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been replaced by Amtrak, who outside the Northeast operates a maximum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). Today's services should never be confused with what was available prior to 1971 but perhaps one day they will at least reach something near those "Golden" years.
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
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
parlor cars, and observations. However, as equipment improved
traveling by rail
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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. Additional information can be found 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.