Starting in 1830 and ending in the near future, you guide your North American railroad empire by building tracks, buying locomotives and cards that can be played against your opponents.
Unlike similar games such as Railroad Tycoon, you do not lay the tracks yourself. Instead you choose a city to start from, and then city to which you want your track to go and the game lays the track for you. You do however have the choice of a cheap track (less bridges, tunnels etc.) or a more expensive track (a more direct route from A to B).
A distinctive feature in Rails Across America is that you can file for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy when broke instead of it being game over when your bank account goes into red (unless this option is disabled in the game options). In this state your control of your empire is limited, however you do not need to pay loans, you have less maintenance costs to pay etc and, when used skilfully, you can come back stronger than ever from a Chapter 11.
Another distinctive feature is the ability to gain and use influence cards. They work similar to a family board game. They are used to gain influence (influence is basically how the game measures your high score and who is winning) or money by for example having radio campaigns or bribe politicians. These also have a small chance of back firing in which case you loose influence points instead.