There’s a lot of beautiful countryside out there, much of it visible from the windows of a train. Groups that decide to climb aboard become part of a strong upward trend in ridership on the rails. Washington, D.C.-based Amtrak reports that systemwide usage has increased 11 percent from Oct. 1, 2007, through June 30 of this year. A total of almost 21 million people have hopped on the trains over that period.
|Train travel means cozy quarters, lots of up-close scenery and absolutely no worries about the price of gas|
Bumping up those numbers are the hoards of passengers taking advantage of Amtrak’s corridor services -- specifically in the Northeast, the Midwest and in California. The largest increase has been reported on the tracks from Boston to Portland, Maine, where ridership is up about 32 percent.
“We’re attributing about half of the overall increase to the rise in the price of gas,” says a spokesperson for the national train service, which stops in 500 destinations in 46 states. She added that fares went up about 5 percent on some routes on July 8 due to labor agreements and the rising cost of diesel. Diesel powers all Amtrak trains except those on the Northeast Corridor, which run on electricity.
The top 10 destinations for group travel on Amtrak are New York City; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Philadelphia; San Diego; Denver; Whitefish, Mont.; Chicago, and San Francisco. Interestingly, Whitefish station is not on a corridor route but is a stop along the long-distance Empire Builder line, traveling daily from Chicago to Seattle along major portions of the path of Lewis and Clark. That train also picks up passengers in Milwaukee and Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; St. Paul-Minneapolis; Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D.; Spokane, Wash.; and Portland, Ore., among other cities.
Amtrak offers discounts to groups, which are defined as at least 20 people traveling the same route on the same train together. “Book early,” is the advice from the group sales desk, as 20 seats together are increasingly hard to come by. Information can be found under “Traveling With Amtrak” at amtrak.com.
Large events welcoming attendees from different locations might be able to get a sponsorship from Amtrak. Such deals usually include a travel discount for attendees. A recent example was the Artscape festival held in Baltimore in July, where those who arrived by rail were eligible for a 50 percent companion discount.
Choosing the perfect rail destination depends on your closest starting point. The following looks at Amtrak’s corridor routes and the cities the trains service.
• NORTHEAST. The Downeaster travels from Boston to the bustling city of Portland (visitportland.com), with seven stops in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. The Portland station is a quick drive from downtown, which features a variety of accommodations such as the 97-room Portland Harbor Hotel.
Amtrak’s only high-speed train, the Acela, runs between Boston and Washington, D.C. Aside from the obvious draws (New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore), there are some other group-friendly stations along the way. For instance, in Connecticut, the New London stop is about 20 minutes from both of the state’s casinos, Mohegan Sun (mohegansun.com) and Foxwoods (foxwoods.com), and New Haven (visitnewhaven.com) offers facilities at Yale University (yale.edu) among its attractions. Closer to New York City, Stamford’s station is near several meeting hotels and the recreation found on Long Island Sound (visitfairfieldcountyct.com).
Moving south, the Acela stops in Iselin, N.J., a stone’s throw from the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center and the Edison Conference Center (njexpocenter.com). Next on the line is Princeton Junction (visitprinceton.org), where planners can choose from a few Ivy League enclaves at Princeton University and several top-notch properties, such as the 302-room Princeton Marriott Hotel & Conference Center at Forrestal, an IACC-approved facility.
• MIDWEST. Many of the trains that run out of Chicago take long-distance routes. Still, services like the Cardinal can be used for the relatively quick trip to Indianapolis (indy.org). The Hiawatha makes its way from Chicago to Milwaukee (milwaukee.org) and the Illinois Service hits all the major points in the state, including Springfield (visitspringfieldillinois.com), where Abraham Lincoln’s homestead awaits.
• WEST COAST. California has three corridor routes. The San Joaquins (Oakland-Sacramento-Bakersfield) gives groups the chance to dip into Fresno and Modesto or to visit Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento (sacramentocvb.org). Naturally, the Capitol Corridor (San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento) stops in the state capital, too, but also offers up Berkeley (visitberkeley.com) and the many facilities at the University of California campus there (berkeley.edu). The Pacific Surfrider (San Luis Obispo-Los Angeles-San Diego) tackles the Southern California route, stopping in Santa Barbara, Burbank and Anaheim, among many other cities.
Cruising the Northwest coast, the Amtrak Cascades travels from Springfield-Eugene, Ore., through Portland, Ore., Tacoma and Bellingham, Wash., before ending in Vancouver, British Columbia. The train chugs over the Columbia River Gorge and past Mount St. Helens, and includes a stop in Seattle (visitseattle.org). Many of the cities along the line arrange water sports and other outdoor recreation, along with offering prime meeting facilities.