North America

In 2007 I went round North America by rail, spending three months travelling all over the USA and Canada. Rail gives you a sense of scale of a country, which air travel can never achieve. The Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver is a perfect example of this. The cliché “one of the world’s great train journeys” really does apply here.

The timetables have changed somewhat since I travelled, then it was a 10am start in Toronto, and you are still travelling past the great lakes a day later. Similarly the prairies take hours to cross (though much of the flat boring bit takes place at night).

On that 3 day journey the train only stopped for 3-4 hours in total, arriving in Vancouver Thursday morning, a total of almost 4500km/2700 miles.
These pages show a few photos of the journey on The Canadian, and here’s a few of the USA. Not the best images – I’d never photographed out of a moving train before, and had a new first generation digital SLR, which was a whole new experience for someone who had used film for 20 years.
And I’d never done such a long trip away with a camera before, my file management was not up to much, I lost a whole load of images from all parts of the trip.
So I guess I’ll need to go back and do it all again at some point…

I got most of my advance information via the wonderful world rail travel site, seat61.com. It’s a comprehensive guide to world travel by anything but air. I can’t recommend it enough. I’m not going to write loads more here, as it’s all duplicated on Seat 61.

I bought a North America rail pass from internationalrail.com. They don’t seem to be available in the same format anymore, but did give you unlimited travel for a period of 15, 30 or 45 days. If you want a sleeping compartment it costs a bit extra, and includes all meals in the restaurant car.

The current rail passes are for a set number of journeys over a period of 15, 30 and 45 days – see seat61.com for more details

Rail travel in the USA is also a wonderful way to see the country, though can be somewhat limiting if there are specific destinations you want to visit. I ended up taking a couple of Greyhounds, and ironically had to hire a car to visit an Amish community.
Though if you stick to trains and coaches you will end up in unexpected places that are well worth a visit. Glenwood Springs in Colorado for example, where I spent a few days staying in a great hostel, walking and cycling trails where I rarely saw another person. Most Americans really don’t stray very far from their cars.

The trains in the USA are designed for comfort, unlike many of ours. The standard seats are fine for sleeping in for a night or two, especially the recliners found in the ‘Superliners’, which are used on the long distance trains. They are as good or better than our first class seats in the UK (never mind the hard plastic ‘surfboards’ in much modern rolling stock, such as the standard class seats in Pendolinos).

One of the memories that sticks with me is the noise of a level crossing – there’s far more of them in the US than the UK. The noise of the train horns several times (MUCH louder than UK ones – see youtube!) is followed by the very faint “ding ding ding” of the level crossing that steadily gets louder as you approach, then fades away into the distance. Tip- get a seat towards the back of the train or this could wake you up several times during the night…

A final important note for British travellers in North America – Tea! Sadly they don’t have much of it, and the standard bucket of weak coffee is not up to much either!

Take teabags with you, the usual Lipton brand that exists everywhere is almost, but not entirely, quite unlike tea. However there are a few expat shops selling essential items such Marmite and tea, search online for a list.

The Haight Fillmore Wholefood Co in San Francisco sells Yorkshire tea, which was a wonderful surprise when I hadn’t had a decent cup for over 2 weeks! Even 3 Lipton tea bags in the same cup fail dismally.

If you want to know more about rail travel in the USA, visit Amtrak.com, seat61.com or browse the many videos on Youtube.

Thanks for reading. Check out my other posts on travel, heritage railways and more.
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