Aboard the Alaska Railroad // A family rides the Alaska Railroad(© Alaska Railroad Corporation)

Aboard the Alaska Railroad, which transports passengers from Seward to Fairbanks through incredibly breathtaking (and rugged) terrain.

What is it about trains? What boy or girl hasn't wished they were a headlight on a northbound train? In an era when the virtual world envelops us like a hot-air balloon excursion gone horribly wrong, we crave the rails and the opportunities to travel at a crawl far out of cell-phone range, cosseted in the knowledge that we're traveling from point A to point B. Trains offer us more than respite from the digital superhighway, they convey us to places like British Columbia's Pyramid Falls, inaccessible by road or trail, carry us over 39 different trestles on the Copper Canyon railroad while climbing to 8,000 feet and provide passage back two centuries when the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railroad first shined its light through the cool Colorado rain.

Far from disappearing into the rail yards of yesteryear, trains serve a pragmatic purpose. They're an opportunity to let someone else drive, as I often do, from Seattle to Portland, to observe the stunning coastline without watching the road, or to surmount the vast and varied landscape of the world's second largest country from Toronto to Vancouver. Train travel continues to rise in North America as travelers discover the virtue in trading velocity for well-measured experience.

Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad, running between Seward and Fairbanks, offers stunning vistas. // Woman surveys the scenic view from the Alaska Railroad.(© Alaska Railroad Corporation)

The Alaska Railroad, running between Seward and Fairbanks, offers passengers a range of stunning vistas.

Trains take us places we would normally never go, climbing the sides of mountains, cutting through passes, disappearing into tunnels. Nowhere is this more true than in Alaska, where the Alaska Railroad carries passengers from Seward to Fairbanks through some of the most breathtaking (and rugged) landscape including the Hurricane Gulch bridge, which spans 918 feet and soars almost 300 feet above the Chulitna River. The 12-hour trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks provides more wildlife viewing opportunities than most people encounter in a lifetime, as well as several vistas of Denali (Mount McKinley), our continent's tallest peak.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight

Rolling through central California, Amtrak's Coast Starlight arouses thoughts of movie adventure. It carried about 500,000 passengers last year. // Rolling through central California, Amtrak's Coast Starlight arouses thoughts of movie adventure. It carried about 500,000 passengers last year.(Courtesy of Amtrak)

Rolling through central California, Amtrak's Coast Starlight arouses thoughts of movie adventure. It carried about 500,000 passengers last year.

In a world of bullet trains, Amtrak remains an anachronistic, if determined, national railway. Nowhere do the tubular silver cars rumble along more nostalgically then through the orchards of central California, where passengers feel they are part of a John Huston movie, waiting for a bandage-nosed Jack Nicholson to stride into the dining car. The Coast Starlight's tracks were laid when trains still ruled the routes, providing miles of ocean vista during the 33-hour trip from Seattle to Los Angeles. The train, which hosted almost 500,000 passengers last year, is the only train on the Amtrak route to feature a first class car, complete with library, wine tastings and, given the southerly destination, a movie theater. Those looking for even more Hollywood endings in Southern California should head to Ventura and take the Fillmore and Western Railway, a movie star in its own right.