicago to Los Angeles—an hour more than the fabled Super Chief in the 1940s—for an average speed of about 55 mph. Average speeds on the other trains are lower. Instead, you take a land cruise because it provides two or three days of complete relaxation and because you think riding trains is fun.

Don always takes a sleeper on a land cruise, and I’d agree. I hate sitting up overnight even once, on a train or a plane, and sitting up two nights in a row would be really miserable. But sleepers on a land cruise can be expensive: Between Chicago and Emeryville, coach is $142 but a sleeper is $486.

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