Intercity Trains: A Brief History

The first railroads in the United States began operating in about 1830. Soon, train transportation surpassed canals and horse-drawn carriages in importance as railroads were built throughout the eastern part of the country.

The opening of the Transcontinental Railroad (Omaha to Sacramento) in 1869 was the start of rail service to the West.

Railroads dominated American passenger transportation for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century, with ridership reaching its peak in 1920. At that point, ridership began a steady decline - interrupted only by World War Two - as more and more Americans used private automobiles for their transportation needs.

U.S. airlines inaugurated commercial jet service in the late 1950s, greatly reducing travel time. As a result, long-distance train travel soon became unnecessary and irrelevant for most Americans.

Also, construction of the Interstate Highway System in the late ‘50s and ‘60s made auto travel faster and easier than ever.

By the 1960s, most U.S. railroad companies were losing money on their passenger service; they had already dropped many of their routes and were anxious to get out of passenger service entirely.

Meanwhile, passengers complained about the deteriorating levels of service on the remaining trains. As a result, the federal government set up Amtrak to run the nation’s passenger trains.

In 1971, Amtrak took over intercity service from 20 rail companies, eliminating about half of the nation’s routes and leaving many cities and towns without passenger service.

Since 1971, Amtrak has added a few routes, improved service, and bought new equipment – but it still has not turned intercity train travel into a profitable operation.

The busiest part of the Amtrak system, by far, is the Northeast Corridor serving Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.

The longest-distance trains in the Amtrak system include the Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle), the California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco Bay Area), the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), and Sunset Limited (Los Angeles-New Orleans).

The Largest Cities With No Amtrak Service