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 Where once streamliners could be seen zipping across the Heartland at over 100 miles-per-hour today they have been replaced by Amtrak, who outside the Northeast operates a maximum speed of only 79 miles-per-hour.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).
Rail Travel In The USA, A History
From the industry's beginning in the early 19th century until roughly the 1920s most Americans had no other option to travel medium or long distances than by using the train. The first half of the 20th century is generally regarded as the "Golden Age" of railroading with several famous passenger trains, stations/terminals, and other landmark feats occurring within the industry during that time (roughly 1900 until 1950). This was also the time that the industry saw an all-time high of track mileage of 254,037 miles in 1916. Over all, it certainly was the period in our nation’s history that nearly everyone was exposed to railroads in one shape or form particularly because it was the fastest and preferred method of travel.
Streamliners became a hit sensation in the early 1930s and would go on to define what the "Golden Age" of train travel in the USA was all about and what it looked like. Gleaming stainless steel of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's Zephyrs or the elegance of the New York Central's 20th Century Limited remains an iconic symbol of how we once traveled by train in this country. In terms of speed nothing could match the trains of those days, with many of the most famous regularly breaking 100 mph in both the east and the west (so why can't we travel this way today?). Outside of the railfan community many do not realize this but perhaps the greatest symbol of passenger train speed was in a simple signpost that occasionally graced the Milwaukee Road's main line between Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska which read "Reduce to 90."
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.
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). To learn more about Amtrak's current services by state 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!
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. Finally, for a historical overview of passenger rail travel in the United States please click here.