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Amtrak is the trademark name of an intercity passenger train system created on May 1, 1971 in the United States. Formally known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, the trademark name Amtrak is a combination of the words AMerica, TRAvel and tracK. Nominally, Amtrak is an independent for-profit corporation, but the members of Amtrak's board of directors are appointed by the President of the United States and are subject to confirmation by the United States Senate. Some Amtrak stock is outstanding, although it is not actively traded and is generally considered to be worthless as an investment, as it has never paid dividends. The chairman of Amtrak is David Laney, a presidential appointee. The current President of Amtrak is David Gunn.


Historic background

In its original conception, Amtrak owned no track and thus was not truly a railroad. It acquired the Northeast Corridor, by far its largest area of owned tracks, in 1976, following the collapse and bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation in 1971, only 60 days after Amtrak began operations. The failed company had been carrying a large portion of the nation's passenger rail traffic, adding to its massive financial losses.

Relieving passenger burden, a right to share tracks with freight railroads

Amtrak was created to relieve private railroad companies of their previous legal obligation to provide passenger rail service as common carriers and allow them to pursue their interests in more profitable freight operations. It was planned from the outset that Amtrak trains would continue to use the existing network of tracks in the freight rail system. For the most part, this scheme still exists today, and in most parts of the United States, Amtrak trains share tracks with the freight-oriented host railroads.

Historically, on routes where a single railroad has had an undisputed monopoly, passenger service was as spartan, and as expensive, as the market would bear, since such railroads had no need to advertise their freight services. But on routes where two or three railroads were in direct competition with each other for freight business, such railroads would spare no expense to make their passenger trains as fast, luxurious, and affordable as possible, because it was the most effective way of advertising their profitable freight services.

As early as the 1930s, automobile travel had begun to cut into the rail passenger market, somewhat reducing economies of scale, but it was the development of the Interstate Highway System, and of commercial aviation, in the 1950s and 1960s, that dealt the most damaging blows to rail transportation, both passenger and freight. There was little point in operating passenger trains to advertise freight service when those who made decisions about freight shipping traveled by car and by air, and when the railroads' chief competitors for that market were interstate trucking companies. Soon, the only things keeping most passenger trains running were legal obligations. Meanwhile, companies who were interested in using railroads for profitable freight traffic were looking for ways to get out of those legal obligations, and it looked as passenger rail service would soon become extinct in the United States.

The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) was formed in 1968 to lobby for the continuation of passenger trains. Its lobbying efforts were hampered somewhat by Democratic opposition to any sort of subsidies to the railroads and Republican opposition to nationalization of industry. The proponents were aided by the fact that few in the Government wanted to be held responsible for the seemingly-inevitable extinction of the passenger train, which most regarded as tantamount to political suicide.

On October 30, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed a law creating Amtrak. At the time, it was thought that it would give passenger trains one last hurrah, and allow the President and Congress to save face, then quietly disappear. Many insiders, including President Nixon's aides, assumed that Amtrak would disappear within two years of its creation. However, popular and political support for Amtrak has persisted while subsidies from both federal and state governments have helped Amtrak to survive and grow.

The fuel shortages of the mid-1970s on the nation's highways and increased air fares which also resulted created a renewed interest in passenger rail travel. Given that railroads used fuel very efficiently, passenger rail travel no longer seemed quite so outmoded. Consequently, Amtrak's ridership began to increase. (Another rebound occurred after the September 11 attacks in 2001).

Conflicting goals

Amtrak was established to relieve railroads of their federally-mandated responsibilities to transport passengers as a priority over freight. This was causing increasingly large financial losses for the railroads as the networks of federally-funded highways and airports expanded. From the outset, Amtrak was expected to pursue conflicting goals: Amtrak was supposed to provide a national rail passenger service while simultaneously operating as a commercial enterprise.

There have been few times in history when any intercity rail passenger operation in the world has been truly profitable, even with respect to only its operating costs, and passenger trains have never brought in enough revenue to pay for their infrastructure costs. Even highly efficient private-sector railroads such as the Norfolk and Western could not earn a profit, or even recover operating expenses for passenger service. The concept of Amtrak as a for-profit business was fatally flawed before the first passenger boarded.

Politically-appointed leaders and congressional funding

Without a dedicated source of capital equipment and operating funding (except for competitive passenger fares and even less express income), Amtrak's continued operation has always been dependent upon the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government. Both congressional funding, and appointments of Amtrak's leaders are subject to political considerations, which have varied widely during its existence through seven U.S. presidencies and major shifts of power in the U.S. Congress.

Because Amtrak's board and president are all political appointees, some have had little or no experience with railroads. However, Amtrak has also benefited from both highly skilled and politically-oriented leaders.

For example, in 1982, former U.S. Secretary of the Navy and retired Southern Railway head W. Graham Claytor Jr. brought his naval and railroad experience to the job. Claytor had served briefly as an acting U.S. Secretary of Transportation in the cabinet of President Jimmy Carter in 1979, and came out of retirement to lead Amtrak after the disastrous financial results during the Carter administration (1977-1981). He was recruited and 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 seemed to enjoy a good relationship with the Congress for his 11 years in the position. Of course, politics aside, that may have also been because he did a good job. According to an article in Fortune magazine, through vigorous cost cutting and aggressive marketing, within 7 years under Claytor, Amtrak was generating enough cash to cover 72% of its $1.7 billion operating budget by 1989, up from 48% in 1981. [1]

The myth of a self-sustaining Amtrak

Two of the leaders who followed Claytor lacked freight railroad or private-sector experience. Perhaps even worse, they each had inherited the Amtrak self-sufficiency myth which began under David Stockman and his successors at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (under Claytor's Amtrak presidency) in 1986.

Claytor's replacement under the Clinton Administration was Amtrak President Thomas Downs . He had been City Administrator of Washington DC, and oversaw the Union Station project, which had experienced both massive delays and cost overruns. Under Downs, in 1995 Amtrak began to claim that it could achieve operating self-sufficiency, and its leaders seemed to be increasingly misleading as to the prospects of achieving that goal when pressed by Congress and the media.

After Downs left Amtrak, George Warrington was appointed as Amtrak's next president. He had extensive experience in the New York City area, where citizens have long demonstrated a commitment to the mass transit services. When he took the helm of Amtrak in January, 1998, self-sufficiency was still officially a stated goal, although it was becoming elusive in the eyes of Congress. Under Warrington's administration, Amtrak was mandated by the Administration and Congress to become totally self-sufficient within a five-year period, and all its management efforts were directed to that goal. Passengers became "guests" and there were expansions into special express freight work. Finally, at the end of the 5-year period, it became clear that self-sufficiency was an idealistic goal for Amtrak which was simply unachievable, no matter how much additional express revenue was gained or how many cuts were made in Amtrak services.

In fairness, while both Downs or Warrington had extensive experience in government, neither had the non-governmental cost accounting or practical experience in private-sector railroading of that Claytor also had. Claytor also enjoyed the benefit of serving during the Reagan Administration when increases in federal spending on military items was drawing a lot of the political attention in Congress. The efforts to expand Amtrak's express income were unpopular with the host freight railroads, who did not want the additional Amtrak traffic it brought (or the competition). The express work also brought Amtrak new political enemies in the powerful trucking lobby before Congress. Warrington's administration also had the burden of delays in implementation of the new Acela high-speed trainsets, which promised to be a strong source of income and favorable publicity along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC.

Gunn administration: reality check

When David Gunn was selected as Amtrak president, the myth of Amtrak self-sufficiency had been well-exposed. He came with a reputation as a strong, straight-forward and experienced operating manager. In his selection, President George W. Bush knew he was not hiring someone who would tell Congress whatever was politically correct. Years earlier, Gunn's refusal to "do politics" put him at odds with the WMATA (Metro) board, which includes representatives from the District of Columbia and suburban jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia during his tenure from 1991-1994. His work as president of the New York City Transit Authority from 1984 to 1990 and as Chief General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission in Canada from 1995-1999 earned him a great deal of operating credibility, despite his rough handling of politics and labor unions. The two agencies were each the largest transit operations of their respective countries. Prior to 1974, Gunn also gained private-sector railroad experience with Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, the New York Central Railroad System (before the Penn Central debacle) and for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Before that, he had experience with the U.S. Navy in the Naval Reserve. Gunn's credentials are the strongest at the head of Amtrak since W. Graham Claytor came out of retirement by request in 1982.

So far, Gunn has been polite, but very direct in response to congressional criticism. He is also seen as more credible by Congress, the media, and many Amtrak supporters and employees. Perhaps more than any past president of Amtrak, Gunn seems willing to publicly oppose the political and budget positions of the President of the United States who appointed him, and at whose pleasure he serves.

A more realistic view of Amtrak under the Gunn administration is that no form of mass passenger transportation in the United States is self-sufficient as the economy is currently structured. Highways, airports, and air traffic control all require large expenditures to build and maintain, although some of those taxpayer dollars are gained for other modes under the guise of user fees and highway fuel and road taxes. 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 much more dependent. McCain, usually not at a loss for words when debating Amtrak funding, did not reply.

Some of Gunn's actions have been politically wise. He has been very proactive in reducing layers of management overhead and has eliminated almost all of the controversial express business. He has stated that continued deferred maintenance will become a safety issue which he will not tolerate. This has improved labor relations to some extent, even as Amtrak's ranks of unionized and salaried workers have been reduced.

Northeast Corridor

One significant area, the electrified Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington, D.C. and Boston via New York, is largely composed of Amtrak's own tracks. Along the NEC and in several other areas, Amtrak owns 730 route miles of track including 17 tunnels consisting of 29.7 miles of track and 1,186 bridges (including the famous Hell Gate Bridge) consisting of 42.5 miles of track. These are combined with those of several state and regional commuter agencies in what amounts to a cooperative arrangement. (Amtrak's portion of the NEC was essentially acquired in 1976 from Penn Central Transportation, which had gone bankrupt and was getting out of the railroad business). While Amtrak must negotiate shared scheduling with freight railroads in most areas of the country, along the NEC the coordination is between the various passenger-carrying agencies.

Amtrak Train
Amtrak Train

National impact

Amtrak employs over 19,000 people. The nationwide network of 22,000 miles of routes serves 500 communities in 46 of the United States, with some of the routes serving communities in Canadian provinces along the United States border. The only states which are not served by Amtrak trains are Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming. However, Wyoming is served by Amtrak's Thruway Motorcoaches.

In fiscal year 2001, Amtrak routes served more than 23.5 million passengers, and despite an overall decrease in travel of all types, Amtrak served more than 23.4 million passengers in fiscal year 2002.

Guest Rewards

Amtrak operates a loyalty program called Guest Rewards, which is similar to the frequent flyer programs offered by many airlines. Guest Rewards members accumulate points by riding Amtrak and through other activities. Members can then redeem these points for free Amtrak tickets and other awards.

Amtrak also code shares on Continental Airlines with their rail service between Newark Liberty International Airport and 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wilmington, Delaware, Stamford, Connecticut, and Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut.

Commuter services

Through its various commuter services, Amtrak serves an additional 61.1 million passengers per year in conjunction with state and regional authorities in California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Virginia:

Federal funding

Amtrak's ongoing need for federal government funding leads to recurring budget crises and debates over its possible elimination. A stalemate in federal subsidization of Amtrak has led to cutbacks in services and routes for the last several years, and some deferred maintenance. Recently, the U.S. Congress has agreed to provide up to $900 million in annual subsidies. However Amtrak President David Gunn has insisted that Amtrak needs at least $1.8 billion to continue as an operating entity. Several states have entered into operating partnerships with Amtrak, notably California and Washington.

If Amtrak is to operate, it must do so safely and it will require extensive ongoing financial capital and operating support. Gunn and President Bush are probably in agreement that more state and local funding support would be desirable for Amtrak. Both probably also realize that the more practical and frugal management under Gunn will draw less fire from Amtrak's opponents in Congress, where the question of federal financing will ultimately be decided, perhaps on a year-to-year basis for the foreseeable future.

As has been the practice in most years, the current budget proposal from the U.S. President to the Congress does not support Amtrak's continued existence in its current form. The budget proposed by the Bush Administration for 2006 would eliminate Amtrak's operating subsidy and set aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad ceases operating. This budget has yet to be acted upon by Congress. In the budget process, on March 16, 2005, an amendment by Senator Robert Byrd (WV) failed by 46-52 to give Amtrak $1.4 billion in additional operating funds. The matter is still before the Congress.

Motive power and rolling stock

Amtrak operates 425 locomotives (351 diesel and 74 electric), 2,141 railroad cars including several types of passenger cars including 168 sleeper cars, 760 coach cars, 126 first class/business class cars, 66 dormitory/crew cars, 225 lounge/café/dinette cars, and 92 dining cars. Many are Superliner I and II models. Baggage cars and autoracks for Auto Train service make up the remainder of the fleet.

20 Acela trainsets currently provide high-speed rail service along the Northeast Corridor between between South Station in Boston and Union Station in Washington D.C.

Owned tracks

Amtrak owns the following trackage:[2]


Tracks are electrified from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. (the whole Northeast Corridor) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Freight services

Amtrak Express provides small package and less-than-truckload shipping services between more than 100 cities. Amtrak Express also offers station-to-station shipment of human remains to many express cities. At smaller stations, funeral directors must load and unload the shipment onto and off the train. Amtrak also hauled mail for the United States Postal Service as well as time sensitive freight shipments, but discontinued these services in October of 2004.

On most parts of the few lines that Amtrak owns, it has trackage rights agreements allowing freight railroads to use its trackage.

Amtrak routes

Amtrak has a complex albeit decentralized management structure wherein individual train conductors and other staff are assigned to particular routes or stations whereas ticket sales are managed by a nationwide computer system.

As a general rule, even-numbered routes run north and east while odd numbered routes run south and west. However, some routes, such as the Pacific Surfliners, use the exact opposite numbering system, which they inherited from the previous operators of similar routes, such as the Santa Fe Railroad.

Amtrak gives each of its train routes a name. These names often reflect the rich and complex history of the route itself, or of the area traversed by the route.

Active Amtrak routes

Route name Termini Frequency
Acela Express Boston, Massachusetts - Washington, D.C. (high-speed rail) more than daily
Adirondack Montreal, Quebec - New York, New York daily
Amtrak Cascades Vancouver, British Columbia - Eugene, Oregon more than daily
Ann Rutledge Chicago, Illinois - Kansas City, Missouri daily
Auto Train Lorton, Virginia - Sanford, Florida daily
Blue Water Chicago, Illinois - Port Huron, Michigan daily
California Zephyr Chicago, Illinois - Emeryville, California daily
Capitol Corridor Auburn, California - San Jose more than daily
Capitol Limited Washington, D.C. - Chicago, Illinois daily
Cardinal New York, New York - Chicago, Illinois 3 days per week
Carolinian New York, New York - Charlotte, North Carolina daily
City of New Orleans Chicago, Illinois - New Orleans, Louisiana daily
Clocker New York, New York - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania more than daily
Coast Starlight Seattle, Washington - Los Angeles, California daily
Crescent New York, New York - New Orleans, Louisiana daily
Downeaster Portland, Maine - Boston, Massachusetts more than daily
Empire Builder Chicago, Illinois - Portland, Oregon/Seattle, Washington daily
Empire Service New York, New York - Niagara Falls, New York more than daily
Ethan Allen Express Rutland, Vermont - New York, New York daily
Heartland Flyer Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - Fort Worth, Texas daily
Hiawatha Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Chicago, Illinois more than daily
Hoosier State Indianapolis, Indiana - Chicago, Illinois daily (including Cardinal)
Illini Chicago, Illinois - Carbondale, Illinois daily
Illinois Zephyr Chicago, Illinois - Quincy, Illinois daily
Kansas City Mule St. Louis, Missouri to Kansas City, Missouri daily (one-way)
Keystone New York, New York - Harrisburg, Pennsylvania more than daily
Lake Shore Limited New York, New York/Boston, Massachusetts - Chicago, Illinois daily
Maple Leaf Toronto, Ontario - New York, New York daily
Metroliner New York, New York - Washington, D.C. more than daily
Pacific Surfliner San Luis Obispo, California - San Diego, California more than daily
Palmetto New York, New York - Savannah, Georgia daily
Pennsylvanian New York, New York - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania daily
Pere Marquette Chicago, Illinois - Grand Rapids, Michigan daily
Piedmont Raleigh, North Carolina - Charlotte, North Carolina daily
Regional Boston, Massachusetts/Springfield, Massachusetts - Newport News, Virginia more than daily
St. Louis Mule Kansas City, Missouri to St. Louis, Missouri daily (one-way)
San Joaquins Oakland, California/Sacramento, California - Bakersfield, California more than daily
Silver Meteor New York, New York - Miami, Florida daily
Silver Star New York, New York - Miami, Florida daily
Southwest Chief Chicago, Illinois - Los Angeles, California daily
State House Chicago, Illinois - St. Louis, Missouri daily
Sunset Limited Orlando, Florida - Los Angeles, California 3 days per week
Texas Eagle Chicago, Illinois - San Antonio, Texas daily
Vermonter St. Albans, Vermont - Washington, D.C. daily
Wolverine Chicago, Illinois - Pontiac, Michigan 3 per day

List of defunct Amtrak routes

  • Black Hawk
  • Colonial
  • Desert Wind
  • The Federal
  • Floridian
  • George Washington
  • Hilltopper
  • International
  • James Whitcomb Riley
  • Kentucky Cardinal
  • Lake Cities
  • Montrealer
  • North Coast Hiawatha
  • Patriot
  • Pere Marquette
  • Pioneer
  • Senator
  • Shawnee
  • Silver Palm
  • Southwind
  • Spirit of California
  • Spirit of St. Louis
  • Three Rivers
  • Twilight Limited
  • Twilight Shoreliner

See also


Amtrak System Timetable, Fall 2004/Winter 2005

External links

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