30 Apr

While passenger rail travel grew in popularity from its inception in the 1800s, celebrating its golden age in the 12920s and 1940s, by the 1960s, the service was in serious decline. 

So strong was the growing competition from road and air operators that several railroad providers were virtually on the brink of terminating their passenger services altogether in favour of more lucrative rail freight contracts to avoid bankruptcy. 

The final straw was the loss of the contract to transport the U.S. Mail in 1967

Something drastic needed to be done before this vital transport artery was taken away from those reliant on the service in order to reach the more remote regions of this vast continent. 

Ultimately it took the U.S Congress’ intervention to save the service when they passed the Rail Passenger Services Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in October 1970

The Act effectively established a for profit corporation which was partially funded by the U.S. taxpayer, and which was tasked with operating and maintaining the tracks and the rolling stock. This entity was called the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC), but became known under its more familiar operating name, Amtrak

The Rail Passenger Services Act made it possible for the major railroad providers to have their passenger services taken over by Amtrak, provided that they made it possible for the new company to utilise their tracks and rolling stock. Effectively, it allowed these companies to concentrate entirely expanding their own freight services without the burden of also managing the rail passenger use as well. 

Not every railroad provider was convinced, with 6 of the total 26 companies opting not to join the service when it came into being in 1971. However, the Rail Passengers Services Act had made provisions for this, stating that any companies that did not opt into the Amtrak service would be legally bound to provide and maintain a passenger service across their network until at least 1977 at which point only an official approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission would allow them to terminate this service. 

Amtrak began its service on 1st May 1971 with 21 routes serving 43 States. Most of these services remained largely unchanged from those run by their previous providers only a day earlier. Others were pieced together from services runs by multiple smaller railroad operators. Many services either retained or found their names altered slightly from the original to serve the new Amtrak network. Most tracks continued to be owned by freight companies, their use leased to Amtrak for a fee to maintain its passengers rail service.

While most services operated on a once daily basis, due to the vast distances between the point of origin and the last stop, others were forced to run on a tri-weekly basis. With time, shorter distance journeys were added to the service allowing for more than one train to service the distance between two cities, such as the “Acela” between Boston and Washington D.C. and the “Pacific Surfliner” between San Luis Obispo just north of Los Angeles and San Diego

With its rolling stock – both passenger cars and locomotives – having undergone steady modernisation in the last 50 years, the service had begun making a profit for the first time following the start of the last decade. The advent of Covid-19 however was a serious blow to the service, and it will take Amtrak several more years until it gets back to pre-Pandemic levels.  

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