We went to bed watching coal-black cattle graze on the Montana prairie and woke up passing a tiny town in North Dakota. Later, as my wife and I sat in the dining car with coffee and our books, the farms and woods of Minnesota were rushing by. Chicago was coming up just after lunch.
Such are the markers of a train trip across the northern United States. I had forgotten what travel by rail was like, and after decades of flying around the country and the world, I found it an immense pleasure. But my enjoyment wasn't limited to nostalgia or the relaxation or the view: I was satisfied to know that I was actually a much greener traveler on this iron horse than my fellow travelers jetting through the blue dome above, or even those taking to the highways. Travel by train consumes 18 percent less energy per passenger mile than flying and 17 percent less than driving. With record fuel prices, rising airfares, endless airport security lines, and ever more urgent concerns about global warming, train travel is sounding better all the time. In fact, Amtrak reports that ridership has increased steadily over the past several years, and it has recently upgraded its Web site and spruced up its sleeper cars. But despite train travel's green advantage and the rising interest in the rails, most plans to create new routes have been stalled—opposed by politicians who view large-scale train projects as expensive follies.
To see firsthand the state of the American rail system and to learn why our passenger trains lag behind those of much of the world, my wife and I climbed aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder to travel 24 hours from Montana, where we live, to Chicago. From there, we took an overnight train to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, where I had an appointment with Alexander Kummant, the president of Amtrak.
Many people ride the Empire Builder and Amtrak's 14 other storied long-distance trains—such as the Crescent, which travels between New York and New Orleans, and the Sunset Limited, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles—as much for the journey as for the destination. The Empire Builder, Amtrak's most popular long-distance train, offers the most striking scenery, including the Rockies at the southern end of Glacier National Park.
These cross-country trains echo the glory days of passenger railroading in the first half of the twentieth century. The luxurious Super Chief, for instance, a Pullman car train that traveled between Los Angeles and Chicago in 40 hours, catered to A-list celebrities—including Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart—who rode it regularly in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. (Pullman cars were sleeping coaches tricked out with plush carpeting and furniture, libraries and first class service.)