Given America's affection for the automobile and the airplane, it may seem surprising that there's a rush to buy up every seat and stateroom on the nation's trains in the months ahead. Well, it happens every summer, but with dreams of Olympic Games and World's Fairs dancing in their heads, US vacationers - already evincing a heightened new interest in rail travel - will surely make 1984 one of Amtrak's busiest years yet.
If one is willing to alter travel plans slightly or settle for a less popular route, there will be room on the rails for all, an Amtrak spokesman told me the other day. And, he was quick to add, the attractive All Aboard America Fare can be bought until May 31 and used until the end of June, after which Amtrak may extend the plan at a somewhat higher rate. The fare breaks down the national network into Eastern, Central, and Western regions, offering $175 of unlimited travel in a single zone and correspondingly higher rates if two or three zones are combined.
Amtrak's two most crowded runs this summer will be the Coast Starlight, between Los Angeles and Seattle, and the new and improved Chicago Zephyr, which links Chicago and Oakland/San Francisco via the Colorado Rockies and High Sierra. Neither is sold out yet, but even with a reserved seat or bed, one is sure to encounter long lines in the dining car and standing-room-only in the lounge. Still, Coast Starlight hopefuls may well find elbow room by booking space north of San Francisco and saving the southern segment for a quieter season. From the Bay Area to Seattle the daily 8:50 p.m. ?run takes you through high California forestland, past pristine lakes, and the snowcapped Mt. Hood of Oregon; along 50 miles of the Columbia River; and into Seattle's King Street Station at 6:25 the next evening.
If you want to ride the Zephyr badly enough, book early or late in the summer. The reward, crowded dining cars or not, is a double dose of high-mountain scenery, beginning out of Denver just after the 8:40 a.m. departure and continuing through most of the day, then resuming the next morning in the Sierra just west of Reno, Nev. In between are the purplish Wasatch Desert and the Great Salt Lake Valley, either of which may keep you from delving into the pile of books you've packed along.
Less heralded than the Zephyr but no slouch for scenery or service is the Empire Builder, a daily Chicago-Seattle run via Minneapolis/St. Paul that glides through Glacier National Park in Montana, bringing the peaks and lakes, streams and glaciers of that glorious tract seemingly within arm's reach. The Empire Builder gets consistently good grades for its friendly service, thanks in part to Charles J. Fike, the on-board services chief, who was recently named Amtrak's 1983 employee of the year. Mr. Fike keeps passengers abreast of news and sports over the public-address system, arranges for birthday-cake celebrations in the diner, and entertains with puppets or guitar in the lounge.
Wherever you ride in the West, you will likely find yourself aboard the newish Superliners, bilevel coaches that tower to 16 feet, 2 inches and give a panoramic, second-story view for passengers riding in the upper deck. Many choose the reclining coach seat, but there are also private sleeping chambers, the most expensive of which has that rare railroad amenity, a private shower.
East of the Rockies, the news is that the City of New Orleans will roll from Chicago to the World's Fair with smartly remodeled dome cars dating from pre-Amtrak days. This fully retooled train will be joined in Centralia, Ill., by Amtrak's newest special, the Kansas City-St. Louis River Cities. Another lovely but unsung run, the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, has put on dome cars, the better to see the Maryland countryside, Harpers Ferry, and the Pennsylvania mountains.
Very quietly the Lake Shore Limited between New York and Chicago has won a reputation for perhaps the best service among Amtrak's Eastern trains. It pulls out of Grand Central nightly at 7:30 (in reverse it leaves from Chicago's Union Station at 6:20 p.m.), runs up the Hudson for several hours, and the next morning skirts the shores of Lake Erie, stopping in Cleveland at 7 a.m. only a ball's throw from the old red-brick Municipal Stadium, home of the Indians, then on to Chicago. Meanwhile, the better-known Broadway Limited runs a more direct though not as scenic (nor as attentive) service from New York to Chicago through the hearts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
There are other trains than the Lake Shore Limited one can hop to get the best of the Hudson Valley north of New York City. This so-called Empire Service dispatches half a dozen trains up the historic and lovely waterway, among them the Maple Leaf to Toronto, the Adirondack to Montreal (both stellar day trips), the Empire State Express, the Bear Mountain, the Mohawk, the Hudson Highlander, the Electric City Express, and the Rip van Winkle. Old Rip is indeed your companion as you fly along the east bank, and so are the Headless Horseman, FDR, and the Hudson River painters. When was the last time you had such distinguished company on the Interstate or up in a 747?