While today most Americans drive to travel between nearby cities, or fly to travel longer distances, the country is still home to the world's longest rail network, a legacy of the golden age of rail travel prior to World War II, albeit primarily used by freight trains these days. Nevertheless, it is still possible to travel between the East Coast and the West Coast of the contiguous United States using Amtrak, the government-owned passenger rail company of the United States, and the route from New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area is widely regarded as one of the world's classic rail journeys.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
Prior to the advent of the automobile and commercial air travel after World War II, trains were the dominant mode of long-distance travel in the United States, with many rail companies competing on price, luxury and speed. One of the most significant events in the history of rail travel is the driving of the final spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869, marking the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and making coast-to-coast travel by rail across the North American continent possible for the first time. Railways played a key role in the industrialization of the United States and in the colonization of the Old West. The classic coast-to-coast journey from San Francisco to New York City was perhaps most notably featured in French writer Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
As private car ownership and commercial air travel became more popular in the Postwar era, passenger rail in the United States went into a steep decline from which it never fully recovered, driving the rail companies to the brink of financial ruin, and forcing them to severely curtail passenger services. This prompted the nationalization of passenger rail service in the United States, and the formation of Amtrak in 1971 as a quasi-government body to take over the operation of passenger rail services, while the private rail companies retained the highly-profitable freight rail services. Even though the passenger rail network in the United States is far less extensive than what it used to be a century ago, coast-to-coast travel in the United States remains possible using Amtrak's network, with its trains passing through some of the most scenic regions in the United States.
This itinerary describes the most common route taken by rail passengers between the two cities, and describes some alternative routes you can take, including alternative starting points on each coast.
There are no high-speed rail lines in the United States, and Amtrak's long-distance services are primarily designed for tourists who wish to take their time to enjoy America's stunning landscapes at a leisurely pace. The upside of this is that Amtrak generally times their trains to pass through the most scenic stretches in the daytime, provided there are no delays of course.
Plan for Delays
If you are planning any onward trips after your train journey, be sure to give ample time to make any transfers, preferably at least overnight. If you are from Europe or East Asia and used to having your trains running more or less on time, you might be in for a rude shock in the United States as delays of up to several hours are common on Amtrak's longer routes. This is due in large part to the fact that most trackage used by Amtrak is owned by private rail companies, who generally accord priority on the tracks to their freight trains. As such, delays of a few hours are quite common on Amtrak's longer routes.
When to go
Most of Amtrak's services run throughout the year, though, travellers typically opt for the spring to see the flowers in bloom, or autumn to see the beautiful autumn colours on the trees.
How to book
There is no single train that travels the entire route from the East Coast to the West Coast. Thus, getting from coast to coast will usually require you to change trains at Chicago, the main railway hub of the United States.
Fortunately, Amtrak's web-site is designed in a very user-friendly way; just input your origin and destination, and the system will present you with a series of options, including different connecting trains. Keep in mind that Amtrak's trains are not hop on hop off, so you will need to plan in advance for all intermediate stops you wish to make, and book each leg separately.
All Amtrak trains feature coach class, which is the most economical way to travel, but might be somewhat uncomfortable if you are spending a few nights on the train. First and business class seats are only available on Amtrak's shorter routes, and not on any of their overnight trains
Amtrak offers sleeper cars on most of its long-distance trains. All sleeper tickets include meals in the dining car, and access to the business class lounge at Amtrak's larger stations. Two types of sleeper cars are generally used; double-decker Superliner cars, which feature sightseeing lounges with glass-domed roofs, on most routes west of Chicago, and single-deck Viewliner cars on most routes east of Chicago.
- Roomette — Amtrak's most basic sleeper accommodation, in private cabins for one or two passengers. The upper berth lacks a window on the Superliner cars. They do not come with their own showers, and passengers travelling in roomettes need to share the common shower with other sleeper car passengers.
- Bedroom — Offer somewhat more privacy than roomettes, with more space than roomettes, and their own attached toilets and showers.
- Bedroom suite — Consisting of two adjoining bedrooms, with space for up to four passengers.
- Family room — As the name suggests, designed with families in mind, with space for two adults and two children aged 2-12.
Most of Amtrak's longer routes permit checked baggage at major stations. If you are changing trains at a major station, the bags are automatically transferred for you, and you only need to pick them up at your final destination. However, you will not have access to your checked bags on the train, so bring a smaller suitcase where you can store all the items you will need for the journey.
Bring enough small change for tipping
On Amtrak trains, it is customary to tip your dining car servers and sleeping car attendants in cash, so be sure to bring enough small change to do so. If meals are including in your ticket price, you are expected to tip your server about $2-3 per person for breakfast, $3-5 per person for lunch, and $5-10 per person for dinner. If meals are not included in your ticket and you are paying for them, then a tip of about 15-20% of the meal cost would be customary. If travelling in the sleeping car, you are expected to tip the attendant $10-20 per person per night, and you can just hand the tip to your attendant when you get off the train.
For this itinerary, we will take the Lake Shore Limited from New York City to Chicago, before changing to the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area. This itinerary will take you at least 4 days and 3 nights; 1 night aboard the Lake Shore Limited, and 2 nights aboard the California Zephyr.
Lake Shore Limited
- 1 New York City — The Lake Shore Limited departs Penn Station in the Big Apple at 3:40PM, and emerges from the tunnels in Queens, making its way up to Albany along the east bank of the Hudson River. The stretch along the Hudson River between New York City and Albany is regarded as the most scenic stretch of the Lake Shore Limited; for the best views, be sure to reserve seats or sleeper cabins on the left side if heading out of New York City, or on the right side in the opposite direction.
- 2 Croton-on-Hudson
- 3 Poughkeepsie
- 4 Rhinecliff
- 5 Albany — The state capital of New York. The train pulls into Albany–Rensselaer station, which is in Rensselaer across the Hudson River, at around 7:05PM, where the train cars coming from Boston are joined with the train cars coming from New York City to continue onward to Chicago as a single train. In the opposite direction, this is where the New York City-bound and Boston-bound train cars are separated. From Albany onwards, most of the best views are on the right side heading towards Chicago as the train travels along the shores of the Great Lakes. However, as this portion of the trip happens overnight, this limits what you can see; going on this trip in the summer will maximize your daylight hours and hence, maximize the amount of scenery you are able to see.
- 6 Schenectady
- 7 Utica
- 8 Syracuse
- 9 Rochester
- 10 Buffalo — second largest city in New York state, located close to Niagara Falls. Buffalo is in many ways a typical Rust Belt city. The train leaves New York state behind and crosses the border into Pennsylvania after leaving Buffalo.
- 11 Erie — along the shores of the eponymous Great Lake, this is the only stop the train makes in Pennsylvania before crossing the border into Ohio.
- 12 Cleveland — largest city in Ohio, perhaps best known for being the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, where basketball star LeBron James made his professional debut, as well as being home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- 13 Elyria
- 14 Sandusky
- 15 Toledo
- 16 Bryan — after stopping at Bryan, the train leaves Ohio and crosses the border into Indiana.
- 17 Waterloo
- 18 Elkhart
- 19 South Bend — home to the University of Notre Dame, the most prestigious Catholic university in the United States, and known for its beautiful campus. The train crosses the border from Indiana into Illinois after leaving South Bend
- 20 Chicago — arrive in the Windy City at the magnificent Chicago Union Station at around 10:12AM. If the train is on time, you have just under 4 hours to kill before your next train is scheduled to depart at 2PM. The Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower), Chicago's tallest building and the tallest building in the world from 1974 until the completion of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, is within walking distance from Chicago Union Station if you fancy having a view from the top.
- Main article: California Zephyr
See the main article for the list of all stops on the California Zephyr. We just describe some of the major ones here.
- 21 Chicago — the California Zephyr, Amtrak's longest and arguably most scenic route departs the magnificent Chicago Union Station at 2PM, crossing the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains as it makes its way to the West Coast.
- 22 Omaha — perhaps best known as the hometown of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Also the hometown of civil rights leader Malcolm X. Perhaps of most interest to travellers will be the Old Market area with its well-preserved historical buildings.
- 23 Denver — the capital and largest city of the state of Colorado. If the train is on time, feel free to step out to marvel at the magnificently-restored Denver Union Station, including from the inside. After leaving Denver, the train traverses the Rocky Mountains in what is widely regarded as the most scenic section of the route, and arguably of Amtrak's entire network. The observation car is usually packed to the brim on the Denver-Salt Lake City segment, so be sure to go there early to snag a seat if you want the best views.
- 24 Salt Lake City — the capital and largest city of the state of Utah, it is best known for being home to the headquarters of the Mormon church at Temple Square. The Mormon Temple itself can only be entered by practicing Mormons, but people of all faiths are welcome to have a look at the exterior, or to attend a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. After leaving Salt Lake City, the train travels along the banks of the Great Salt Lake, but since this part of the journey usually takes place at night, you typically do not get to see it unless your train is severely delayed. Following that, the train crosses the Great Basin Desert as it makes its way towards Reno.
- 25 Reno — often liked to a "mini Las Vegas", Reno is also a gambling destination, albeit on a smaller scale, but is also close enough to serve as a base to visit the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe in the winter. After leaving Reno, the trains passes through the scenic Sierra Nevada mountains on its way towards the California coast.
- 26 Sacramento — the state capital of California, with a well-preserved old town at the waterfront that evokes the feel of the cowboys and the Old West. The westbound train only stops to drop off passengers, and does not permit new passengers to board.
- 27 Emeryville — the terminus of the California Zephyr, Amtrak provides a connecting bus service onward to San Francisco which can be booked when booking your train ride. Alternatively, if you want to complete the entire journey by train, book a spot on one of Amtrak's southbound trains (either the Capitol Corridor or Coast Starlight) to San Jose, where you can then transfer to the Caltrain commuter rail bound for San Francisco.
From the East Coast, you may also opt to begin your journey from Boston or Washington, D.C.. Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited also has an alternative starting point in Boston, and passengers from Boston will join their counterparts who boarded in New York City at Albany. There is another longer and less frequent Amtrak route from New York City to Chicago called the Cardinal, which follows a more southerly route through Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Charlottesville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis instead. The Capitol Limited travels between Wahsington, D.C. and Chicago, stopping at Pittsburgh along the way before following the same route as the Lake Shore Limited from Cleveland onwards.
On the West Coast, you can also opt to end your journey in Los Angeles, Portland or Seattle instead. Amtrak's Southwest Chief makes the journey from Chicago to Los Angeles via Kansas City and Albuquerque, while the Texas Eagle takes a longer circuitous route via Saint Louis, Dallas, San Antonio and Albuquerque. The Empire Builder travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland via Milwaukee and Saint Paul, with the Seattle-bound and Portland-bound cars being split at Spokane.
If you do not wish to go though Chicago, your only option is Amtrak's Crescent, which travels from New York City to New Orleans, where you can transfer to the Sunset Limited onward to Los Angeles.