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Railroads, tours and treks
THOUGH fiercely buffeted by political crosswinds in 2005, Amtrak apparently has survived the political pressure that culminated with the firing of the company's president. As of now, the existing network will continue for 2006.
On the plus side, the high-speed Acela trains in the Northeast are back after a service suspension, the Seattle/Portland-Chicago Empire Builder has refurbished equipment and new amenities, and the company carried the most riders ever in 2005.
In contrast to America's ambivalence about rail travel, much of the rest of the industrialized world — including, for the first time, Russia and China — presses on with plans for high-speed trains. Europe has many such services, and France, Italy and Spain are adding more.
The best news in North America is that passenger trains will roll once again on BC Rail's scenic routes in British Columbia. The Whistler Mountaineer will begin service on the three-hour run between North Vancouver and Whistler, and two-day trips over the Fraser Discovery Route from Whistler to Jasper have been added to the existing Rocky Mountaineer service, which features Gold Leaf dome cars.
On the bad news side of the ledger, Montana Rockies Rail Tours, which suspended operation of its Montana Daylight train in 2005 with hopes of restarting it, has shut down.
Here are contacts for selected trains around the world. Note that some numbers are for U.S.-based agents that have booking contracts with the lines, but most trains can be reserved by any travel agent.
Great Southern Railway: Operates Australia's Indian Pacific, the Ghan (which now runs all the way to Darwin on the north coast) and the Overland. ATS Tours, (800) 423-2880. Or Rail Australia, 011-61-8-8213-4592, http://www.gsr.com.au .
Japan Rail: Runs 26,000 daily trains, including the high-speed Shinkansen. Japan Travel Bureau, (310) 406-3200, http://www.jtbusa.comor http://www.japanrail.com .
Queensland Rail: The Sunlander (including elevated Queenslander Class) and Outback services in Australia, 011-61-7-32351133, http://www.traveltrain.com.au .
Rail Europe: Source of all European (including British) rail passes, schedules and tickets. (888) 382-7245, http://www.raileurope.com .
Alaska Railroad: The Denali Star between Fairbanks and Anchorage by way of Denali National Park now offers luxury GoldStar Service in dome cars. (800) 544-0552, http://www.alaskarailroad.com .
Amtrak: Our national passenger-rail operator soldiers on. (800) 872-7245, http://www.amtrak.com .
VIA Rail Canada: Silver & Blue Class aboard the scenic transcontinental Canadian between Vancouver and Toronto is one of the world's great rail experiences. (888) 842-7245, http://www.viarail.ca .
Luxury and cruise trains
Al Andalus Express: Vintage luxury train touring southern Spain, 011-34-917-888-315, http://www.alandalusexpreso.com . EC Tours, (800) 388-0877, http://www.ectours.com .
American Orient Express: Eight itineraries: "American Southwest," a three-night trip between L.A. and Albuquerque, is new. (800) 320-4206, http://www.americanorientexpress.com .
Blue Train: Southern Africa's classic luxury train, 011-72-334-8459, http://www.bluetrain.co.za ; Creative Safaris, (800) 768-9020, http://www.creativesafaris.com .
Palace on Wheels: Luxury train tour in India, (888) 463-4299.
Rocky Mountaineer (Canada): Two-day tours between Vancouver and Jasper, Vancouver and Banff or Calgary, and Whistler and Jasper, plus a short Vancouver-Whistler run. (800) 665-7245, http://www.rockymountaineer.com .
Rovos Rail: Luxury rail tours in South Africa with historic coaches; for bookings, 011-27-12-315-8242, http://www.rovos.com ; for information, call Warren Green of Kartagener Associates, (800) 524-7979.
Royal Canadian Pacific: Elegant excursions in the Canadian West. (877) 665-3044, http://www.royalcanadianpacific.com .
Royal Scotsman: Ultra-posh rail tours in Britain, part of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express operation. (800) 922-8625, http://www.royalscotsman.com .
Sierra Madre Express: Train tours to Mexico's Copper Canyon. (800) 666-0346, http://www.sierramadreexpress.com .
Venice Simplon-OrientExpress: Besides its signature London-Paris-Venice service, which also occasionally ranges to Istanbul and elsewhere, the company's trains include the Eastern & Oriental Express through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore; the Royal Scotsman; two-day excursion trains through Britain; and Perurail, which features the Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu. (866) 674-3689, http://www.orient-express.com .
Algoma Central Railway: Operates Agawa Canyon Tour Train in northern Ontario, Canada. (800) 242-9287, http://www.agawacanyontourtrain.com .
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: Spectacular steam-powered, narrow-gauge railway in Colorado and New Mexico. (888) 286-2737, http://www.cumbrestoltec.com .
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: A splendid ride behind steam through Colorado's Animas Canyon. (877) 872-4607, http://www.durangotrain.com .
Grand Canyon Railway: From Williams, Ariz., historic train to the South Rim, steam-powered in summer. (800) 843-8724, http://www.thetrain.com .
Napa Valley Wine Train: The best of the "dinner trains." (800) 427-4124, http://www.winetrain.com .
White Pass & Yukon Route: Scenic excursions from Skagway, Alaska. (800) 343-7373, http://www.wpyr.com .
Rail tour operators
Rail Travel Center: Rail tours in North America and abroad. (800) 458-5394, http://www.railtravelcenter.com .
Society of International Railway Travelers: Rail tours worldwide, newsletter. (800) 478-4881, http://www.irtsociety.com .
Trains Unlimited, Tours: Rail tours in the U. S. and abroad. (800) 359-4870, http://www.trainsunlimitedtours.com .
Private railway cars
American Assn. of Private Railway Car Owners: The source for chartering a private rail car. (800) 856-6876 or (202) 547-5696, http://www.aaprco.com .
National Assn. of Railroad Passengers: Informative newsletter and a chance to be counted as a rail supporter. (202) 408-8362, http://www.narprail.org .
Thomas Cook Publishing: Its European Timetable and Overseas Timetable (for the rest of the world) are invaluable. www.thomascooktimetables.com.