Historiography: Riding The Rails

All Photos by Randy Stern

“There’s something about a train that’s magic.”

This was the first line from a jingle that encouraged travelers to ride the rails on Amtrak – the passenger rail service that traverses the USA. Amtrak had its ups and downs since its formation in 1971 as a national semi-public sector organization consolidating the many companies that provided these same services for well over a century prior. It remains the largest rail passenger service in the country running on 21,400 miles of track to each of their 500 destinations. In 2017, Amtrak carried 31.7 million passengers on its network.

Before 1971, passengers had to ride on privately-run railroads to get from city to city in this country. Rail was extremely popular from its inception in the 19th Century well into World War I. To transfer from one railroad to another, they had to go to different depots in a single city, or head to a single station where these lines all met as a hub.

What made rail travel all worth it was the lines that stretched out from coast to coast. Most of them ran out of the hub in Chicago, with iconic routes heading in all directions. The routes heading out west took days to accomplish. You can thank the meeting of the railroads in 1869 out in Promontory Summit in Utah, where the Golden Spike was nailed to the ground signaling the start of transcontinental rail service.

The fact that many railroads ran their own service on the track they laid down and own, it felt as passengers were married to a particular line in order to be serviced by them. There had been mergers, spin-offs, and operating agreements on these railroads prior to Amtrak’s creation. The greatest concern for both the government and the passenger was the fact that the railroads operated as monopolies that needed to be reigned in. Therefore, the railroads had been seen as one of the first industries to be the target of anti-trust legislation and heavy regulation by the Federal government, dating back to the 1880s.

Union Station Interior

While the railroads enjoyed the spoils of track ownership and both freight and passenger operation, they made sure to provide a level of service that was attainable for everyone who needed to go from Point A to Point B. The word “Pullman” meant a level of luxury that equaled first class service, while the sleeper car was the ultimate luxury – predating the ultra-expensive suites seen on Middle Eastern and other high-end airlines today.

Trains were used to take troops to be shipped out to the war front. Yet, they seemed too expensive for people migrating away from the despair of the Great Depression. The automobile started eating into train ridership. This was part due to a new competitor in intercity travel – the bus. Like today, intercity buses were less expensive, but provided less amenities a long-distance train would provide.

The spoils of World War II provided a major shift in intercity transportation. The Federal Government invested in a national highway network that was seen to augment rail networks. The result was mixed. Freight services were augmented by trucks, which help keep the railroads operating through the postwar era. Passenger service began to suffer because the building of the Interstate Highway system got families off the train and into their automobiles.

One would think that the airlines would serve the biggest blow to passenger rail in the USA. Not immediately after World War II. Eventually, they would. It just needed a few things to happen. One, would be the creation of Amtrak, which was left with a handful of intercity routes to service. The next blow would be airline deregulation, which opened up the skies to many low-cost operators promising a quicker way to get where they wanted to go.

In Canada, the same progress of its train network mirrored that of its southern neighbors. VIA Rail came about the same way as Amtrak in 1977. Both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways offered passenger service that was no longer profitable and viable to provide to its customers. VIA took the same strategy as Amtrak and kept its most iconic routes, such as the Vancouver-Toronto run and its Eastern network from Toronto into the Maritimes.

The Visitors Bureau Caboose

Let’s not forget about Alaska. The single connects Fairbanks with Seward through Anchorage. It serves more as a tourist train than a commuter one, which means superb opportunities for the causal traveler. The line operates multiple trains and offers a variety of services along the way.

This is where we are at today. Passenger rail in North America is far from dead. However, many promises and dream projects have been discussed for years that one wonders whether they would help reintroduce passenger rail to more travelers.

The issue lies with track ownership and agreements to utilize these tracks with both freight and passenger services operating on them. While Amtrak rides on 21,400 miles of track, Amtrak owns only 623 miles of it. While some of the network can be sped up to 150 MPH, there is also a lack of true high-speed service across Amtrak. Future projects have been positioned towards creating high-speed lines, but we have yet to see anything on the scale of operations in use in Japan and across Europe, among other networks.

Amtrak maintains some services that reflect back to the past. Sleeper cars are usually the way to go for long-distance routes. They are designed with efficiency in mind by being more utilitarian and practical. Bunk beds, along with a very compact bathroom set. You still have dining cars, where ion some long-distance routes you have to make reservations. I have heard mixed reviews of the food quality, but you should have service that is above that of a diner.

One advantage that Amtrak has above the airlines are the seats. They are wider, seat in a two-two configuration per row, and offer a lot more legroom than some premium economy seats up in the air. And, don’t worry – modern trains are heated and air conditioned.

Union Depot

Granted, it takes as long to get somewhere about the same time as driving. You don’t have to stop to take in a view, since they are right there just outside your extremely large window. If you’re lucky to live at an Amtrak hub, you can go anywhere you want for a day’s excursion. Or, for an overnight adventure to a place you always wanted to go.

Speaking of driving, Amtrak operates only one train service that transports cars, along with passengers. The Auto Train runs from Lorton, Virginia near Washington, DC to Sanford, Florida near Orlando.

This history just reflects experience of passenger rail in the USA and Canada. European countries enjoy a nationalized network of rail options that combine cross-country and localized services under one brand. The UK has the complete opposite situation today. Though Network Rail (formerly British Rail) maintains the entire network, they have since contracted multiple operators to provide passenger service. Japan also operates a nationalized rail network that also offers several different services across the country.

In truth, passenger rail in North America may be centered on Amtrak and VIA Rail for intercity services. The real growth in this business is coming from commuter rail. Up to about three decades ago, regional commuter networks already existed to feed into Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and San Francisco. Since then, we saw an explosion of rail systems designed to reduce highway traffic and provide a comfortable alternative to get to work or head towards the city center for fun.

Northstar at Big Lake 1

All of the sudden commuter rail services were operating in places, such as Los Angeles, Seattle-Tacoma, South Florida, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Denver, Vancouver, and Dallas-Fort Worth. On top of all of this, a new project is underway to link Orlando with Miami – one of several non-Amtrak intercity services that are being planned in the future.

While growth in passenger rail within the USA remains in creating regional, commuter-focused services, Amtrak is as steady as it goes. I have not been on an Amtrak train in 11 years – the last being a roundtrip on the Cascades services between Seattle and Portland – I face the task of trying to get back to the Empire Builder that runs through Union Depot in St. Paul.

The Empire Builder runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. It takes a few days to do the entire run, but there are plenty of opportunities along the way. I have been on this train between Chicago and St. Paul. In fact, that was how I moved here. It is indeed a full service, long-distance train that runs through some amazing vistas through Montana. They call this the highlight of the train. Clearly, it is not as exciting as running through the heart of Wisconsin…actually, it should be.

The drawback is the travel time between St. Paul and Chicago. Some motorists will tell you that it takes a shorter time to get between the two cities out on the Interstate. That is, if you do not make any stops along the way – which is impossible, in my case. There are other drawbacks, such as a lack of Wi-Fi, and the opportunity to visit places that you have to arrive and depart at odd hours of the night – such as Fargo and Grand Forks.

When I lived in the Washington, DC area, Amtrak was a major option for travel. I could do a day trip to Philadelphia or Richmond, run up to New York or down to Charlotte for an overnight trip. I can do an overnight passage to Chicago on one of two train routes. It is worth living in a place where there is a rail hub, like Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, or Los Angeles.

St Paul Union Depot 7

From St. Paul’s refurbished and lovely Union Depot, you only have two trains coming through. The eastbound Empire Builder in the morning is probably the better bet than the westbound train that arrives late at night. That is, if you are definitely heading to Montana, Seattle, or Portland.

Is there still something about the train that’s magic. I could say that unless you live in key parts of Amtrak’s system, that may well still be the case. Maybe another train ride is in order to find out…

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