Happy 50th Birthday Amtrak!
Note, this article is a very high level overview of some of the major milestones and events that lead to Amtrak, its history, and current situation. It is not meant to be all inclusive.
Fifty years ago, some of the most storied and revered passenger trains came to their final stop as Amtrak took over most of the nation’s intercity passenger service from private railroad companies. Some of the trains making their final runs were the renowned Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles, Illinois Central’s Panama Limited, and Burlington Northern’s (formerly Northern Pacific) North Coast Limited. Many less notable trains that crisscrossed the country ended their runs too, such as Burlington Northern’s daytime local train between Chicago and Omaha.
Some famous trains would carry on under Amtrak, such as Penn Central’s (formerly Pennsylvania Railroad) Broadway Limited, and Santa Fe’s SuperChief/El Capitan.
How did Amtrak come to be?
With noble post World War II intentions, railroads re-equipped their passenger trains, mostly main line passenger runs, with the best equipment money could buy. Some of this equipment was custom built and very unique for specific trains. Cars such as the French Quarter Lounge on Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited, dome dining cars on Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, and the Ranch Car on Great Northern’s Empire Builder are just a few of these unique cars that come to mind.
But, it was not to last. The Federal Government after World War II expanded on a massive transportation “equity” program to build out highways and airways, for “the public good.” Between 1958, shortly after the creation of the Interstate Highway Act and the creation of Amtrak in 1971, the federal government spent more than $50B to build, maintain and improve highways. During this same period, the federal government subsidized intercity bus operators with $50M.
Between 1947 and the creation of Amtrak, the federal government spent $11.3B on airports and airways, including $1B in direct cash subsidies to airlines. None of this money was recovered in user fees.
Railroads could not compete in this environment. Ridership declined as travelers left passenger trains for airways and highways. Facing reduced demand, many passenger trains were discontinued, and some railroad companies reduced service standards. It was a vicious cycle. By the late 1960’s, the cash losses all railroads faced from running passenger trains was horrific. They all wanted relief from these losses, quickly.
Beginning in the late 1960’s congressional hearings were held, legislation introduced, and a reluctant President Nixon signed the Railpax law in Oct 1970. Amtrak assumed operation on May 1, 1971, to save what was left of passenger trains in the United States. The era of the beautiful custom built streamliner was over.
The Amtrak era – ups and downs
On April 30, 1971 individual railroads operated 53,000 miles of route structure with 547 passenger trains. Amtrak introduced a skeletal route structure of 23,000 miles with 219 trains, all supported with meagre startup funding. The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo significantly boosted Amtrak’s outlook, when ridership during the Embargo grew. Congress began to invest in Amtrak. New locomotives were ordered, along with new Amfleet and Superliner cars for corridor and long distance trains. New routes were established, such as the Floridian, between Chicago and Miami.
Then in October 1979 the Carter Administration, looking to reduce US budget deficits, cut Amtrak by 40% and several trains. One of the discontinued trains was the North Coast Hiawatha through Minnesota to Seattle and Chicago. In the early 1980’s then President Ronald Reagan sought to kill Amtrak entirely. If it weren’t for the forceful leadership of Amtrak’s Graham Claytor, the future could have been bleak.
Claytor turned things around. New corridor services began to be added in Michigan, Wisconsin, and California in the early to mid 1980’s. Minnesota, which re-established service from the Twin Cities to Duluth in 1975 as the Arrowhead, expanded that service to Chicago, and renamed it the North Star in the early 1980’s. New long distance trains were added such as the Pioneer and Desert Wind. Dining car service which was drastically cut in the early 1980’s began to be restored later in the decade. Dining car chef’s were schooled at the Culinary Institute of America, and encouraged to try out regional specialties on their individual runs, such as on the City of New Orleans.
By 1994 Amtrak was again in crisis, facing a $200M cash shortfall and Congress was rumored to pull the plug. Amtrak President Thomas Downs reorganized the company along “line operations” to maximize revenue and minimize costs. Amtrak introduced new pricing structures and passenger amenities such as wine and cheese tasting. The Pacific Parlor Car was added on the Coast Starlight. These initiatives did encourage ridership and revenue. New passenger equipment came online in the later 1990’s, mainly Viewliner sleepers for long distance eastern trains. More state corridor services and frequencies were added and system ridership continued to grow.
In the 2000’s the first new high speed trainsets built in over 40 years , the Acela, were introduced on the Northeast Corridor and reserved seating was implemented for Northeast Corridor regional trains. The Surface Transportation Act, known as the Fast Act which authorizes Amtrak, had a major re-write in 2008 which stipulated that corridor services under 750 miles had to be paid for entirely by the states(s) served in these corridors. It opened a new door for states to work directly with Amtrak and establish new services.
Amtrak and passenger rail, where are we now?
In 2019, even with passenger amenity reductions, station agent cuts systemwide, and new reservation restrictions initiated by Amtrak President Richard Anderson, ridership grew to its highest level ever and the company said it was on track to break even financially in 2020 on the then current trajectory.
The pandemic changed all of that, and Amtrak sought supplemental funding just to stay alive. Throughout its history, however, Amtrak has been constrained by an annual appropriation process by Congress, meaning that Amtrak must be funded every year. This annual appropriation process makes it extremely difficult to conduct long term planning, invest in equipment, and infrastructure. Congressional commitment and funding has ebbed and flowed over the past five decades, which hasn’t helped Amtrak. Highways and airways have dedicated funding through taxes, and do not face this annual cycle.
The dialogue may be changing, however. For the first time in many years there seems to be more awareness on all sides, Congress, States, and the general public, of the benefits that passenger rail offers. President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for an unprecedented boost in federal aid to the nation’s passenger rail system, seeking to address Amtrak’s repair backlog, extend service to more cities and modernize the network in the Northeast Corridor. The American Jobs Plan calls for $80 billion for rail. Following Biden’s announcement of a $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan, Amtrak released plans for updated service throughout the U.S. The plan calls on creating 30 new routes, adding more trips on 20 existing routes, and extending service to 160 new communities.
And, new legislation was introduced to break Amtrak’s annual appropriation cycle. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) introduced the Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund Act, which would provide permanent funding for Amtrak. The bicameral legislation would create a dedicated funding stream to help Amtrak invest in major improvement projects, increase passenger rail's efficiency and provide safer and more reliable service, the lawmakers said in a press release.
If any of this new legislation passes Congress, or even parts of it, this could be a real game changer for Amtrak and put it on truly solid footing for the first time ever. There seems to be more support in Congress than ever for a national rail passenger network, and to expand it.
Progress does continue with state supported corridor services. Michigan and Illinois are upgrading railroad lines to enable higher speed running in those states (110 mph). North Carolina and Wisconsin are adding frequencies to existing corridors, among many other states. In Minnesota, new legislation has been introduced to fund the proposed 2nd Train frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago, service to Duluth, and even the MnDOT State Rail Passenger Plan. All Aboard Minnesota is working hard to build coalitions among cities, legislators, and the public to pass this legislation.
There are new passenger rail models emerging also. New high speed rail lines in California, and Texas are being built through new private-public models outside of Amtrak. Brightline, a private railroad passenger operator, is expanding its Florida services and building a new line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Closer to home, the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition is building a new public – private entity to restore rail service between Eau Claire, WI and the Twin Cities, completely outside of Amtrak.
For the first time in many decades, passenger rail service could re-emerge as a true player in our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Only time will tell. Amtrak will certainly be involved and we wish it many more birthdays!