Amtrak, America's national passenger-rail service, was created by Congress in 1970 and now operates trains on a 21,000-mile network, serving 500 destinations in 46 states.

If you're planning a long trip, the "fare finder'' on Amtrak's homepage, www.amtrak.com, makes it easy, but it can still take time, given the variety of possible connections and the fact that not every long-distance train runs every day or makes the same number of stops. For help, call 1-800-872-7245.

My Amtrak trip involved taking three trains from St. Paul to Chicago to New Orleans to El Paso. As of mid-December this year, adult coach fare for the same three-segment trip totals $325, according to the fare finder. Adding two nights in a sleeping-car roomette, an upgrade that also includes all meals in the dining car, will cost an additional $443.

Amtrak offers a variety of discounts on fares (students, seniors, military, AAA, among others) and several money-saving passes, including the two-nation North American Rail Pass: Adult coach fare for a month's travel around the United States and Canada is $999 in peak season, $709 off-peak.

All three of the trains I rode left precisely on time. All three came in late. And for all three, the reason was the same: freights. Amtrak doesn't own the rails on its Western routes, the way it does on its fast East Coast commuter routes. In the West, it pays freight lines to have its passenger trains dispatched over their tracks. Under the federal law that created the national rail service in 1970, passenger trains have priority. But in practice, freights rule.

CATHERINE WATSON