Sunday, February 1, 2009
Amtrak (800-872-7245, http://www.amtrak.com) offers rail passenger service nationwide, as well as timely Amtrak Vacations packages (e.g., Mardi Gras trains to New Orleans leave later this month; 800-268-7252, http://www.amtrakvacations.com), the Auto Train to Florida, rail passes, multi-ride tickets, and Metroliner and Acela service to New York. For lower fares, travel during off-peak days and/or times. Discount fares are available to seniors, children (half-price on most routes for ages 2 to 15), students, veterans, military personnel and AAA members. The Weekly Specials (Internet-only deals) offer discounts, as do Weekend Getaway fares, which involve one-night stays or same-day returns. (Prices can be as low as $49 each way from Washington to New York, down from $72). Reservations are required.
Acela Express and Metroliner provide daily high-speed service between Washington and Boston and/or New York. Fares are higher than for regular service. Service for both is available only at select stations. Acela stops in such cities as Philadelphia; Newark; New Haven, Conn.; and Providence, R.I. Metroliner runs only between Washington and New York, with stops at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport; Wilmington, Del.; and Philadelphia, among others.
Some of Amtrak's most scenic routes don't originate in the Washington area (the Vermonter from Washington to northern Vermont being a notable exception) but are worth considering as part of a fly/drive package. The Amtrak Cascades goes from Oregon to Vancouver, B.C., its tracks snaking around Puget Sound during part of the route. The California Zephyr travels from Chicago to San Francisco, passing spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas. If the West Coast isn't your thing, consider the Adirondack from Manhattan to Montreal, which travels along the Hudson River for a stretch before winding its way through thickly forested upstate New York. Also note that many Amtrak routes have Trails & Rails programs, conducted in conjunction with the National Park Service. The program features onboard volunteers who share information about scenic areas the train travels through. (See http://www.nps.gov/trails&railsfor more information.)
The Auto Train operates nonstop service between Lorton and Sanford, Fla. Prices vary according to season and holidays. In early March, for instance, a one-way fare is $245 for one car and a reserved coach seat. Sleeper car accommodations are additional.
For info on tourist trains that offer scenic rides and train vacations in the United States and beyond, check out Vacations by Rail (877-929-7245, http://www.vacationsbyrail.com/usa), RailsNW (800-717-0108, http://www.railsnw.com), Routes International Travel (http://routesinternational.com/touristtrains.htm) and Rails USA (http://www.railsusa.com/links/Tourist_Railroads). Many chapters of the National Railway Historical Society (215-557-6606, http://www.nrhs.com) also organize special rail outings.