Travel By Train, An Overview

Travel By Train, a slogan and sign that has elegantly adorned Denver Union Station for decades was once a common phrase in the American repertoire as train travel in the USA was a common way of life before automobiles became cheap to afford and highways reliable. Where once streamliners could be seen zipping across the Heartland at over 100 miles-per-hour today they have been replaced by Amtrak, who outside the Northeast operates a maximum speed of only 79 miles-per-hour. This section of the website looks to cover what train travel options are available to you today here in America, as well as providing an ever-so-brief history of what once was (since that is much more densely covered in other areas of the website).

Santa Fe F7A #42C along with an F7B head the Last Run Of A PA excursion as it lays over at the railroad's yard in Riverbank, California during April of 1969. With no PA to power this particular train refunds were offered to those who requested them.

Rail Travel In The USA, A History

Far before travel by train was even conceived, the United States, and the rest of the world, had little other means of moving people and goods than horse and watercraft (sailing ships, river boats, etc.) as steam power would not become available in our country until roughly sixty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This was essentially the way things always were throughout human history and changed little until the 19th century.  Perhaps the first to recognize the extreme advantages of steam power, at least in the U.S., was inventor Oliver Evans who was quoted in 1819 as saying, "I do verily believe that carriages propelled by steam will come into general use, and travel at the rate of 300 miles a day."  However, all of this changed after 1804 when the first steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian for the narrow gauge Penydarren Tramway in Wales and later first tested in America on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1829, now known famously as the Tom Thumb (while the locomotive actually lost the race with the horse [just barely!], it more than proved its ability as a reliable source of mechanical transportation).

Other early steam locomotives that gained fame include the Stourbridge Lion, America, John Bull (all of which came to the U.S. from builders in England), and Best Friend of Charleston. Thus began the age of steam and a better, more efficient, means of transportation. Not only that but the steam locomotive was also a major driving force in settling America west of the Appalachian Mountains.  With this new technology, thus began the age of steam and a better, more efficient, means of transportation. Not only that but the steam locomotive was also a major driving force in settling America west of the Appalachian Mountains.   While steam allowed for faster, and a more efficient means of transportation this did not necessarily translate into a safer way to travel. Our country’s first railroads like the B&O, Albany & Schenectady, and South Carolina Canal & Railroad used mostly trial and error to learn what worked and what did not which, unfortunately, sometimes resulted in injuries or deaths. It also did not help that shoddy construction practices as railroads raced to build new rail lines also caused numerous deaths and injuries in the 19th century.

Westbound B&O passenger train #343, led by Class P-7 4-6-2 #5300, comes off of the Old Main Line from Grafton, West Virginia as it is about to stop at the Moundsville depot in the spring of 1956. This line was abandoned long ago but the Ohio River Subdivision remains in operation by CSX today.

For instance, early railroad roadbed practices involved using simple large stones to support the track structure, which would soon sink and foul the track alignment causing derailments.    Also, the early rail designs of iron strap rails on wooden track (which were placed on top of the wooden track) caused deadly “snake heads” when they worked loose, disintegrating the wooden floors of passenger cars, sometimes killing the occupants inside.  As the years progressed so too did the track structure and equipment. In 1831, Robert L. Stevens, of the Camden & Amboy Railroad developed the common “T-rail,” which is the design still used exclusively today as railroad rail. First made of iron it was later produced using much stronger, steel. Railroads also found that stone gravel (known as ballast) acted as a stronger support base that did not give way like the large stone blocks (it also was much more forgiving). When railroads first began the equipment they used, naturally, was quite primitive with passenger cars mostly simple stagecoaches with wheel axles attached to the bottoms.

Technologies quickly improved with two-axle trucks becoming standard by the 1830s and the passenger coach (a long, corridor-like car with seating to either side and an aisle in the center) also arrived during the same decade.   Early passenger trains also suffered from cut-throat businessmen. It did not help matters that as the railroad industry became established in the 1850s and 1860s railroad tycoons began to appear with endless bank accounts and were more interested in earning more money for themselves than concern for public safety (this is a big reason why so many rules and regulations were laid down on railroads, which later in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the near collapse of the industry). These businessmen included names like Jim Fisk, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbuilt. Other problems for early passenger trains included Indian sabotage and attack, particularly an issue in Western states where Native Americans fought for control of their land.

After years of fighting, for better or worse, a truce finally came in the way of the Indians eventually ceding defeat and settling for peace (which resulted in today’s many Indian reservations located in western states).  As the years progressed so too did the track structure and equipment. In 1831, Robert L. Stevens, of the Camden & Amboy Railroad developed the common “T-rail,” which is the design still used exclusively today as railroad rail. First made of iron it was later produced using the much stronger, steel. Railroads also found that stone gravel (known as ballast) acted as stronger support base that did not give way like the large stone blocks (as it was much more forgiving).  Other important inventions for early rail travel (as well as freight transportation) included the knuckle-coupler from Major Eli H. Janney in 1868 - still in common use today it replaced the deadly link-and-pin system that often times resulted in the maiming of limbs and fingers - and the air-brake from George Westinghouse, introduced a year later in 1869 (it allowed for a constant stream of pressured air that could automatically apply brakes throughout the train instantly, rather than having the brakeman do the dangerous task of walking across car rooftops on a moving train to manually apply brakes to each car).

When railroads first began the equipment they used, naturally, was quite primitive with passenger cars mostly simple stagecoaches with wheel axles attached to the bottoms. Technologies quickly improved with two-axle trucks becoming standard by the 1830s with the common passenger coach (a long, corridor-like car with seating to either side with an aisle in the center) also developed during the same decade.  With the foundation of equipment introduced by 1850 for early passenger trains, and the industry as a whole, new and better technologies helped make traveling by rail more comfortable, efficient, and faster. These included specialized cars like diners, sleepers, club cars, parlor cars, and observations.  However, as equipment improved traveling by rail became more comfortable, efficient, and faster. These included specialized cars like diners, sleepers, club cars, parlor cars, and observations. Likely the most famous passenger cars to ever grace the rails were those built by George Pullman and his Pullman Palace Car Company, which began operations in 1867 (later reorganized as just the Pullman Car Company). 

An A-B-B set of Western Pacific F3s, led by F3A #803-A, power the "California Zephyr" along the rolling countryside of Altamont, California during February of 1970. The SP line just below is now abandoned.

It was located in Pullman, Illinois and its cars would become legendary by the peak of rail travel between the late 19th century through the early/mid-1940s. While the company is perhaps most famous for its sleepers it also built other types such as parlor cars and diners.   By the turn of the century passenger equipment was becoming very specialized with comfort and luxury the order of the day as both continually improved. From 1900 through the 1920s “heavyweight” passenger equipment (its name given due to the heavy materials, like steel and iron, used in its construction) was built until the 1930s.  It was during the 1930s that lightweight materials, like aluminum, began to be used in car construction. Not only did this make the car lighter which was easier on the track structure (and less difficult for a locomotive to pull) but also streamlining became widely popular during this time and aluminum was light and flexible enough to be used as shrouding to streamline both cars and locomotives.

One of the first, and perhaps most famous streamlined trains was the Burlington’s Zephyr 9900 trainset, built in 1934. Sleek, fast, and comfortable (for instance, it broke the speed record for traveling between Denver and Chicago, covering the 1,000+ mile distance non-stop in only thirteen hours and five minutes) it paved the way for an entire generation of streamlined trains. Famous passenger trains to follow included names like the Milwaukee’s Hiawatha, the NYC’s 20th Century Limited, PRR’s Broadway Limited, and the Great Northern’s Empire Builder.  However, following WWII passenger traffic began to drop significantly and would not recover, even while some railroads began to update their passenger fleets with new equipment through the 1950s. A decade later, in the 1960s, industry losing significantly with its passenger operations (while passenger trains are rarely profitable, before the 1950s railroads were earning enough that their freight revenues could easily offset the losses) and desperately wanted out.

The 20th Century And The Golden Years

The Golden Age

Railway Express Agency

The Hard Fall

Decline of the "Golden Age" and Formation of Amtrak

Amtrak Today And The Resurgence Of Rail Travel

The Future of Amtrak and Passenger Rail

Relief would finally come in the way of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, which began operations on May 1st, 1971. Government-controlled and funded, Amtrak operates almost exclusively over the private freight railroads, save for the Northeast where it owns the [mostly] PRR’s former Northeast Corridor (NEC), a four-track main line operating between Washington, D.C. and Boston.  When Amtrak began it used private equipment donated by the participating railroads (although, it should be noted, that not all of the major Class Is elected to initially join Amtrak) and while it was originally setup to become financially self-supporting this was completely an illusion (passenger trains are almost never profitable and requires some sort of subsidy to operate).

Even though Amtrak, over the years, has operated almost entirely on “life support” with just enough funding to survive year to year support for the carrier has increased, particularly in the post-9/11 era. Along with Amtrak, state operations are gaining support and receiving increased attention and funding, particularly as highways become increasingly congested and gas prices skyrocket. Perhaps the two most noted states that are giving passenger trains serious attention include North Carolina and California. Both are doing a magnificent job at developing passenger rail corridors in their respective states, particularly North Carolina. As transportation issues are gaining in support the future of rail travel looks very bright, as everything from local trolley systems to large state-supported commuter rail operations are being planned and developed. Below is a more detailed history of our nation's passenger trains, from its early beginnings through today.

Amtrak's Reno Fun Train rolls along the shores of San Pablo Bay near Pinole, California with P32BWH #500 up front during March of 2003.

It wasn't just the speed, though, that lured folks to trains it was also the service. During those years high quality customer service was the norm and if a railroad's passenger train did not offer exquisite dining services and other amenities such as dome cars (which allowed you unparalleled views of the surrounding countryside), parlor and club cars, and sleeping quarters it simply could not compete with the competition.  With Amtrak taking over intercity passenger service in the spring of 1971 the speeds and services mentioned above have gradually been lost. However, Amtrak cannot be fully blamed for such as it only operates on whatever subsidies given to it through the government. While I am of the belief that individuals and organizations should be self-sufficient in the case of Amtrak and passenger rail in general, it's almost impossible as the cost of capital is simply too high (even during the "Golden Era" passenger trains rarely turned a profit and generally were subsidized by a railroad's freight traffic).

Rail Travel Today And Amtrak

Today's train travel services are still a far cry from yesteryear but they are improving, particularly over the last decade or so as more notice is being paid to the efficiencies trains provide over cars and buses (such as being more environmentally friendly).  Light rail (or LRT) is also making a splash in cities across the country. Compared to “heavy rail” operations these services are much cheaper and are very efficient by helping to reduce significant wear on city streets and highways (along with reducing traffic and emissions as well). Some cities are even using LRT in a nostalgic sense by bringing back the classic trolley, which has been a huge hit (such as in New Orleans). LRT services can now be found in dozens of cities which include Charlotte, NC; Denver, CO; aforementioned New Orleans; Seattle, WA; Minneapolis, MN; and others. A few cities with future plans to add LRT include Kansas City, KS; Norfolk, VA; and Austin, TX.

A Virginia Railway Express commuter run led by F40PH #V33 rolls southbound across Neabsco Creek in Virginia on August 2, 2005.

Today ridership numbers for Amtrak have broken 25 million and as transportation issues are becoming more of a discussion in our country passenger railroading is gaining more and more support and its future looks very good, but just how good remains to be seen as it depends on the level of funding we are willing to invest in train travel and its variants (such as LRT, subways, even trolley/interurban services which are beginning to also make a comeback).  For more information about Amtrak's current routes and trains please click here.

Tourist Trains And Museums

Tourist trains, also known as heritage railroads, are perhaps the best way to experience what traveling by train years ago was like. Many of these operations use vintage, restored cars and locomotives from the 1950s or earlier. For instance, the Grand Canyon Railway in Arizona operates restored streamlined cars from the 1950s and classic Alco diesel locomotives for power. Then there is the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania which operates restored steam locomotives and 19th century passenger train cars, which have been painstakingly restored to like new. If you truly wish to know what traveling by train was like back then, please consider riding one of the many excursion trains available!


During a special photo shoot California Western 2-8-2 #45 blasts out of Tunnel #1 and across the Noyo River near Fort Bragg, California as it waves American flags on June 6, 2010.

If you would like to learn more about tourist railroads and possibly riding aboard one please click here. Of course, if you really have the money to spend you can also rent your own private rail car to travel around the country in true luxury aboard the back of any Amtrak train. For more on rail travel across the USA via Amtrak please click here. Also, for more on the venerable trolley and interurban services (the country's early form of mass transit, before it was unceremoniously replaced by buses) which be found across the country please click here.   This page also provides a state-by-state history of many traction systems once found all across the country.

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Check out the website's digital book (E-book), An Atlas To Classic Short Lines, which features system maps and a brief background of 46 different historic railroads.



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