A wilderness by rail

Hop aboard The Cascades for an epic locomotive adventure
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The Independent Travel

The hub of the Pacific Northwest has many fine brewpubs, serving up ale that is a world away from the usual characterless US lager. Seattle's microbreweries create beers that are heavy with bitterness, often instilled by hops grown in the foothills of the Cascades mountain range. But you would not want to make America's finest coastal railroad journey aboard The Cascades train after a long night in the pub. Not so much because of the early start - the only northbound train sets off at 7.45am - but because a befuddled brain will simply not cope with the amazing sights that await.

The hub of the Pacific Northwest has many fine brewpubs, serving up ale that is a world away from the usual characterless US lager. Seattle's microbreweries create beers that are heavy with bitterness, often instilled by hops grown in the foothills of the Cascades mountain range. But you would not want to make America's finest coastal railroad journey aboard The Cascades train after a long night in the pub. Not so much because of the early start - the only northbound train sets off at 7.45am - but because a befuddled brain will simply not cope with the amazing sights that await.

The Cascades departs daily from Union Station in Seattle, destination Vancouver - 156 miles north, just across the border in Canada. It is the northernmost and most beautiful part of a rail service that has fallen on hard times. The 21st-century version of The Cascades has three components: a morning service from Oregon's state capital Eugene to Portland; from there, an afternoon train across the Columbia River and into Washington State, arriving at Seattle in the evening, where passengers must stay overnight before the onward departure. It is as though the Flying Scotsman from London reached York and paused for a two-hour lunch break; then continued to Newcastle, where everyone stayed overnight before the final haul into Edinburgh. As with the UK's East Coast Main Line, north is best. So you might as well cut to the chase, and invest a modest $31 (£17) in the ride of your life.

When I was invited to "take a seat in Car 7, Sir", I did not realise I would have the whole carriage to myself; on the walk through the train, Cars 10, 9 and 8 were as passenger-free. The State of Washington, as well as the federal government in Washington DC, heavily subsidises the service, and their financial patience is wearing thin. Attempts to persuade Americans to abandon their cars have not proved a success. So go now.

Seattle has not yet got round to beautifying its waterside, which remains on the edge of dereliction. But the sensations begin before the train has even cleared the rusting dockyards: the sight of the ghostly fuselages of Boeing 737 jets forming an orderly queue on the opposite track. They are hauled by rail from the factory at Wichita, Kansas, to Boeing's assembly plant by Lake Washington, where they will sprout wings. But right now, the huge, vacant tubes are waiting for The Cascades to pass through. Air gives way to rail - a first for America?

Despite the train's name, taken from the Northwest's most notable range, don't expect a highland experience. You get to see tantalising glimpses of mountains, but not the peaks celebrated in the name. However, you do not care.

The morning light is rising to the east, dappling the water to the west. The bleak sky emits just enough light to evade the adjectives "dark" and "menacing". Hills emerge from the murk, dabbed with pale gold. A curtain of cloud relents enough to allow the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula, dusted with snow, to creep into the picture.

Meanwhile, the train claws and swerves its way along a rocky shore. As the sun climbs, the sky becomes benevolently blue. You could be travelling through the pages of some absurdly optimistic picture book. Except for the old timbers of long-expired piers poking out from the water and settled by seabirds, Man has barely defiled Nature.

Many American trains are appallingly tardy; three or four hours late merits neither a murmur of complaint nor a word of apology. But The Cascades pulls in right on time at Edmonds, where about 100 people are standing on the platform. Not for this train, though. They are awaiting a special service. In the US, a train trip is a once-in-a-blue-moon event rather than a realistic alternative to the car. Perhaps some of them will be persuaded by the next stage: hugging the water's edge, swishing past Bainbridge Island at a pace gentle enough to make out the pines that jab into the sky. Just when the view from Car 7 cannot possibly improve, a rainbow springs out of the Sound to the north, framing impeccably a solitary, shimmering yacht. And where there's a rainbow...

The storm cascades down, casting the train into temporary darkness. Inside, all is warm and comfortable, as you would expect from a train where little expense has been spared. Onboard television monitors keep passengers (well, empty seats) informed about the temperature and the expected arrival time in western Canada's largest city.

Strangely, the stations on this stretch of track seem to be named after BBC Radio 1 DJs of the 1970s. After Edmonds (as in Noel) comes Everett (Kenny). Following another lightning visit, the train dives inland, clambering across the old steel bridge that straddles a fat, sluggish river. Briefly, the track runs alongside Interstate 5, so you can judge just how slowly you are travelling (the competing Greyhound bus beats the train by an hour, even though everyone has to clear customs and immigration at the border).

The fare includes a showing of a feature film, America's Sweethearts. The movie starts after a stop at Mount Vernon and tussles with the scenery for attention. Mostly, it loses.

Across the pancake-flat plain of the Skagit River, the train shows its paces, reaching 80mph through fields empty of the tulips and daffodils that make this stretch a delight in spring. Away to the east, a side order of mountains crowds on to the platter of the river basin. The plain is interrupted by spindly trees denuded by winter, and skeletal townships that allude to a lost America.

"Iron Horse Trading Post", promises a shack that has little to show besides a rusting pick-up. A stray freight car announces the line to be the "Main Street of the north-west". No more.

The train hurries on to Bellingham, the southern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway - the ferry system that links the northernmost state to the rest of the US. The line wraps a broad arc around a bay strewn with industrial wreckage of timber and iron, then hoists itself high on a cliff for a final grandstand view of the American shoreline.

The Cascades keeps delivering astonishing scenery, and the staff are keen that you make the most of it. Throughout the ride they keep the commentary coming. Approaching the international frontier you are urged to look right to the Peace Arch that marks the Canada-US border, then left to see the 500-ton white rock on the shore that gives the first town in Canada its name. Once over the border, staff hand out maps of Vancouver, which is a good way to divert your attention from the tedious suburbs of a great city.

A sign by the buffet door suggests "Next time try business class". No, thanks; Car 7 is quite big enough, I conclude, as the train creeps across the geriatric Fraser River Bridge that sealed the Seattle-Vancouver link almost a century ago.

Vancouver's Pacific Central turns out to be an ignominious terminus for such a grand ride; it spends most of its life acting as a bus station. But it doesn't have to be the end of the line: you can always turn around, re-board The Cascades, and go straight back on the return spin along the edge of America.

Further information on The Cascades rail trip from www.AmtrakCascades.com

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