Northwest Travel Planning
Transportation - Train

The two national, intercity, passenger rail services in the Pacific Northwest are VIA Rail Canada, and Amtrak in the US. Of special interest to those traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest is the "North America Rail Pass", offered jointly by Amtrak and VIA since 1998. The pass allows 30 consecutive days travel across the US and Canada. You might also want to investigate the "Canrailpass" and the "Explore America Fares" for each side of the border. For those familiar with the "Eurailpass" in Europe, the North American rail passes do not offer the same level of flexibility and convenience.


amtraksm.jpg (7600 bytes)Amtrak, otherwise known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation of the United States, is the only intercity passenger rail service in the US. It has over 500 destinations throughout the United States. Three of their rail routes are of interest to the traveler in the Pacific Northwest: Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, and Cascades. There are additional connecting services associated with each route, for example to Vancouver, British Columbia, and to Boise, Idaho

  • The Empire Builder is an east-west route between Chicago, Illinois and Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon. The route splits at Spokane, Washington. The Empire Builder passes close by Glacier National Park, and to get to the west coast must travel over both the Rockies, at Marias Pass, and the Cascades Mountains. The latter includes the seven-mile Cascade Tunnel. The Portland route travels in part along the shores of the Columbia River. This route has a daily service.
  • Steve Grande, train lover and author of has written travelogues about his journeys on the Empire builder. Route travelogues and reviews by TrainWeb visitors.
  •  The Coast Starlight is a north-south route between San Diego, California and Seattle, Washington. This route follows the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon, traveling through 22 tunnels and many hairpin bends.
  • Steve Grande, train lover and author of has written travelogues about his journeys on the Coast Starlight. More travelogues and reviews.
  • The Cascades, launched in late 1998, is a north-south route between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene-Springfield, Oregon. It is designed to take in the major cities of the Pacific Northwest including Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. It follows the same route along the Cascade Mountains as the Washington-Oregon section of the Coast Starlight. This route has daily services between Seattle and Vancouver, and Seattle and Portland aboard the new, much-touted, European-style, Talgo-brand trains.
  • Route travelogues and reviews by TrainWeb visitors.

Tickets can be purchased on board some trains, but reservations are required by some Amtrak services, including the Cascades and Empire Builder. For reservations, tickets, fare and schedule information contact them by phone on 1-800-USA-RAIL, or in person at an Amtrak ticket offices, or through travel agencies, or consult Amtrak's web site (below). Lower fares might be available if you are prepared to avoid the peak period of June, July and August, as well as weekends and holidays. Inquire also about seasonal travel specials.

If you want to make train travel your mode for exploring the USA side of the Pacific Northwest, investigate Amtrak's Explore America Fares, or the "USA Rail Pass" for international visitors.  These do allow for numerous stopovers, but with restrictions on number of stops, time frames, and repeating route segments.

Amtrak Home Page
To find train schedules, a convenient data base lets you enter your "from" and "to" locations and it returns your schedule. The trick is to first look up the station codes for your locations in order to enter them. Clicking on the station code also yields a page giving an extensive description of the station and directions for getting there. For fare information you are required to register for free.

In addition to straightforward train travel, Amtrak also offers complete vacation packages that include hotels and car rentals. Vacation spots include Glacier National Park in Montana, Crater Lake in Oregon, Seattle in Washington, Whistler or Vancouver in BC. Call 1-800-321-8684.

Amtrak is a public corporation, partly funded by federal and state governments. However a deadline set by Congress for 2002 want to see it become self-sufficient. To this end, Amtrak also carries cargo, about 80 percent of which is US mail.

VIA Rail Canada

Three of their overland routes are of interest to the traveler in the Pacific Northwest: Western Transcontinental, Jasper-Prince Rupert, Victoria-Courtenay.

  • The Western Transcontinental is an east-west route running between Toronto, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The train is known as the "Canadian" and passes close by Jasper National Park, before passing over the Rockies to the coast.

  • The Jasper-Prince Rupert is a northwest-southeasterly route between the two end-stations of its name. The train is known as the "Skeena" and crosses Yellowhead pass in the Rockies, travels through the inner plain of British Columbia and Bulkley Valley, then follows the Skeena river valley to the shores of the Pacific.

  • The Victoria-Courtenay is a north-south route on Vancouver Island, between the two end-stations of its name. The train is known as the "Malahat" and the route takes in the southern west coast of the island.

viasm.jpg (10628 bytes) Reservations are necessary. For fares, schedules, reservations and tickets contact VIA by phone at 1-888-VIA-RAIL, see the VIA Rail Canada web site, or consult a travel agent. In addition to straightforward train travel, VIA partners with other services, such as outfitters, to facilitate getting into the great outdoors. See the "Adventures" section of their web site.

If you want to make train travel your mode for exploring the Canadian side of the Pacific Northwest, investigate the "Canrailpass". If you're only travelling within one corridor it'll be hard to make the pass pay for itself. The pass is valid only on VIA Rail, not on any regional railways. You can travel across the country on a Canrailpass, but remember, the Western Transcontinental train only runs three times a week, so if you get off, you'll have to wait two days for the next train. Also, the popular long distance trains tend to be full, and only a limited number of Canrailpass users are allowed on a train, so you need to reserve in advance for each trip. The pass is sold both inside and outside Canada.

More links

Live Steaming in the Pacific Northwest
A photographic tour of live steam layouts in British Columbia, Oregon and Washington by Dan Morris. Some of the mentioned steam train rides are available to the general public.

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