As an American who lived in Europe for more than a decade and recently moved back to the US, I can confidently say that there’s nothing I miss more than public transportation. 

Europe’s railway system is undergoing a wonderful renaissance, with revitalized night train services, more rail connections between popular cities, bigger incentives to take the train instead of flying and a proposed “ultra-rapid” train network. The USA’s long-standing car-centric culture has considerably slowed the progress of communal forms of transport, but Amtrak, the country’s only passenger train operator, has announced that it has taken the first steps to upgrade its overnight trains for the first time in 40 years.

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Ten companies have submitted ideas for modern replacement railcars, which would be put in place on Amtrak’s long-distance routes. These journeys criss-cross the country in absolutely epic fashion, taking in the diversity of scenery and cities that make the US such a beautifully curious place. 

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I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the landscape documentary unfolding outside the huge picture windows on the California Zephyr between Chicago and the California coast. The route, the sixth-longest in the world, is one of Amtrak’s most stunning, carving its way through the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains and across the salt flats and desert scrub of Nevada and Utah. The Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles hugs the coast from an elevated perch for a seriously impressive vantage point. The train windows were stamped with passengers’ fingerprints as we scrambled to snap yet another incredible photo.

Near the Colorado Utah border, seen from the Amtrak California Zephyr train.
The view from the Amtrak California Zephyr train © Shutterstock / TJ Brown

Amtrak’s upgrades are thanks to the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2021. The portion of the funding dedicated to rail is expected to also open new routes and reconnect cities that have lost their train connections. Amtrak will issue the formal procurement request later this year for the new long-distance carriages, so train travelers should stay tuned.

Even with this once-in-a-generation investment, the US train network has a long way to go before it’s remotely close to competing with the rail systems in Europe and Asia. Amtrak has only one high-speed rail line, called Acela, which travels between Washington, DC, and Boston, at a maximum speed of 150 mph. Thanks to the same federal funding package, Acela trains are also being upgraded and are scheduled to be on the tracks later this year, but even the new trains are increasing their top speed only to 160 mph, compared to 200 mph high-speed trains in Europe and Morocco, and up to 285 mph in China.

Take in an ocean view from the Coast Starlight Amtrak train © Shutterstock / Alex Cimbal

The California Zephyr takes a whopping 52 hours – assuming it’s running on time; unfortunately, it’s usually not. In June 2022, only 12% of California Zephyr services arrived on schedule, and that route wasn’t even the worst performer. Just 6.3% of Sunset Limited train services between Los Angeles and New Orleans were on time, a hard blow considering it’s the only route that runs just three days a week instead of daily. Amtrak estimates that freight trains taking priority over passenger services, which is against the law but rarely enforced, caused a whopping 900,000 minutes of delays in 2021 – that’s nearly two years of time.

The American road trip might still be the most iconic way to travel around the country, but perhaps with these slow but essential improvements, Amtrak can slowly chip away at that, especially as travelers become more climate-conscious. For now, exploring the US by Amtrak is a delightful form of time travel for riders who have the flexibility and patience to take in the country at a slower pace. Amtrak is a window into forgotten small towns and little-seen countryside and an invitation to slow down, sit back and watch the world go by. Which will becmone even more enjoyable with the promised new sleek and modern train cars.

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