Train travel’s best-kept secret — Amtrak’s Cardinal

Cardinal Train

The Cardinal is not a big train – just one sleeping car, three coaches, and a diner – and it runs only three days a week over a meandering southerly route between New York and Chicago. But, in between those frenetic metropolitan centers, the Cardinal passes through some of the loveliest rural and wilderness areas in the entire eastern United States.

I’m boarding the Cardinal in Baltimore on an early summer morning and settle into my cozy roomette for the overnight journey to Chicago. An hour after leaving Washington, we reach Manassas, where 150 years ago in the Civil War, young men from North and South fought over a strategic rail center at Bull Run.

Meals are family-style in Amtrak dining cars and at lunch a pleasant blonde woman is seated opposite me. Irene is from Wilmington, Delaware, and has decided to enjoy three days of pampering at the famous Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, still several hours up ahead.

This is her first long-distance train ride and she is gloating over her decision. “I had no idea it would be so pleasant,” she says.

Back in my roomette, I begin a crossword puzzle, but the Cardinal is in the Blue Ridge Mountains now and I become absorbed by what’s passing by outside: dignified 19th century homes, weathered by time and surrounded by rolling pastures with grazing horses.

Leaving Clifton Forge, the Cardinal begins a long, steady climb into the Allegheny Mountains, running on a track carved into rocky ridges on one side, picture-postcard valleys sloping away on the other.

Two hours later, we’ve crossed over the Appalachian Trail and are winding through narrow passes, rumbling in and out of a half-dozen tunnels, the longest taking us under the Eastern Continental Divide. From this point on – we’re in West Virginia now – all water flows westward toward the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The sun is low up ahead as we enter the New River Gorge – thickly wooded mountain walls on either side of the train and, just a few dozen yards off to our left, the river tumbles and foams through the gathering darkness. Every mile or so, we pass fishermen and backpackers who look up from their flickering campfires and wave.

At dinner, I’m seated with a husband and wife from Philadelphia on their way to visit a daughter in Portland, Oregon. They’ll be connecting with the Empire Builder tomorrow in Chicago for two more nights on the train. “My wife wasn’t sure about it,” says the man, “so we made a deal: I get the upper berth.”

My bed has been made up by the time I return to my roomette. I climb in and start a paperback thriller, but drift off to sleep just as the Cardinal comes to a stop at Huntington, West Virginia.

We’re in farm country when I awaken at dawn the next morning, a thick mist blanketing and softening the landscape. Soon, tidy farm houses set among broad fields recently planted with corn or soybeans give way to towns, then suburbs, and finally to the industrial outskirts of Indianapolis.

Later, over breakfast in the dining car, a conductor explains that we’re running more than an hour late because there was a medical emergency last night. Back in Huntington, as I was blissfully falling asleep, a passenger had complained of chest pains. He was examined by paramedics, then removed from the train and taken to a local hospital.

Just a few minutes outside of Lafayette, Indiana, the Cardinal slows and the clickety-clack of the wheels takes on a deeper, hollow sound as we roll onto a bridge over the Wabash River. Several dozen Canada geese are waddling around on the far bank.

There’s another short delay as the train slows for a Union Pacific crew working on the tracks, but the Chicago skyline is off in the distance now, and the Cardinal finally settles to a stop in Chicago’s Union Station. This is home for many of the passengers, but others among us are here to connect with one of several other Amtrak trains heading south and west.

Just inside the terminal, I say good-bye to the couple from Philadelphia, who will soon be on the Empire Builder heading for Seattle. “Well, we’re going to make our connection all right,” says the husband. “We’ve got Montana and the Rockies and two more nights aboard to look forward to.”

“Just remember,” his wife says, “you get the upper berth.”

* * *

Jim Loomis has logged more than 250,000 miles on Amtrak’s national rail system. A travel writer and blogger (, he’s the author of “All Aboard-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide”.

  • Susan Liberantowski

    This sounds wonderful.  A friend takes the train from Albany to Virginia on a regular basis.  She says it is so relaxing.  Right now, she is on a train to visit her sisters on the West Coast.  

  • Pat

    That was a lovely story. Never been on a train longer than 5 hours..

  • Wiseword

    Do you mean that this train goes from New York to Baltimore or Washington in order to get to Chicago? Isn’t that rather circuitous?

  • Jim Loomis

    Yes, the westbound Cardinal originates in New York, heading south along the Northeast Corridor and passing through Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington before swinging southwest over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It absolutely is a circuitous route but — for me, anyway — that’s part of the appeal of this train.

  • LFH

    The Cardinal is a wonderfully scenic route, even though it takes much longer than either the Lake Shore Limited or the Capitol Limited when traveling between the east coast and Chicago. However, roomettes are inevitably more expensive on the Cardinal than either of the other two trains. I can often find a roomette on the Capitol Limited for $100 to $150 for the night, and perhaps a bit more on the Lake Shore Limited. But roomettes on the Cardinal are almost always nearly $400. If Amtrak were to price the Cardinal more competitively I would take that route . . . for the time being I will stay with the Capitol Limited.

  • Frank

    Gasp!  Hours and hours and overnight on a train?  From the passengers I deal with, I highly doubt most of them would do this adventure.  They moan and groan at the slightest delay. 
    But, thank you.  It reminded me of my travels in Europe as a teen.  I would venture into other countries at a moment’s notice.  France, Italy, throughout Germany, Austria, etc.
    Watching the scenery was better then a Motion Picture Movie anyday or chatting with a stranger from another country was insightful.  A TRAIN says, slow down and enjoy the ride.

  • Jlawrence05

    It is a train that is perpetually 3-4 hours late into Chicago.

  • Jim Loomis

    I would say “sometimes” or even “often” rather than “perpetually” … but you’re right. The reason, of course, is that Amtrak trains run over track owned by the freight railroads whose dispatchers contol the Cardinal’s movements. If CSX dispatchers repeatedly put the Cardinal on sidings to allow their coal trains to pass, should we blame Amtrak? I think not. Besides, if someone is in a hurry to get to Chicago, why would he be on a train in the first place?

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  • Dan Peacock

    This is a great train. Hopefully, it will eventually run daily.

  • Norris

    Mr Loomis,
    I read your book ‘All Aboard”. As I read it I thought to myself, “This guy has rose colored glasses on when it comes to trains. He overlooks the bad and focuses on the good. But when it comes to flying, he overlooks the good and focuses on the bad”. But I was curious enough to step on an Amtrak train for a short ride. I took the Cardinal from Cincinnati to Charleston, WV. The train departed at 4:30 am and arrived around 9:30 am. I had a coach seat.
    Now I’m hooked! It was so fun. The seats are comfortable and spacious. Breakfast in the dining car was the highlight. I feel like I really bonded with so many strangers. When people fly, the attitude seems to be, “Just leave me alone”. On a train, people say “Where are you going today? Nice to meet you”.
    Now I daydream of a (one way) trip to the west in a sleeper car. I blame it on Jim Loomis.

  • Robert Fulton

    I’m on the Cardinal as I type this :) heading to Chicago to see a friend and spend a few days. I live around Huntington, WV. Always wanted to take a train, this is my first time. Just a few hours in and I can tell you it won’t be the last :)

  • Anna from Barcelona

    Hello from Barcelona, Spain. Can anybody tell me the best way to do Cardinal’s train? NY to Chicago or Chicago to NY. Thanks!!!!

  • [Private, sorry!]

    Part 1: If you’re going in the summer, it’s usually good either way, unless the westbound is delayed. In the winter, chicago to new york is better because the *best* river gorge comes in the morning, when the sun is up. From NY to Chicago, it may well be dark by the time the train gets to the scenic part (more so if it’s late), though you can probably see some mountains though.

    Part 2: This train runs only 3 days a week, departing Chicago on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and departing NYC on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, and it only has 1 sleeper car unlike most other trains, making the sleepers more expensive than on other trains (though they’re all expensive anyway). expect one way with roomette, $600 – $700 (€550-600) for one person.

  • [Private, sorry!]

    Visit for more details.

  • Anna

    Hello from Barcelona, Spain. Can anybody tell me the best way to do Cardinal’s train? NY to Chicago or Chicago to NY. Thanks!!!!

  • Carlos Arango

    Ohhh, the good old days. Took tha Cardinal with my 86 year old dad and we didn’t enjoyed it. The hardware is great but the service is terrible…. and we couldn’t visit the “great dome car” cause it was sold for a private event. My suggestion, if you want to experience a scenic train ride book on the California Zephir with its doubledecker trains. Forget the Cardinal!

  • Lisa Simeone

    God bless Amtrak! I took the Capitol Limited from Baltimore to Chicago, then the fabled Southwest Chief from Chicago to Santa Fe, for a business trip last summer. Same for the return home. What a wonderful experience.

    I loved the scenery, the relaxing ride, the conversations in the Dining Car, the beautiful Viewing Car, and the wonderful Amtrak staff. And I loved my roomette!

    Last March I took a private sleeper to Florida and back. What a civilized way to travel. And no TSA goons!

  • Lisa Simeone

    Exactly. People always blame Amtrak when it’s not their fault; it’s CSX causing the delays. On a meta-level, it’s the fault of the priorities of this country. Public transportation has been shat upon for decades. Passenger rail is especially considered a poor relation. If we had proper infrastructure, like other civilized countries do, train travel would be much better than it is, and Amtrak wouldn’t be held hostage by freight.

  • Joe Krause

    In my opinion, the Cardinal runs the most scenic route between Chicago and the East Coast.
    By originating and finishing also in New York, it provides Connectivity for people from southern Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and western Virginia to the East Coast. The Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited (as good as those trains are on time between Chicago and New York) cannot provide that service. It is true that Amtrak has problems with CSX coal trains and the Buckingham Branch Railroad, but the scenery along the Kanawha River, the New River (and gorge), and even the Ohio River make up for apparent slow-running.
    Train travel really is for people who can tolerate (a) each other (b) realistic reasons for delays and (c) the time on the planet we have each been dealt. It may not be that way for some folks, so they might as well just take other means of “conveyance” and forget about the true rewards of travel. Train travel, like life, epitomized: “it’s not the destination, but the journey” that makes it all worthwhile.