For most people, the main reason to ride a long-haul Amtrak train is to enjoy the scenery. And rail buffs around the country generally agree on Amtrak's most scenic all-daytime trips (which I list East to West):
-- The Adirondack between New York and Montreal, with great all-day Hudson River and Lake Champlain viewing in both directions. Also The Ethan Allen Express between New York and Rutland, Vt., covering some of the same lines, daytime in both directions.
-- The Cardinal between Chicago and Washington, with the best daytime Appalachian scenery westbound Washington to Cincinnati.
-- The Pennsylvanian between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, also offering some good Appalachian scenery in both directions and passing through the famous (to rail buffs) Horseshoe Curve.
-- The California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville (for San Francisco), with top all-day segments westbound through the Rockies from Denver to Salt Lake City and in both directions between Emeryville and Reno over the infamous Donner Pass.
-- The Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, with a daytime segment passing through some nice West Texas country eastbound between El Paso and San Antonio.
-- The Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, with daytime segments in both directions between Minot, N.D., and Whitefish, Mt., passing close to Glacier National Park (but getting to either endpoint isn't easy) and through the Columbia River Gorge eastbound from Portland to Spokane.
-- The Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle, with a southbound daytime segment from Emeryville or San Jose to Los Angeles along the coastal route of the famed Daylight.
If you'd like to re-create the glory days of long-haul railroading (sort of), your best bet is the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles, which replicates the route and approximates the schedule of the fabled Super Chief, even if it's a bit short of the glamour. You spend two nights on the train and the single daytime segment includes some good scenery between Flagstaff, Ariz., and La Junta, Colo. The trip is relatively inexpensive in coach (about $150 each way), but the real deal is to spring for a roomette ($952 for a couple, including rail fare and meals). Other overnight alternatives include the Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and New York -- a dim reminder of the 20th Century Limited -- and two-night trips on the full routes of the Empire Builder and the California Zephyr.
The long-term outlook for Amtrak is cloudy, for a variety of reasons. Those long-haul trains lose money, and they're really an anachronism for efficient long-haul transportation. Their main appeal is to people who just like to ride trains -- and at that level, they're not very cost-effective. Congress insists on keeping them, mainly because they pass through so many congressional districts and states, not for sound economic reasons, then complain when they don't make a profit. Moreover, Amtrak is stuck with antiquated high-cost labor regulations, by operating largely over freight railroads that wish Amtrak would disappear, and with inadequate funds to maintain cars and locomotives.
All in all, Amtrak is looking at a very difficult year in 2012. I don't think it's going to go away, but service is likely to deteriorate over the coming years, if Congress doesn't decide Amtrak is worth saving. So the sooner you go, the more likely that you'll have a good trip.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com