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Passenger train travel has long been lacking in the American South. While our country has grown and changed, our train system has not. Accessible, improved rail travel has many perks: cleaner air, less traffic, and positive local and regional economic benefits for the folks who live, work, and play in the areas of service. According to Amtrak, people spend more than 80 hours a year in traffic in some cities — that’s two weeks of vacation down the drain!

But still, many of the country’s biggest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas lack adequate rail service or have none at all. While the Northeast Corridor has a robust schedule and intricate train routes, big Southern cities like Houston and Atlanta have lackluster service, while other cities like Nashville and Louisville don’t have Amtrak service at all.

But here’s the good news: This could begin to change soon.

An Amtrak train in Washington DC

Amtrak commuter trains reach speeds up to 125 mph, Amtrak Regional trains go 110 or 125 mph, and the Acela Express trains can reach 150 mph. This makes Amtrak the fastest railroad in the Americas and among the ten fastest in the world. A train crosses the 14th Street Bridge in Washington D.C., a pivotal city for the future of train travel. Image: Amtrak

A map of Amtrak's new Southern Routes

The ambitious proposed plan for Amtrak’s new and improved service throughout the Southeast | Image: Amtrak

WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR RAIL?

The President’s recent signing of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $66 billion for rail: the most significant investment in Amtrak and infrastructure since Amtrak was founded 50 years ago. This coincides beautifully with Amtrak’s ambitious 15-year plan called Amtrak Connects Us. Their plan is to “connect up to 160 communities throughout the United States by building new or improved rail corridors in more than 25 states.”

This would include updates to the largely outdated fleet of trains currently in use, state-supported routes, long-distance services, more sustainable trains, elevated amenities, and modernized stations. While many people are excited about the routes outlined above, some say it lacks some key connections. A route from Nashville to Louisville, for example, would connect the Northwest to the Southeast. Nashville to Memphis would connect the Midwest to the Southeast.

CURRENT AMTRAK ROUTES IN THE SOUTH

Below is an aminated video promoting Amtrak’s current train routes in the South.

  • Auto Train: The famous Auto Train began operations in 1971, Amtrak revived the service in 1983, and it still runs today between Lorton, VA (Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, FL (Orlando). Bring your car, van, motorcycle, SUV, small boat, or jet ski on a nonstop trip that saves you 900 miles in a car.
  • Carolinian/Piedmont: New York – Richmond – Raleigh – Charlotte
  • Silver Service/Palmetto: New York -Washington, DC – Charleston – Savannah – Jacksonville – Orlando – Tampa / Miami
  • City of New Orleans: Chicago – Memphis – New Orleans
  • Sunset Limited: New Orleans – San Antonio – Tucson – Phoenix – Los Angeles
  • Crescent: New York – Atlanta – New Orleans

DAY TRIP PASSENGER TRAINS IN THE SOUTH

While Amtrak is not the only passenger train company in the country, it is our only option for city-to-city, long-distance travel. If a scenic trip with dinner, music, or a themed experience is more your speed, the South has a few options for you.

  • The Arkansas & Missouri Railroad is one of the few commercial lines left in the United States that operates both freight and passenger service. You can travel through the beautiful Ozarks in refurbished antique passenger or parlor coaches. The route is 150 miles from Monett, MI, to Fort Smith, AR, and the headquarters are in Springdale, AR.
  • The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad starts in Bryson City, NC, near Great Smoky National Park. It offers a multitude of culinary options and a variety of classes along its route through Western North Carolina.
  • The Tennessee Central Railway Museum is based in Nashville and hosts long excursions up to 180 miles round-trip. Book a wine excursion to DelMonaco Winery, a murder mystery dinner night, or even a Blues and Brews trip!
  • The Austin Steam Train, based in Cedar Park, TX, near Austin, operates through the beloved Texas Hill Country using tracks once owned by the Southern Pacific.
Two passengers toasting on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad train

Cheers to The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Uncorked ride: a first-class, all-adult trip with wine pairings and food! Image: Facebook

THE UPSIDES OF TRAIN TRAVEL

Train travel can be fast, fun, and effortless. You can see a lot, work on board, and move around easier than you can on a plane or in a car. It’s also a lot more environmentally friendly than auto and air travel. According to a recent sustainability announcement, Amtrak emits up to 83% fewer greenhouse gases per passenger than driving and up to 72% fewer than flying. From 2010 to 2019, Amtrak reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, and it pledges to reduce 40% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by fully transitioning all electricity to carbon-free sources. As a part of this vision, the latest generation of Charger locomotives being delivered now will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions compared to the legacy fleet they are replacing.

“You and your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas on board a high-speed train,” the President remarked on the American Jobs Plan, which calls for an eight-year investment blitz with $80 billion targeted for upgrading and expanding intercity rail, and $85 billion to modernize mass transit. In his applause for the new plan, Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, says, “President Biden’s plan would revolutionize the way Americans travel, finally launching U.S. passengers into the 21st century.” Here’s hoping these lofty goals can stay on track so that we might board a train to a new city in the near future.

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