In the heart of Manhattan, New York's bustling Penn station stands bright and modern, its white terrazzo floor more shopping centre than traditional station. But the unmistakable sound of American railroading seeped up from the tracks below. A plaintive "ding, ding, ding" of a train arriving or departing for Washington or Boston could be heard above the commuter bustle – in the USA, even 21st-century locomotives must sound a bell.
The public address crackled into life in a sing-song New York drawl: "Final call for Amtrak train 49, the Lake Shore Limited for Albany, Cleve-land and Chi-ca-go, now boarding at west gate track seven. All abooooo-ard!"
With most of our luggage checked in all the way to San Francisco, my wife and I and our two young children settled in to a pair of adjacent "roomettes" aboard the Lake Shore Limited. Each was a cosy two-person compartment scarcely big enough for its face-to-face armchairs and small table. A narrow upper and lower berth would fold out at night, taking up most of the room, and a folding sink and covered toilet had been ingeniously shoe-horned into a corner.
At 3.45pm precisely, with a gentle hiss of the brakes, train 49 set off into the Manhattan tunnels at the start of a 959-mile overnight journey to the Windy City. Minutes later, the train burst into daylight alongside the Hudson river, mere yards from the water. Until evening fell, we sped along the scenic valley, passing marinas and vast steel bridges, the West Point military academy and Storm King mountain on the far bank.
"Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer," claims the lyrics of "Chattanooga Choo Choo", and a half-bottle of excellent California Merlot accompanied a New York steak as the sparkling Hudson sped past the dining-car window. We were following the route of the fabled 20th Century Limited: the last time I'd seen that scenery, it was the backdrop for Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.
Speed is not a feature of long-distance trains in the USA, and they usually pause for 10 or 20 minutes at bigger stations – such as New York's state capital, Albany, where we stretched our legs on the platform while the Boston-Chicago cars were coupled up. By now it was 8pm, time to get the kids into bed. It was easy to unlatch the upper berth and lower it from the ceiling, less easy to persuade excited little ones to sleep. We snuggled down in crisp sheets, then awoke to rolling farmland and ham and eggs in the diner.
The Lake Shore Limited rolled in to Chicago's historic Union Station just 10 minutes after its advertised 9.45am. Film buffs will recognise the steps at the station from the famous "pram" scene in The Untouchables (1987). Chicago Union is an American Clapham Junction, with trains departing for all points of the compass: north to Milwaukee, south to New Orleans, with multiple options to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
We were changing trains to the California Zephyr, but there was enough time to visit the Willis Tower's Skydeck for unrivalled views of the city and Lake Michigan – and stand on one of its stomach-churning glass-floored "ledges", 103 floors up. We returned to the station to find our family bedroom on our new transport: two adult and two child berths in a towering double-deck Superliner sleeping car whose shining steel profile would dwarf any train in Europe. And at 2pm sharp, the Zephyr set off on its two-night, 2,438-mile odyssey to the Pacific.
In the observation car, lounge seating faced huge wraparound windows in the roof and sides of the upper deck, with a café downstairs. By late afternoon, the Zephyr slowed to a crawl and with the lounge's occupants on the edge of their seats it clattered noisily over a steel bridge spanning the mighty Mississippi, the muddy brown waters of Ol' Man River flowing lazily beneath us. We'd crossed from Illinois into Iowa and America's Wild West. Nebraska followed Iowa, and as night fell the train toiled over the vast Nebraska farmlands, the bread basket of America.
Next morning, the Zephyr reached Denver. In the "Mile High City" we were already 5,280ft above sea level, but as the final sitting for breakfast was called, the train tackled the eastern face of the Rockies, climbing through a series of tunnels into spectacular fir-covered mountains, until Denver's skyscrapers could be seen in the distance, rising like tiny models from the plain.
Over lunch, the lakes and forests gave way to breathtaking boulder-strewn Colorado Canyons, the train snaking along just feet from the swirling rapids for mile upon mile. As the mountains gradually flattened out, groups of rafters appeared on the Colorado river, saluting the train in the traditional manner: mooning. The concept was explained to four-year-old Nate, who thought it the funniest thing ever.
The canyons gave way to Utah desert and the warm evening sun played on the eerie shapes and colours of the picturesque hills and buttes. The following day, the sun woke us as the Zephyr sped across the Nevada scrub. Within a few hours we entered California and climbed into the Sierra Nevada, threading our way through the Donner Pass, where the Donner party were infamously stranded in 1846-7. Only 48 of the party's 87 settlers made it through the mountains alive, by resorting to cannibalism.
After lunch, the train descended to Sacramento, the relaxed state capital of California and terminus of America's very first trans-continental railroad, completed in 1869. By late afternoon we were alongside the glistening waters of San Pablo Bay, gateway to the Pacific Ocean.
We had crossed the USA. At 4pm, the Zephyr pulled in to its terminus at Emeryville 10 minutes ahead of schedule, with San Francisco just a short bus or taxi ride across the Bay Bridge. All the more time to enjoy the Golden State.
Mark Smith is "The Man in Seat Sixty-One" (seat61.com). See bit.ly/AcrossTheUSA for pictures of his transcontinental journey.
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