The U.S. may lead in many industries, but train travel is not yet one of them. Although we’ve been riding the rails here for almost 200 years, we’re operating one of the most antiquated train services available in a well-developed country. That said, more ground to cover means more staff, more trains, and more upkeep (the majority of the trains running on our national rail are nearly a half-century old).
Still, love ‘em or hate ‘em, Amtrak is a national treasure.
Even in 2020, Amtrak has managed to continue improvements work, avoid mass layoffs thus far, and begin testing its new high-speed Acela trains. It has also reworked its app and created a new set of health and safety measures in light of the coronavirus pandemic, providing wary travelers with a bonafide alternative to air travel and car rentals. Add to that, the fact that riding Amtrak is already more eco-friendly than traveling by car, air, or cruise, and you can start to see why they are a leader in the industry. (And, as the only nationwide passenger rail service in the United States, Amtrak is the industry.)
Yet, while Amtrak may have been handed the monopoly, it has never held the upper hand.
Amtrak was born out of struggle, out of decline, and out of hope—and it has carried this cargo throughout its entire existence. As such, Amtrak embodies the spirit of the Little Engine That Could: they think they can, they think they can, they think they can. And so, despite relentless struggles with lost profits and ongoing funding issues, new transportation technology, aging trains and rails, and large amounts of criticism, Amtrak is still here, chugging along in an uphill battle.
Perhaps to fully appreciate Amtrak, we’ve got to look at not just where American train travel is going but also where it’s been.
A Brief Look at the Bumpy History of Train Travel in the U.S.
Over a century ago, traveling by train was really the only way to get around. Between the first two decades of the 20th century, Americans, like many other countries, traveled nearly exclusively by train. By the early 1920s, American train travel had reached its sublime heyday as 1.2 billion passengers hopped on passenger trains and crisscrossed the country via rails. All passenger trains were operated by private companies, mostly freight train companies doing double-duty and making the most of their tracks. Up until this point, trains had been able to operate without much competition.
However, as they say, nothing gold can stay, and toward the close of the Roaring Twenties, a newly affordable obsession was offered up to the American consumer: the car. As Henry Ford led the automobile industry into its first real boom in 1927, he subsequently dealt American passenger trains their first hit, a swift punch to the gut, and their bottom line. Passenger numbers steadily declined as more and more people abandoned rails for roads.
It didn’t take long for America’s car culture to solidify itself as train travel’s first significant challenger. To make matters worse, just two years later, the Great Depression swooped in and decimated the economy, causing ridership and funds to plummet even further, and, for the first time, train travel truly struggled to stay on track.
Train travel experienced a strong resurgence in 1945 when U.S. passenger trains reportedly logged a whopping 94 billion passenger miles—a far cry from the mere 49,000 passenger miles ridden at the end of days in 1970. At that point, along with the car, America’s privately-operated train industry now had to battle against the rising popularity and quicker speeds of commercial air travel.
In just a few decades, American train travel, once the primary source of transportation for nearly half of the country’s population, had fallen into a steep decline. Finally, in October 1970, American train travel went public.
The National Railroad Passenger Corporation—or Amtrak, as it would end up doing business as—was born out of the Rail Passenger Services Act and was signed by President Nixon. More than 20 private passenger rail services would contract to consolidate into one cohesive service. It marked the first time in America’s 143-year passenger rail history that the country would have a national rail system.
It turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The vision for National Railroad Passenger Corporation was grand: they would save a dying industry while simultaneously uniting America via one major rail provider. Train travel would be easier and more accessible, whether you were traveling between big cities like New York and Philadelphia or to-and-from any of the hundreds of small-town stops the routes serviced. To this day, Amtrak serves as the only form of intercity transportation connecting several smaller communities that lack an intercity bus route or are more than 75 miles from a commercial airport.
However, while the tracks for this plan were laid with good intentions, the truth is that Amtrak was set up for one bumpy ride.
For starters, while the trains may have been contracted out to Amtrak, much of the existing rails still belonged to private freight companies, often resulting in forced forfeiture of passenger train right-of-way—something that would end up marking Amtrak as an inefficient way to travel. Currently, only about 30 percent of track used by Amtrak is owned by Amtrak, and most of these are old and in desperate need of replacement. Additionally, there is no denying the trains are dated—over 400 of the original Amfleet trains that debuted way back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s are still chugging along on the tracks today.
Rising and Reacting to the Challenges of 2020
By January 2019, Amtrak seemed to get the memo. They released a proposal asking the government for new equipment on its Northeastern Regional and State Corridor service, routes that make up nearly half of their ridership numbers. Amtrak was looking to improve everything from Wi-Fi connectivity and climate control to redesigning passenger walkways and restrooms. They were also crossing their fingers for the okay on new bi-directional equipment to help speed up turnaround times at both ends of the line.
If there ever was a year for such asks to be granted, it was then. In 2019, an astounding 32.5 million passengers rode Amtrak—more than any other year in the company’s history. Then, a few months later, the pandemic pulled the emergency brake on that progress. During the peak of the pandemic, ridership numbers dropped to a devastating five percent. Although ridership has since picked up to around 25 percent, Amtrak recently told Congress that it would require close to $5 billion in funds to continue operating without cutting service and nearly 10 percent of its workforce.
Luckily, continued demand has kept Amtrak’s Auto Train operating its full schedule. Still, several other long-distance routes with lower ridership numbers have been scaled back from daily departures to just three times a week.
However, that hasn’t stopped Amtrak from making improvements where it can. Recently, it switched up its dining room service, completely removing it on one-night routes along the east coast and revamping the menu on overnight trains on other routes. As someone who has tasted over half of the new menu, I can honestly say that it was a highlight of the journey and miles above what you’d find on a plane, especially right now. Additionally, it has fast-tracked the introduction of 28 brand new Acela trains to 2021. There are also in-the-works plans to revamp New York Penn Station, Amtrak’s largest station by volume.
In some ways, stunted travel aside, it seems like the pandemic could be the wildcard that Amtrak needs to finally position itself as a worthy alternative to air and automobile travel. Train travel also gives you access to views that you’ll never see from a plane or your car, as the tracks often wind through the backcountry and along the edge of coastal cliffs–some routes will take you to (or close to) a few of the most popular national parks. Plus, it’s more eco-friendly than flying or driving.
As travelers remain skeptical about traveling on airplanes during a pandemic, trains have become the next logical hands-off, go-to option, especially in one of their private roomettes or one-bedrooms that allow passengers to be as social or as distant as they want with the rest of the train. In fact, Amtrak told us it has seen an increase in leisure travel on its high-speed Acela routes during the pandemic.
Amtrak has scored additional pandemic travel points with its onboard health and safety features and protocol, such as mandatory face coverings for all staff and passengers, social distancing rules, foot releases on the doors between cars, an option for room service in private rooms, revamping of the Amtrak app for a more contactless experience, and enhanced cleaning procedures. They also introduced reserved seating on Acela trains and implemented a real-time capacity indicator so potential passengers can check how full their train is before booking.
Will Amtrak come out stronger on the other side of the pandemic? Hopefully, but only time will tell. But would it be a travesty to lose them just as they were picking up steam? Absolutely.
Much like the USPS (another vastly underappreciated, always-struggling government-funded service that often comes under scrutiny), Amtrak provides a unique service that we so readily take for granted. So, all aboard, and let’s raise a glass to our national railroad service that could.
Main Photo: Courtesy of Amtrak; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang