On the Southwest Chief and Capitol Limited: By Train from Los Angeles to Baltimore

We’ve just completed three days by train across the strangest country in the world, the USA. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then the Capitol Limited runs onto Washington (and a local train takes you to Baltimore). Three days in all, through deserts, prairies, forests and mountains. On a train such as this, you get the best, worst, and weirdest of the USA. Amtrak is a great network, and thankfully more people hereabouts have begun to realise that. It’s cheap, efficient and pretty comprehensive. When Americans set their mind to something, they can do a bloody good job. The problem is that they rarely put their minds to anything worthwhile.

But the most intriguing part would have to be the dining car. Here is the USA in all its daily glory. Community seating is the rule in the dining car, where the food is included in the very reasonably priced tickets. Over three days we met and talked with 80-something newlyweds with dodgy legs, New Mexico artists, a couple of giggling grandmothers, a disconcertingly in-bred couple who growled about ‘them environmentalists’ and said an elaborate prayer before eating, disciples of Obama with a love of hiking and speaking so loudly our ears were ringing, and – the highlight of the journey – a charming man who told us in detail of Abraham Lincoln’s beginnings as a lawyer when he won a huge case for the new railways. He finished his discourse by peering out of the window and observing simply, ‘I’m looking for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. He was serious.



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4 thoughts on “On the Southwest Chief and Capitol Limited: By Train from Los Angeles to Baltimore

  1. Wish I’d thought of coming by train cross country. I flew from LA to New York and spent a couple of days there, then caught the train to Baltimore this morning… a very pleasant trip and well patronised.

    1. Locals who have never travelled on Amtrak like to bag it all the time, but it’s actually a very good network. Not as good as China, which has the best in the world, or even Europe, but it beats the Australian service. I’ve now completed 4 of the 5 continental crossings in North America: the Canadian Pacific, the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and now the Southwest Chief. All that remains is the Empire Builder. A couple of stories on those journeys:



  2. Hi Roland, I must admit to being rather fond of the Melbourne to Sydney service. And what a great journey from Sydney to Newcastle winding along with the Hawkesbury River, all for a suburban fare as I recall. When I was a Uni student in the 70s I could travel from Melb to Perth — three changes of gauge — sitting up overnight to Adelaide… then a sleeper from Port Pirie or maybe Port Augusta all the way to Perth… the cost $80 and all meals were included. Sure, my wages weren’t high, but it was very affordable nonetheless. Now the same trip is very expensive.
    Whatever happened to BCT on the Ghan by the way?

    1. I thoroughly enjoy it too in Australia. Haven’t flown internaly (bar one absolute necessity) since 2007. One of my great pleasures in life is to take a sleeper anywhere I need to go. I’m old enough to remember the cabins of the old Newcastle flyer, in which you could open the windows and get a mouthful of diesel smoke when you hit a tunnel, or the North Coast Mail, or the Intercapital Daylight to Melbourne to visit grandparents. But still, the Australian rail network doesn’t compare to many other places – although it’s better than New Zealand.

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