Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

New modes of transportation, namely cars and airplanes, threatened railroads with extinction and forced the U.S. government to take radical measures to save them, including passage of the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970. The act created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak.

Summary of Event

When the U.S. Congress created Amtrak on October 30, 1970, by passing the Rail Passenger Service Act, it took one in a series of steps increasing government involvement in railroad transportation. Railroads had an important role in the development of the United States. Trains carried passengers and supplies to the frontier and brought back food, lumber, and minerals to the population centers of the East. The federal government encouraged the growth of railroads by giving their builders enormous land grants, including not only rights-of-way but millions of acres on both sides of the tracks. This land increased tremendously in value because of the presence of the railroad. Amtrak Railroads, U.S. Rail Passenger Service Act (1970) [kw]Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service (Oct. 30, 1970) [kw]Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service, Congress Creates (Oct. 30, 1970) [kw]Passenger Rail Service, Congress Creates Amtrak to Save (Oct. 30, 1970) [kw]Rail Service, Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger (Oct. 30, 1970) Amtrak Railroads, U.S. Rail Passenger Service Act (1970) [g]North America;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] [g]United States;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] [c]Transportation;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] [c]Travel and recreation;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 30, 1970: Congress Creates Amtrak to Save Passenger Rail Service[10980] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;transportation Volpe, John A. Lewis, Roger Reagan, Ronald

In the Midwest, railroads were responsible for the change from subsistence farming to the raising of single crops such as wheat and corn. In the West, ranchers were able to thrive because they had a means of shipping their cattle and sheep to major markets. California became a rich state in part because growers were able to ship fruits and vegetables to the eastern markets on rapid trains that had freight cars specially designed to prevent spoilage in transit. Cities such as New York and Chicago were able to grow to enormous proportions because trains brought in abundant food.

The so-called “railroad barons” received their land grants and exclusive operating territories on the condition that they provide efficient and equitable transportation for both passengers and freight. When rapid growth of railroads took place in the nineteenth century, no one could foresee the changes in transportation that would be wrought by the Industrial Revolution and later technological and social developments.

One of the earliest developments that threatened railroads was Henry Ford’s adoption in 1913 of assembly lines for mass production of his famous Model T automobiles. This innovation allowed the price of cars to fall dramatically, changing automobiles from toys of the rich to a practical means of transportation for the entire population and marking the beginning of the end of the golden era of passenger travel on railroads.

Automobiles became an American passion. More women began driving as manufacturers competed by making their products more stylish and easier to handle. U.S. auto manufacturers began making annual style changes to encourage sales. Trade-ins of good used cars on new models made it possible for nearly every American to own some kind of car. Two-car families with two-car garages became a common part of the American scene.

Amtrak train number 928 travels through North Elizabeth, New Jersey, in December, 1975.

The demand for automobiles brought a demand for paved highways. State governments responded by creating more highways, and the attractive highways increased the demand for automobiles. In the 1960’s, under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;transportation administration, the government spent billions of dollars on a nationwide system of superhighways. Along with automobiles came trucks and buses. Large long-haul diesel trucks encroached on the railroads’ freight business, while buses encroached on the railroads’ passenger business. Buses of the Greyhound line in particular became a common sight across the nation. Cars, trucks, and buses, not being confined to steel rails, could take people anywhere they wanted to go. As a result, the entire American landscape changed. New towns and cities sprang up that were not dependent on any linkage to railroad tracks.

At the end of World War II came the worst blow of all to the railroads’ passenger business. The federal government was eager to encourage the growth of airlines for many reasons. For one thing, the business of manufacturing airplanes had long been an important asset to the U.S. economy. The federal government helped encourage air transportation by setting strict safety standards through the Civil Aeronautics Board. There were plenty of pilots to fly these planes, because the government had trained thousands of men to be aviators during World War II. These experienced pilots provided safe, reliable service that helped build the public image of air travel. Flying a passenger plane was easy for those who had flown bombing raids over Germany and Japan.

In spite of dramatic air crashes that sometimes killed hundreds of passengers, the public came to realize that, statistically speaking, air travel was the safest form available. The incredible savings in time made air travel hard to ignore. It took the fastest trains three full days to carry a load of passengers from Los Angeles to New York, while an airliner could make the same trip in about five hours. A business traveler could zoom from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one hour, while the same trip could easily take ten hours by car, covering four hundred miles of highways. (The trip by car can now be done in about six hours or less.)

Trains were subject to long delays because of weather conditions, but airliners could avoid most adverse weather by flying above the clouds. Younger people, especially business travelers, abandoned train travel, and it became apparent that train clientele increasingly consisted of elderly people who were afraid of flying and had plenty of time on their hands.

Eventually, only one-third of 1 percent of Americans traveling between cities used trains. By the mid-1950’s, 85 to 90 percent of the total passenger traffic in the United States went by automobile. The volume of traffic on interstate highways connecting America’s cities illustrated that trains could no longer handle the endless stream of humanity hurtling along in private automobiles.

The basic problem was that railroads had become outmoded as a means of human transportation. Railroad companies, however, had obtained their rights-of-way from the government on the basis of a commitment to provide public transportation. Passenger traffic now not only caused the railroads to lose money but also interfered with the profitable transportation of freight. Freight trains had to be shunted off to sidings to stand idle while passenger trains that were half empty sped by. One possible solution was to build separate lines for passenger trains, but this was so obviously unprofitable that no railroad company considered such an investment.

President Richard M. Nixon supported the idea of government subsidization of passenger trains and was influential in the creation of Amtrak, the official nickname for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, created by the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970. On May 1, 1971, Amtrak began taking over responsibility for virtually all intercity passenger train service, although the semi-independent corporation was not involved in rail commuter service. Amtrak management eliminated many famous old passenger trains and cut down service to approximately 240 trains, each day serving about 500 stations over 23,000 miles of tracks. Even with radical cost cutting, Amtrak continued to lose money, and there were periodic outcries to stop wasting taxpayers’ money on an obsolete form of transportation and to let passenger trains pass into history, along with stagecoaches and riverboats.


Many railroad corporations in the United States were in desperate financial straits by 1970. The federal government was forced to subsidize them to prevent a complete collapse of rail transportation. Amtrak brought immediate relief. Freed from the duty of running passenger trains full of empty seats, the railroads were able to concentrate on hauling freight, the business that brought them profits.

The railroads were able to cash in on mushrooming international trade by providing “land bridges” across America. Japan, the largest exporting nation in the world at the time, found that it was relatively inexpensive and fast to send cargo ships to ports in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles-Long Beach, where cargoes could be off-loaded onto flatcars and whizzed across the continent to areas such as New York, Baltimore, and Atlanta. The cargoes would then proceed to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The alternative was to send ships thousands of miles on circuitous routes around the Cape of Magellan or through the Panama Canal to reach their final destinations.

Amtrak did not provide much help for train travelers. Service continued to deteriorate under the new federally subsidized corporation. Many business leaders, government officials, economists, and journalists agreed that long-distance passenger trains were nothing but a form of amusement, almost like the trains at Disneyland. The only passenger trains that were needed were those providing commuter service over relatively short distances, and these did not need government support. The dominant modes of transportation between cities continued to be planes and automobiles.

With the coaches and Pullman cars getting older and shabbier, the wonderful dining cars of the past being replaced by canteen cars serving packaged food, and the rails themselves deteriorating so that passengers were sometimes badly shaken, the incentive to travel by train decreased. Older people who could remember the glory days of train travel were also traveling less frequently.

In the light of these developments, President Ronald Reagan, faced with huge budget problems, called for the breakup of Amtrak and the destruction of the remaining intercity passenger trains. Long-distance train travel managed to continue because of political pressure; some of the most famous surviving trains passed through states represented by influential U.S. senators. The future of Amtrak remained uncertain. It continued to operate passenger trains between major cities and acquired badly needed new equipment to provide greater speed and comfort.

It became obvious that trains were not an efficient means of transporting people in a vast country such as the United States. American travelers valued their time too greatly and became accustomed to the convenience and speed of travel by automobile and airline. Passenger trains continued to exist primarily because some people were afraid to fly, because some nostalgia buffs favored them for aesthetic reasons, and because some politicians continued to fight for them for their own political advantage.

Intercity passenger trains likely will remain part of the American scene, especially in areas of exceptional scenic beauty and areas of high population density, such as the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. The passenger train, however, can never hope to recapture more than a fraction of its former glory. Amtrak Railroads, U.S. Rail Passenger Service Act (1970)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frailey, Fred W. Zephyrs, Chiefs, and Other Orphans: The First Five Years of Amtrak. Godfrey, Ill.: RPC, 1977. A detailed study of the first five years of Amtrak’s operations, attempting to determine which trains were attracting passenger business and which were operating at a loss, and why. Frailey, who is nostalgic about the golden years of train travel, is critical of management and government. Contains many facts and figures. Illustrated with photos of Amtrak trains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilton, George W. Amtrak: The National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1980. Economist Hilton describes the decline of passenger traffic and blames railroad management for deliberately discouraging passenger travel by downgrading the quality of service. Concludes that Amtrak serves no useful function but subsidizes people who enjoy traveling by train. Predicts that Amtrak service will eventually end.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Itzkoff, Donald M. Off the Track: The Decline of the Intercity Passenger Train in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Itzkoff, pessimistic about the future of Amtrak, concludes that the glamour of railroad travel has vanished forever. Extensively footnoted. Excellent bibliography. Contains photographs of interiors and exteriors of great passenger trains of the past.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kidder, Tracy. “Trains in Trouble.” The Atlantic, August, 1976, 29-39. A survey of the passenger trains operating under Amtrak. Explains the factors leading to the gradual deterioration of passenger service and discusses possible hope for rail travel revival because of increasing congestion on highways and freeways.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyon, Peter. To Hell in a Day Coach: An Exasperated Look at American Railroads. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. An amusing and informative history of American railroads from their beginnings up until the time when it became obvious that the federal government was going to have to take drastic action to preserve passenger service. Lyon blames the railroads for sabotaging its passenger service in favor of the more lucrative freight business.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orenstein, Jeffrey. United States Railroad Policy: Uncle Sam at the Throttle. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1990. An explanation and evaluation of U.S. public policy toward American railroads by a political scientist. Presents an overview of the history of American railroading. Discusses Amtrak in considerable detail and offers recommendations for improving government’s subsidization and supervision of the nation’s railroads.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pindell, Terry. Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Pindell is a passenger train enthusiast and recounts the history of America’s great passenger lines. He spent most of 1988 riding twenty-one Amtrak routes, covering thirty thousand miles and visiting all but three states. He is a staunch advocate of preserving and improving passenger train service through Amtrak.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanders, Craig. Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. A comprehensive study and presentation of the history of Amtrak, written by a train enthusiast. Published on Amtrak’s thirty-fifth anniversary. Provides background to events that led to the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, and thus the start of Amtrak service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Brian. Amtrak. St. Paul, Minn.: MBI, 2004. Part of the MBI Color Railroad History series, this recommended book covers the history of U.S. railroads, the 1970 act that created Amtrak, and the years of turmoil for the service. Also provides details of the “motive power” of Amtrak trains, that is, what makes the trains move. Maps, photographs, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple"> An excellent resource for any study of railroads, trains, and their histories. Has an extensive number of links. Highly recommended.

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