50 Years of Amtrak

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue could accurately describe May 1, 1971, Amtrak Day One.

On that date the entire US long-distance passenger network became nationalized.  The only really “new” element on that date was the partially-completed organizational structure to manage that new unwieldy public entity. The “old” and “borrowed” distinctions were the fleet of vintage locomotives and passenger cars that suffered from differed maintenance Amtrak acquired or borrowed from the railroads. The “blue” were mostly passenger train aficionados that lamented the demise of the luxury of the postwar trains that once linked the nation and the front line Amtrak managers that had to try their best to provide reliable service with that motley fleet of vintage locomotives and outdated passenger car roster within an untested organization.

Red and silver Amtrak train on railroad tracks.

Amtrak, whose seldom-used formal name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, was the knee-jerk reaction of the Administration of President Richard Nixon to address 25 years of neglected transportation policy and the crisis private carrier’s faced by the public mandate to perpetuate money-losing passenger service. Crisis is the catalyst for change and certainly the Penn Central bankruptcy in June of 1970 forced the Nixon Administration to tepidly get involved.

But the story begins much earlier.

Red and silver Amtrak train on railroad bridge.

US railroads looked to the post-war economy as new frontier for new and exciting long-distance passenger trains. Indeed the period from 1946 through 1956 fielded many of the signature trains that defined the high-water mark of US passenger service including the 20th Century Limited, The Super Chief, The Empire Builder, the North Coast Limited and the California Zephyr. But the nation was heading in another direction.

Although our railroads provided heroic service during the war years, many former servicemen recalled the old, non-air-conditioned equipment of the troop trains and being covered by a thick blanket of cinders after overnight travel. That sector had no fond memories of train travel. So most American families embraced the freedom and flexibility of the private automobile.

The “good road movement” that had actively expanded in the 1920s and 1930s gained speed with the promise of superhighways (inspired by the autobahn in Germany). Air travel advanced and literally took off with jet planes of the 1950s that sped passengers quickly and safely to more exotic destinations. As such the US supported those new directions while passenger train technology stopped.

Blue, red and silver Amtrak train on railroad tracks.

Railroads faced declining passenger train ridership that accelerated in the period from 1952 through 1962 and “train off” petitions flooded the Interstate Commerce Commission. Still oppressive regulation gave the ICC the power to force railroads to continue providing passenger service at a loss. A revival of sorts surfaced in the mid-1960s when overcrowded roadways in the east prompted a movement to replicate the high-speed trains of Europe and Japan in selected US high-density corridors.  The pacesetting Metroliner, started under PRR management but finally inaugurated under Penn Central was an outgrowth of that interest.

Before any further intelligent discussion or application of that concept could develop crisis loomed. Private carriers became aggressive about the need to discontinue passenger service. The PC bankruptcy revealed how staggering its passenger losses were and it became quickly apparent that if any semblance of long-distance passenger service was to survive, the government would have to intervene.

Blue and silver Amtrak train on railroad tracks.

The journey to solution was difficult.

Amtrak’s creators and early Directors were a curious mix of big-spending public servants and seasoned railroad men that thought Amtrak should manage the orderly phasing-out of long-distance passenger service. Included in that mix was the competent but outspoken BN Chairman Louis W. Menk whose famous quote was “You couldn’t then, can’t now, won’t ever be able to make money on passenger service”.

Still Amtrak has survived but with some ups and downs that reflect what remains a tentative, balanced transportation policy and the political drama of public funding. New equipment was gradually introduced and service along key corridors shows signs of improvement. A succession of new electric and diesel-electric locomotives have helped schedule-keeping but battles with freight railroads (that own and control many miles of mainline) continue. The Acela trains largely fulfill the promise of high speed train service that stared back in 1965. New Viewliner sleeping cars have achieved some fame despite the lack of private lavatory facilities in all but high-priced rooms.

But now we celebrate that half-century journey as we admire new equipment, occasionally take the train on a business trip or to see a friend or simply by watching an Amtrak operation in our communities. The staff of ModelTrainStuff is with you and to mark this milestone we have a great week of content planned in our Amtrak themed Spring virtual train show this week! Not to mention, earn even more each and every day by signing up for our award-winning rewards program. All Aboard!


FAW- M B Klein, Inc.