With Elvis’s Mystery Train playing on his headphones, our writer rides Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Illinois to Arizona through big landscapes and small towns
Things might have been different if only Jack Kerouac had known how to hop a freight train. His attempts, described at the outset of the book that gained him celebrity, were a failure; a romantic notion from a bygone era that, in reality, proved tricky. Much easier to hitch a lorry ride. And thus the writer’s euphoric westward peregrinations, by motor car, kindled a new spirit of domestic US travel: On the Road rather than On the Railroad.
Since the 1950s, America’s once great “iron horse” has suffered under the exhaust fumes of the four-wheeler. In recent years, however, national Amtrak services have seen an increase in passenger numbers, not just in the north-east’s multi-city corridor but on long-haul routes, too. Investing millions in improving customer service, safety and, crucially, sustainability, the railroad may be on track to regain its former glory.