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The Railroad Revival

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A year after the Erie Canal opened in 1825 the nation's first railroad began hauling blocks of granite cut from a quarry in Quincy, Massachusetts, to the Neponset River. There the stone was loaded on boats and floated some ten miles over to Charlestown to be used for constructing the Bunker Hill Monument. A second and similar railroad opened the following year in Pennsylvania to transport anthracite coal. However, it was left to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to become the nation's oldest from the standpoint of offering continuous passenger service starting in 1830.

During the 1830s numerous other railroads were laying primitive rails in various parts of the Atlantic coast states. At first most of them provided shuttle service between two cities or towns a few served as connecting links to two canals, which otherwise could not offer their shippers through service. The latter part of the 1830s witnessed an epidemic of railroad construction with many of today's major lines tracing their origins back to that time. Although by 1840 only 1,098 miles of track had been laid, the public understood the importance of these pioneering companies and what they portended. Soon one canal after another went out of business, and further major road construction and repair were greatly reduced. Railroads were seen as the answer to all transportation needs.

Now the west was host to most of the new track age. By this time in the east two or more companies were competing for passenger and freight traffic between most principal cities. After 1916 additional expansion fell off dramatically, and thereafter many railroad companies were finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit except during World War II. Not only was there fierce competition but there was also insufficient traffic on numerous branch lines that were no longer profitable.

From here on the story has been mostly one of railroads losing business to airlines, buses, and trucks, abandoning unprofitable main and branch lines, and merging with other companies in a desperate struggle to survive. Finally two premier long-time rival lines, New York Central and Pennsylvania, merged and then failed. Ironically this helped create a new day for railroading because the government stepped in to save the transportation crisis in the east by helping give birth to two new rail systems: Amtrak and Conrail.


Imagine this if you will:

You're speeding to Washington on the all new Metroliner Express Service. Your scheduled running time: a remarkable 2 hours and 59 civilized minutes.

Your body is relaxing in a big, wide, comfortable reclining seat. The new, roomier 60-seat car creates an incredible amount of space all around you.

You pull up your leg rest, settle back, do some work or read. Later, you decide to stroll to the lounge car and you select from a menu that is better than ever. Hot meals, Cold snacks, Wine, Beer, Cocktails.

Or imagine that you opted for our new club car service.

Now you're enjoying a complimentary Continental breakfast. Or eat a light meal for lunch or dinner.

Or perhaps you wish to order from the menu. Here you peruse a variety of entrees, and you are served at your seat.

While you're dining you realize that you are now experiencing all the luxuries the Washington business traveler has long since given up.

But it's all happening now-speed and comfort-on Amtrak down-town to downtown, from Penn Station four times a day, every business day to Washington and back. (Plus there's also all-new service on our six other Metroliner trains every business day.)

The above advertisement, which appeared in the New York Times, is indicative of the new look that Amtrak is assuming. The "prophets of doom" who say that railroading is obsolete should ride one of these fine trains or some of the other Amtrak limited, or watch one of the Conrail freights speed by. They will agree that railroads are not only here to stay but could have an exciting future.

Unfortunately, America's total rail mileage has shrunk considerably over the past fifty years as many unprofitable branches and even main lines were abandoned. As railroad companies merged or went out of business, most of the once luxurious passenger services disappeared. Suburban commuter services-which are operated for the most part by independent authorities created by the state or local government, can continue because of state government subsidies.

To understand the railroad picture, let's take a closer look at the two government-sponsored railroad corporations: Amtrak and Conrail.


By 1970 more than 100 of the nation's 500 passenger railroads had asked the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to discontinue all service. Since 1950 most of these privately owned companies had been operating their trains at a loss and were facing bankruptcy. The automobile, which could now speed over the new interstate highway system as well as other improved roads, provided a less expensive and more flexible form of transportation for many families that had formerly traveled by train. At the same time the growth of airline service and the speed of the jets, that could fly coast-to-coast in less than six hours, contrasted heavily with the three-day train trip, making transcontinental rail service practically obsolete. True, some people still preferred to ride trains or were afraid to fly, but there were not enough of them.

In October 1970 Congress established Amtrak, officially known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. This was a quasi-public corporation, its board of directors composed of eight officers appointed by the president, three representatives from the railroad industry, and four private investors. These investors were chosen from those who held the company's preferred stock.

Congress intended the company to be a profit-making enterprise and gave it an initial grant of $40 million plus $100 million in federal loan guarantees. By the time Amtrak began operating in 1971, it had eliminated half of the intercity passenger service, keeping only those trains that enjoyed dense traffic. During that first year, trains were running over 180 routes and serving approximately 300 cities. Amtrak is the only intercity carrier. In addition, there are about twenty regional com-muter carriers and numerous excursion rail carriers that operate over short track age.

For years Japan and France have led the railroad world with their high-speed passenger trains. In March 1996 the United States took steps to join them as Amtrak announced plans to order eighteen new train-sets that would allow it to cut 25-30 percent off scheduled times between Boston and Washington. First, however, the Boston-New Haven section must be electrified and tracks, bridges, and signals upgraded for the new speedy service. Since Amtrak serves downtown centers in each major city, it will be able to compete with airlines that must use airports usually located some distance out of town.

High-speed rail service for the entire New England corridor-Boston to Washington-at speeds up to 150 miles per hour will give rail travel a new profile. High-speed trains between Miami and Orlando, Florida, and Los Angeles and San Diego are also in the planning stage, but the realization of these dreams will depend on whether the necessary funding can be obtained.
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