Federally supported corporation that operates nearly all intercity passenger trains in the U.S. It was established by Congress in 1970 in the face of private railroads' heavy financial losses. Routes were cut back severely, with service maintained only in highly populated areas and between the largest cities. Amtrak pays the railroads to run passenger trains and compensates them for the use of tracks and terminals. Amtrak bears all administrative costs and manages scheduling, route planning, and ticket sales. Despite income from tickets and mail-carrying services, Amtrak requires federal support to cover its operating costs. Seealso Conrail; Railway Express Agency.
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All of Amtrak's preferred stock is owned by the U.S. federal government. The members of its board of directors are appointed by the President of the United States and are subject to confirmation by the United States Senate. Common stock was issued in 1971 to railroads that contributed capital and equipment; its current holders consider the stock to be worthless but declined a 2002 buy-out offer by Amtrak.
Amtrak employs nearly 19,000 people. It operates passenger service on of track primarily owned by freight railroads connecting 500 destinations in 46 states. Some routes serve Canada. In fiscal year 2007, Amtrak served 25.8 million passengers, representing five straight years of record ridership. Despite this recent growth, the United States still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usages in the developed world.
From the middle 1800s until approximately 1920, nearly all intercity travelers in the United States moved by rail. By 1910, close to 100 percent of intercity passenger trips were by railroad. The rails and the trains were owned and operated by private, for-profit organizations. Approximately 65,000 railroad passenger cars operated in 1929.
For a long time after 1920, passenger rail's popularity diminished and there were a series of pullbacks and tentative recoveries. Rail passenger revenues declined dramatically between 1920 and 1934, but in the mid-1930s, railroads reignited popular imagination with service improvements and new, diesel-powered streamliners, such as the gleaming silver Pioneer Zephyr and Flying Yankee. Even with the improvements, on a relative basis, traffic continued to erode and by 1940 railroads held 67 per cent of passenger-miles in the United States. World War II broke the malaise. During the war, troop movements and restrictions on automobile fuel generated a sixfold increase in passenger traffic from the low point of the Depression. After the war, railroads rejuvenated overworked and neglected fleets with fast and often luxurious streamliners — epitomized by the Super Chief and California Zephyr — which inspired the last major resurgence in passenger rail travel. In 1948, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway CEO Fred Gurley reported a "complete reversal of our passenger traffic picture," with 1947 revenues exceeding those of 1936 by 220%.
The postwar resurgence was short-lived. In 1946, there remained 45 per cent fewer passenger trains than in 1929, and the decline quickened despite railroad optimism. Passengers disappeared and so did trains. Between 1946 and 1964, the annual number of passengers declined from 770 million to 298 million. The number of U.S. commuter trains declined by more than 80 per cent, from more than 2,500 in 1954 to fewer than 500 in 1969. Few trains generated profits; most produced losses. Broad-based passenger rail deficits appeared as early as 1948 and by the mid-1950s railroads claimed aggregate annual losses on passenger services of more than $700 million (almost $5 billion in 2005 dollars using CPI). By 1965, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation, 85% fewer than in 1929. Passenger service was provided on only of track, a stark decline. Passenger rail service in the United States showed the signs of underinvestment. Rail facilities suffered from decrepit equipment, cavernous and nearly empty stations in declining urban centers, and management that seemed intent on driving away the few remaining customers. The 1960s also saw the end of railway post office revenues, which had helped some of the remaining trains break even.
The causes of the decline of passenger rail in the United States were complex. The industry was hobbled by government regulation and labor inflexibility, which undermined passenger rail just as the industry faced an explosion of competition from flexible and subsidized automobile and airplane transportation. These for-profit railroads were structured to sell access to elaborate, efficient roads at a profit; they lost in the competition for passengers to parallel, publicly-funded, non-profit turnpikes, air strips, and highways in the sky.
The primary regulatory authority affecting rail interest from early twentieth century was the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The ICC played a leading role in rate-setting and intervened in other ways detrimental to passenger rail. In 1947, the ICC ruled that passenger trains could not exceed without in-cab signaling systems; the systems were criticized as being unnecessary and prohibitively expensive; after the regulation, plans to develop intercity high-speed rail services were shelved. In 1958, the ICC was granted authority to allow or reject modifications and eliminations of passenger routes (train-offs). Many routes required beneficial pruning, but the ICC delayed action by an average of eight months and when it did authorize modifications, the ICC insisted that unsuccessful routes be merged with profitable ones. Thus, fast, popular rail service was transformed into slow, unpopular service. The ICC was even more critical of corporate mergers. Many combinations, which railroads sought to compete, were delayed for years and even decades, such as the merger of the New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad, into what eventually became Penn Central, and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad and Erie Railroad into the Erie Lackawanna Railway. By the time the ICC approved the mergers in the 1960s, disinvestments by the federal government, years of deteriorating equipment and station facilities and the flight of passengers to the air and car had taken their toll and the mergers were unsuccessful.
At the same time, railroads carried a substantial tax burden. A World War II-era excise tax of 15% on passenger rail travel survived until 1962. Local governments, far from providing needed support to passenger rail, viewed rail infrastructure as a ready source for property tax revenues. In one extreme example, in 1959 the Great Northern Railroad, which owned about a third of one percent (.34%) of the land in Lincoln County, Montana, was assessed more than 91% of all school taxes in the county.
Railroads also were saddled with antiquated work rules and an inflexible relationship with trade unions. Work policies did not adapt to technological change. Average train speeds doubled from 1919 to 1959, but unions resisted efforts to modify their existing 100 to 150 mile work days. As a result, railroaders' work days were roughly cut in half, from 5-7½ hours in 1919 down to 2½-3¾ hours in 1959. Labor rules also perpetuated positions that had been obviated by technology. Between 1947 and 1957, passenger railroad financial efficiency dropped by 42% per mile.
Today, the burden of nascent railroad worker pensions are financed by Amtrak, regardless of whether such workers were ever employed by Amtrak. In effect, Amtrak subsidizes the pensions of thousands of railroad workers who would otherwise not receive any pension.
As cars became more attainable to most Americans, this newfound freedom and individualization of transit became the norm for most Americans because of the increased convenience. Government actively began to respond with funds from its treasury and later with fuel tax funds to build a non-profit network of roads not subject to property taxation that rivaled and then surpassed the for-profit network that the railroads had built in previous generations with corporate capital and government land grants. All told between 1921 and 1955 governmental entities, using taxpayer money and in response to taxpayer demand, financed more than $93 billion worth of pavement, construction, and maintenance.
In the 1950s, a second and more formidable threat appeared: affordable commercial aviation. Government at many levels supported aviation. Governmental entities built sprawling urban and suburban airports, funded construction of highways to provide access to the airports, and provided air traffic control services.
In 1970, Congress passed and President Richard Nixon surprisingly signed into law, the Rail Passenger Service Act. Proponents of the bill, led by the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), sought government funding to assure the continuation of passenger trains. They conceived the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC), a hybrid public-private entity that would receive taxpayer funding and assume operation of intercity passenger trains. The original working brand name for NRPC was Railpax, but shortly before the company started operating it was changed to Amtrak. There were several key provisions:
Nearly everyone involved expected the experiment to be short-lived. The Nixon administration and many Washington insiders viewed the NRPC as a politically expedient way for the President and Congress to give passenger trains the one "last hurrah" demanded by the public. They expected Amtrak to quietly disappear as public interest waned. Proponents also hoped that government intervention would be brief, but their view was that Amtrak would soon support itself. Neither view has yet proved correct. Popular support has allowed Amtrak to continue in operation longer than critics imagined while financial results have made infeasible a return to private operation.
There was a period of adjustment. All Amtrak's routes were continuations of prior service, although Amtrak pruned about half the passenger rail network. Of the 364 trains operated previously, Amtrak only continued 182. On trains that continued, to the extent possible, schedules were retained with only minor changes from the Official Guide of the Railways. Former names largely were continued.
Several major corridors became freight-only, including New York Central Railroad's Water Level Route across New York and Ohio and Grand Trunk Western Railroad's Chicago to Detroit service, although service soon returned to the Water Level Route with introduction of the Lake Shore Limited. Reduced passenger train schedules created headaches. A 19-hour layover became necessary for eastbound travel on the James Whitcomb Riley between Chicago and Newport News.
Amtrak inherited problems with stations, most notably deferred maintenance, and redundant facilities resulting from competing companies that served the same areas. On the day it started, Amtrak was given the responsibility of rerouting passenger trains from the seven train terminals in Chicago (LaSalle, Dearborn, Grand Central, Randolph, Chicago Northwestern Terminal, Central, and Union) into just one, Union Station. In New York City, Amtrak had to pay to maintain Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal because of the lack of track connections to bring trains from upstate New York into Penn Station, a problem not rectified until the building of the Empire Connection in 1991. In many cases Amtrak had to abandon service into the huge old Union Stations such as Cincinnati, Saint Paul, Buffalo, Kansas City, and Saint Louis, and route trains into smaller Amtrak-built facilities down the line (although Amtrak has pushed to start reusing some of the old stations, most recently Cincinnati Union Terminal, and Kansas City Union Station).
On the other hand, merged operations presented efficiencies such as the combination of three West Coast trains into the Coast Starlight, running from Los Angeles to Seattle. The Northeast Corridor received an Inland Route via Springfield, Massachusetts, thanks to support from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The North Coast Hiawatha was implemented as a second Pacific Northwest route. The Milwaukee to St. Louis Abraham Lincoln and Prairie State routes also commenced. The first all-new Amtrak route, not counting the Coast Starlight, was the Vermonter/Washingtonian. That route was inaugurated September 29, 1972, along Boston and Maine Railroad and Canadian National Railway track that had last seen passenger service in 1966.
Amtrak soon had the opportunity to acquire railway. Following the bankruptcy of several northeastern railroads in the early 1970s, including Penn Central which owned and operated the Northeast Corridor, Congress passed the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976. A large part was directed to the creation of a Conrail, but in addition the law enabled transfer to Amtrak of the Northeast Corridor railway from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. That track became Amtrak's jewel and helped Amtrak generate significant revenues. While the Northeast Corridor ridership and revenues were higher than any other segment of the system, the cost of operating and maintaining the corridor proved to be overwhelming. As a result, Amtrak's federal subsidy increased dramatically. In subsequent years, short route segments not needed for freight operations were transferred to Amtrak. Nevertheless, in general, Amtrak remained dependent on freight railroads for access to most of its routes outside of the northeast.
Amtrak fell far short of financial independence in its first decade, but it did find modest success rebuilding trade. Outside factors discouraged competing transport, such as fuel shortages which increased costs of automobile and airline travel, and strikes which disrupted airline operations. Investments in Amtrak's track, equipment and information also made Amtrak more relevant to America's transportation needs. Amtrak's ridership increased from 16.6 million in 1972 to 21 million in 1981.
Unlike many large businesses, subsequent to its formation Amtrak has had only one active investor: the U.S. government. Like most investors, the Federal government has demanded a degree of accountability. Determination of congressional funding and selection of Amtrak's leadership have been infused with political considerations. As discussed below, funding levels and capital support have varied over time.
Some members of Amtrak's board have had little or no experience with railroads. Conversely, Amtrak also has benefited from the interest of highly motivated and politically oriented public servants. For example, in 1982, former Secretary of the Navy and retired Southern Railway head W. Graham Claytor Jr., brought his military and railroad experience to the job. Graham Claytor earned distinction as a lawyer (he was president of the Harvard Law Review and law clerk to U.S. Judge Billings Learned Hand and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis); as a transportation executive (he joined the Southern as vice president-law in 1963, became president in 1967, and retired in 1977, five years before he took over the command at Amtrak); and as a public servant (he was President Carter's Secretary of the Navy, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and, briefly, Acting Secretary of Transportation, all between his two railroad careers). Claytor came out of retirement to lead Amtrak after the disastrous financial results during the Carter administration (1977–1981). He was recruited by then Secretary of Transportation, Drew Lewis and Federal Railroad Administrator Robert Blanchette both Reagan appointees. Despite the fact that Claytor frequently opposed the Reagan Administration over Amtrak funding issues, he was strongly supported by John H. Riley, an attorney who was the highly skilled head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the Reagan Administration from 1983–1989. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole also tacitly supported Amtrak. Claytor, the longest serving Amtrak CEO at 12 years, clearly enjoyed a good relationship with the Congress and was perceived by many in the rail industry and government to have done an outstanding job of running Amtrak. Due to limited federal funding, Claytor was forced to use short-term debt to keep most of its operations running.
In the 1990s, Claytor was succeeded at Amtrak's helm by a succession of career public servants. First, Thomas Downs, who had overseen the Union Station project in Washington, DC, which experienced substantial delays and cost overruns, assumed the leadership. Amtrak faced a serious cash crisis during 1997. However, Tim Gillespie, Amtrak's highly regarded vice president for government affairs for almost two decades, persuaded Congress to include a provision in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 that resulted in Amtrak receiving a $2.3 billion tax refund that resolved their cash crisis. In January, 1998, after Amtrak weathered this serious cash shortfall, George Warrington succeeded Downs. Warrington previously led Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Business Unit. Warrington ran into trouble with Congress and the Administration through lavish spending and extensive borrowing. When he attempted to mortgage Penn Station in New York City he ran into a fire storm of opposition in Congress. Warrington stepped down shortly thereafter.
In April 2002, David L. Gunn was selected as president. Gunn had a strong reputation as a straightforward and experienced manager. Years earlier (between 1991 and 1994), Gunn's refusal to "do politics" put him at odds with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors, which included representatives from the District of Columbia and suburban jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia. Gunn was an accomplished public servant and railroad person and his successes before Amtrak earned him a great deal of credibility, despite a sometimes-rough relationship with politicians and labor unions.
Gunn was polite but direct in response to congressional criticism of Amtrak, and his tenure was punctuated by successes in reducing layers of management overhead in Amtrak and streamlining operations. Amtrak's Board of Directors removed Gunn on November 9, 2005. He was succeeded by David Hughes, Amtrak's Chief Engineer. Given Gunn's solid performance, many Amtrak supporters feared that Gunn's departure was Amtrak's death knell, although those fears have not been realized. On August 29, 2006 Alexander Kummant was named as Gunn's permanent replacement effective September 12, 2006.
The list of Presidents of Amtrak includes:
Ridership stagnated at roughly 20 million passengers per year amid uncertain government aid from 1981 to about 2000. Ridership increased in the 2000s after implementation of capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and rises in automobile fuel costs. Since 2002, Amtrak has had five consecutive years of record ridership. During fiscal year 2007, Amtrak reported more than 25.8 million passengers, its highest total to date. According to Amtrak, an average of more than 70,000 passengers ride on up to 300 Amtrak trains per day.
In the 1990s, Amtrak's stated goal remained operational self-sufficiency. By this time, however, Amtrak had a large overhang of debt from years of underfunding, and in the mid-1990s, Amtrak suffered through a serious cash crunch. To resolve the crisis, Congress issued funding but instituted a glide-path to financial self-sufficiency, excluding railroad retirement tax act payments. Passengers became "guests" and there were expansions into express freight work, but the financial plans failed. Amtrak's inroads in express freight delivery created additional friction with competing freight operators, including the trucking industry. Delivery was delayed of much anticipated high-speed trainsets for the improved Acela Express service, which promised to be a strong source of income and favorable publicity along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amtrak could not add sufficient express revenue or cut sufficient other services to break even. By 2002, it was clear that Amtrak could not achieve self-sufficiency, but Congress continued to authorize funding and released Amtrak from the requirement.
Amtrak's leader at the time, David L. Gunn, was polite but direct in response to congressional criticism. In a departure from his predecessors' promises to make Amtrak self-sufficient in the short term, Gunn argued that no form of passenger transportation in the United States is self-sufficient as the economy is currently structured. Highways, airports, and air traffic control all require large government expenditures to build and operate, coming from the Highway Trust Fund and Aviation Trust Fund paid for by user fees, highway fuel and road taxes, and, in the case of the General Fund, by people who own cars and do not.
Before a congressional hearing, Gunn answered a demand by leading Amtrak critic Arizona Senator John McCain to eliminate all operating subsidies by asking the Senator if he would also demand the same of the commuter airlines, upon whom the citizens of Arizona are dependent. McCain, usually not at a loss for words when debating Amtrak funding, did not reply.
Under Gunn, almost all the controversial express business was eliminated. The practice of tolerating deferred maintenance was reversed to eliminate a safety issue. The policies improved labor relations to some extent, even as Amtrak's ranks of unionized and salaried workers thinned.
Amtrak's current chief, Alexander Kummant, is committed to operating a national rail network, and he does not envision separating the Northeast corridor (the segment from Boston to Richmond) under separate ownership. He has said that shedding the system's long distance routes would amount to selling national assets that are on par with national parks, and that Amtrak's abandonment of these routes would be irreversible. Amtrak is seeking annual congressional funding of $1 billion for ten years. Kummant has stated that the investment is moderate in light of Federal investment in other modes of transportation.
Amtrak commenced operations in 1971 with $40 million in direct Federal aid, $100 million in Federally insured loans, and a somewhat larger private contribution. Officials expected that Amtrak would break even by 1974, but those expectations proved unrealistic and annual direct Federal aid reached a 17-year high in 1981 of $1.25 billion. During the Reagan administration, appropriations were halved. By 1986, Federal support fell to a decade low of $601 million, almost none of which were capital appropriations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Congress continued the reductionist trend even while Amtrak expenses held steady or rose. Amtrak was forced to borrow to meet short-term operating needs, and by 1995 Amtrak was on the brink of a cash crisis and was unable to continue to service its debts. In response, in 1997 Congress authorized $5.2 billion for Amtrak over the next five years—largely to complete the Acela capital project—on the condition that Amtrak submit to the ultimatum of self-sufficiency by 2003 or liquidation. Amtrak made financial improvements during the period, but ultimately did not achieve self-sufficiency.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, during which Amtrak kept running while airlines were grounded, the value of a national passenger rail service was briefly acknowledged in Washington. But when Congress returned to work following the attacks, the airlines received a $15 billion bailout package, and inattention toward Amtrak resumed.
In 2004, a stalemate in Federal support of Amtrak forced cutbacks in services and routes as well as resumption of deferred maintenance. In fiscal 2004 and 2005, Congress appropriated about $1.2 billion for Amtrak, $300 million more than President George W. Bush had requested. However, the company's board requested $1.8 billion through fiscal 2006, the majority of which (about $1.3 billion) would be used to bring infrastructure, rolling stock, and motive power back to a state of good repair. In Congressional testimony, the Department of Transportation's inspector-general confirmed that Amtrak would need at least $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion in fiscal 2006 and $2 billion in fiscal 2007 just to maintain the status quo. In 2006, Amtrak received just under $1.4 billion, with the condition that Amtrak would reduce (but not eliminate) food and sleeper service losses. Thus, dining service were simplified and now require two fewer on-board service workers. Only Auto Train and Empire Builder services continue regular made onboard meal service.
State governments have partially filled the breach left by reductions in Federal aid. Several states have entered into operating partnerships with Amtrak, notably California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Missouri, Washington, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, and New York, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia, which provides some of the resources for the operation of the Cascades route.
With the dramatic rise in gasoline prices during 2007–2008, Amtrak has seen record ridership. Capping a steady five year increase in ridership overall, regional lines saw 12% year-over-year growth in May, 2008. In October 2007, the Senate passed S-294, "Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act of 2007" (70–22) sponsored by Senators Frank Lautenberg and Trent Lott. Despite a veto threat by President Bush, a similar bill passed the House on June 11, 2008 with a veto-proof margin (311–104).
Government aid to Amtrak was controversial from the beginning. The formation of Amtrak in 1971 was criticized as a bailout serving corporate rail interests and union railroaders, not the traveling public. Critics assert that Amtrak has proven incapable of operating as a business and that it does not provide valuable transportation services meriting public support, a "mobile money-burning machine. They argue that subsidies should be ended, national rail service terminated, and the Northeast Corridor turned over to private interests. "To fund a Nostalgia Limited is not in the public interest. Critics also question Amtrak's energy efficiency, though the U.S. Department of Energy considers Amtrak among the most energy-efficient forms of transportation.
Proponents point out that the government heavily subsidizes the Interstate Highway System, the Federal Aviation Administration, many airports, among many aspects of passenger aviation. Massive government aid to those forms of travel was a primary factor in the decline of passenger service on privately owned railroads in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, Amtrak pays property taxes (through fees to host railroads) that highway users do not pay. Advocates therefore assert that Amtrak should only be expected to be as self-sufficient as those competing modes of transit.
Along these lines, in a June 2008 interview with Reuters, current Amtrak President Alex Kummant made specific observations: $10 billion per year is transferred from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund; $2.7 billion is granted to the FAA; $8 billion goes to "security and life safety for cruise ships." Overall, Kummant claims that Amtrak receives $40 in federal funds per passenger, while highways are subsidized at a rate of $500–$700 per automobile. Moreover, Amtrak provides all of its own security, while airport security is a separate federal subsidy. Kummant added: "Let's not even get into airport construction which is a miasma of state, federal and local tax breaks and tax refinancing and God knows what."
Critics, such as the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole, argue that gasoline taxes amount to user fees because people are taxed to the extent they use the roads. However, there is still a significant amount of road spending that is not covered by the gas tax. It covers little of the costs for local highways and in many states little of the cost for state highways. Taking these facts into account, though, O'Toole points out on page 2 of his report that "in 2006, Americans paid $93.6 billion in tolls, gas taxes, and other highway user fees. Of this amount, $19.3 billion was diverted to mass transit and other non-highway activities. At the same time, various governments—mainly local—spent $44.5 billion in property, sales, or other taxes on highways, roads, and streets. The net subsidy to highways was $25.1 billion, or about half a penny per passenger mile." In the same year, Amtrak receive direct subsidies of just over $1 billion, or 22 cents per passenger mile. However, O'Toole factor in property taxes foregone by building tax-exempt roads. It also does not including policing costs: Amtrak, like all U.S. railroads, pays for its own security, the Amtrak Police; road policing and the Transportation Security Administration are paid for out of general taxation.
In recent times, efforts at reforming passenger rail have addressed labor issues. In 1997 Congress released Amtrak from a prohibition on contracting for labor outside of the corporation (and outside its unions), opening the door to privatization. Since that time, many of Amtrak's employees have been working without a contract. The most recent contract, signed in 1999, was mainly retroactive.
Still, though, the influence of unions is a strong force against change. Amtrak has 14 separate unions to negotiate with, because of the fragmentation of railroad unions by job. Plus, it has 24 separate contracts with those unions. This makes it difficult to make substantial changes, in contrast to a situation where one union negotiates with one employer. Current Amtrak president Kummant seems poised to follow a cooperative posture with Amtrak's trade unions. He has ruled out plans to privatize large parts of Amtrak's unionized workforce.
In late 2007 and early 2008, however, major labor issues came up, a result of a dispute between Amtrak and 16 unions over healthcare, specifically which employees healthcare should be available to. The dispute was not resolved quickly, and the situation escalated, to the point of President Bush declaring a Presidential Emergency Board to resolve the issues. It was not immediately successful, and a strike was threatened, to begin on January 30, 2008. In the middle of that month, however, it was announced that Amtrak and the unions had come to terms and January 30 passed without a strike. In late February it was announced that three more unions had worked out their differences, and as of that time it seems unlikely that any more issues will arise in the near future.
Amtrak is no longer required by law, but is encouraged, to operate a national route system. Amtrak has some presence in all of the 48 contiguous states except Wyoming and South Dakota. Service on the Northeast Corridor, between Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., as well as between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is powered by overhead wires; for the rest of the system, diesel locomotives are used. Routes vary widely in frequency of service, from three trips weekly on the Sunset Limited, from Los Angeles, California, to New Orleans, Louisiana, to weekday service several times per hour on the Northeast Corridor, from New York City to Washington, D.C. Amtrak also operates a captive bus service, Thruway Motorcoach, which provides connections to train routes.
The most popular and heavily used services are those running on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which include the Acela Express, and Regional. The NEC serves Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and many communities between. The NEC services accounted for 10.0 million of Amtrak's 25.7 million passengers in fiscal year 2007. Regional services in California, subsidized by the California Department of Transportation are the most popular services outside of the NEC and the only other services boasting over one million passengers per annum. The Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins services accounted for a combined 5.0 million passengers in fiscal year 2007.
Four of the six stations busiest by boardings are on Amtrak's NEC: New York (Penn Station) (first), Washington (Union Station) (second), Philadelphia (30th Street Station) (third), and Boston (South Station) (sixth). The other two of the top six are Chicago (Union Station) (fourth) and Los Angeles (Union Station) (fifth).
Amtrak trains have both names and numbers. Train routes are named to reflect the rich and complex history of the routes and the areas traversed by them. Each scheduled run of the route is assigned a number. Generally, even-numbered routes run northward and eastward, while odd-numbered routes run southward and westward. Some routes, such as the Pacific Surfliners, use the opposite numbering system, inherited from the previous operators of similar routes, such as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Some of the trains used more often:
Per passenger mile, Amtrak is 18 percent more energy-efficient than commercial airlines and automobiles, though the exact figures for particular routes depend on load factor along with other variables. Advanced technology further increases efficiency: regenerative braking on the Acela Express, for example, reduces electric-energy consumption by 8 percent. Passenger rail is also competitive with other modes in terms of safety per mile.
|Mode||Revenue per passenger mile||Energy consumption per passenger mile||Deaths per 100 million passenger miles||Reliability|
|Domestic airlines||12.0¢||3,182 BTUs||0.02 deaths||82%|
|Intercity buses||12.9¢||3,393 BTUs||0.05 deaths||N|
|Amtrak||26.0¢||2,100 BTUs||0.03 deaths||74%|
|Autos||N/A||3,458 BTUs||0.80 deaths||N/A|
Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is a niche player in passenger transportation. In 2003, Amtrak accounted for just 0.1% of U.S. intercity passenger miles (5,680,000,000 out of 5,280,860,000,000 total, of which private-automobile travel makes up the vast majority). In fiscal year 2004, Amtrak routes served over 25 million passengers, while, in calendar year 2004, commercial airlines served over 712 million passengers.
Amtrak provides some rail service in 46 states. The only states that are not served by Amtrak are Hawaii, Alaska (served by the Alaska Railroad), South Dakota (although in years past there was service by the Milwaukee Road to South Dakota, Amtrak has never instituted any service to that state) and Wyoming (lost rail service in the 1997 cuts, and in early 2008 lost the Denver-Casper motorcoach service). Amtrak serves many states only nominally through stations along borders and/or away from major population areas. Many major cities in the Midwest, West, and South have two or fewer trains per day, such as Atlanta, Denver, Cincinnati, Houston, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis–Saint Paul.
Amtrak's reliance on freight railroads also has caused its service elimination. Passenger rail service was entirely discontinued to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1997, after the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks that served Phoenix, announced that it was abandoning the right of way. Amtrak did not have the funds to maintain the trackage. Today, the city proper is served only by Thruway Motorcoach, although Amtrak rail service is available about 37 miles to the south in Maricopa. In 1983, the Palmetto was truncated from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, Florida because Amtrak was unable to take on the costs of maintaining the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad drawbridge, which took the train over Tampa Bay.
Damage to railroad track caused by Hurricane Katrina interrupted service on the Sunset Limited. Originally the train departed from Orlando, Florida, but the track damage along the Gulf coast caused the train to originate at New Orleans, Louisiana. Although the track's owner, CSX, completed repairs by early 2006, Amtrak service has not resumed over two years later, leaving the intermediate stations between Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans without any Amtrak service.
Several significant Amtrak routes have been eliminated because of lack of funding since 1971, creating other gaps. The east–west train feeding Kansas City, Missouri, with New York and Washington, D.C., called the National Limited, was cut, leaving Chicago as the only throughway for direct links between the Midwest and East. The North Coast Hiawatha, between Chicago and Seattle, provided only reduced service between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The last link with the vaunted Chicago–Florida services of such trains as the City of Miami, the Dixie Flagler, and the South Wind, was broken when the Floridian was discontinued in October 1979. In 1997, the Desert Wind and Pioneer were discontinued, along with service to Las Vegas, Boise, and all of Wyoming. In 2003, Amtrak discontinued the Kentucky Cardinal, ending all service to Louisville. In 2005, Three Rivers (a reborn Broadway Limited) was nixed, removing the only direct New York–Chicago service through central Pennsylvania.
Through various commuter services, Amtrak serves an additional 61.1 million passengers per year in conjunction with state and regional authorities in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington. Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner (formerly San Diegan), and San Joaquins are funded mostly by a state transit authority, Caltrans, rather than the federal government.
First Class service is offered on the Acela Express only. First Class passengers have access to Amtrak ClubAcela lounges in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston (lounges offer complementary drinks, personal ticketing service, lounge seating, conference areas, computer/internet access and televisions tuned to CNN). At the Philadelphia and Washington D.C., ClubAcelas, passengers can board their train directly from the ClubAcela (In Philadelphia, passenger use an elevator while in Washington, passengers leave through a side door leading to the tracks). Seats are larger than those of Business Class and come in a variety of seating modes (single, single with table, double, double with table and wheelchair accessible). First Class is located in a separate car than the other classes and each train set contains only one First Class car. First Class includes complimentary meal and beverage service along with free newspapers and hot towel service. First Class seats are set in a 1x2 configuration. There are two attendants per car.
Business Class is the minimum class of service on the Acela Express and is offered as an upgrade on Regional and other short to long distance trains. Business Class seats are larger than those in coach. Business Class passengers have easy access to the cafe car. they also receive complementary non-alcoholic beverages and free newspapers. Business Class seats all have power outlets for electronics. Business Class seats are located in different areas depending on the train. On some trains, Business Class is located at the front of the Café Car. These seats are in a 1x2 style and feature leather upholstery, cup holders and leg rests. These seats also recline to a more "sofa recliner style." The other type of Business Class seat is located in an actual Business Class car. These seats are organized in a 2x2 style and feature more legroom than the coach seats in the other cars.
Coach Class is the minimum class of service on Amtrak trains and includes footrests and decent legroom. Coach seats are set in a 2x2 configuration.
Sleeper Service rooms are considered First Class on long distance trains. Rooms are classified into roomettes, bedrooms, family bedrooms and accessible bedrooms. With the price of a room comes complimentary meals and attendant service. At night, rooms turn into sleeping areas with fold down beds and fresh linens. Complementary bottled water, newspapers and turn down service is included as well. Sleeper car passengers have access to the entire train. Sleeper passengers also have access to the Club Acela lounges in stations along the Northeast Corridor and access to the Metropolitan Lounges in Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, and Minneapolis/Saint Paul.
Most tracks on which Amtrak operates are owned by freight railroads. Amtrak operates over all seven Class I railroads in the United States, as well as several short lines: the Pan Am Railways, New England Central Railroad, and Vermont Railway. Other sections are owned by terminal railroads jointly controlled by freight companies or by commuter rail agencies. The arrangement has two notable impacts on Amtrak operations. The host railroad is responsible for maintenance and occasionally Amtrak has suffered service disruptions from untimely track rehabilitation. When host railroads have simply refused to maintain their tracks to Amtrak's needs, Amtrak occasionally has been compelled to pay the host to maintain the tracks. Also, Amtrak enjoys priority over the host's freight traffic only for a specified window of time. When a passenger train misses that window, host railroads may (and frequently do) direct passenger trains to follow lumbering freight traffic, severely exacerbating even minor delays and exposing the host railroad to financial penalties by law.
The Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York and Providence, Rhode Island is largely owned by Amtrak, working cooperatively with several state and regional commuter agencies. Amtrak's portion was acquired in 1976 as a result of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act.
The part of the line from New Haven to the New York/Connecticut border (Port Chester/Greenwich) is owned by the state of Connecticut, while the portion from Port Chester to New Rochelle is owned by the state of New York. The Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority operate this line through Metro-North Railroad.
This line runs from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As a result of an investment partnership with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, signal and track improvements were completed in October 2006, and now allow all-electric service with a top speed of to run along the corridor.
Amtrak also owns station and yard tracks in Chicago; Hialeah (near Miami, Florida) (leased from the State of Florida); Los Angeles; New Orleans; New York City; Oakland (Kirkham Street Yard); Orlando; Portland, Oregon; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.
Amtrak owns the Chicago Union Station Company (Chicago Union Station) and Penn Station Leasing (New York Penn Station). It has a 99.7% interest in the Washington Terminal Company (tracks around Washington Union Station) and 99% of 30th Street Limited (Philadelphia 30th Street Station). Also owned by Amtrak is Passenger Railroad Insurance.
Rail Companies of Interest