Picking Up Speed: An Overview of Amtrak and the Resurgence in Train Travel in America

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For more than half a century, train travel in America has been a nightmare: low frequency service, trains that are several hours delayed, and a limited route network are just some of the issues you might expect on an Amtrak train. Despite these issues, though, Amtrak’s ridership hit record levels in 2019 and was on a continued path to breaking even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. What can explain this?This article seeks to provide more information on Amtrak trains and why you should consider using Amtrak more often.

Basic Info

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Amtrak, or more formally known as the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, operates nearly all passenger rail services in the United States with the exception of commuter trains and (as of July 2020) one private rail company. Amtrak was founded in 1971 when the US government agreed to take over most passenger services in the country due to them being huge money losers for the freight companies and passenger companies that previously operated them. Many routes have been cut since the inception of Amtrak, in some part due to Amtrak’s continued unprofitability even after 50 years of operation. That being said, Amtrak still operates a wide variety of routes crossing the country in 46 states; below is an overview of each type of train and their purpose:

Long Distance Trains

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Amtrak may be most well-known, both positively and negatively, for their extensive network of long distance trains. These trains are quite different from the rest of the network as many of the people who ride them treat the journey as an experience rather than a mode of transportation to go between cities. These trains offer panoramic views for much of the journey as many cross between 5+ states. Each train consist features an observation car which allows passengers access to larger windows that allow for better viewing of the scenery outdoors. Despite these trains being more of an experience package nowadays, each long distance train makes stops in some rather rural communities in which the train is commonly viewed as a lifeline for transport in and out of the city.

An Amtrak long distance train typically runs once a day in each direction and for the most part is overnight depending the the trip (there are some trips that cover lots of distance, but aren’t overnight—see the intercity trains section below). All overnight long distance trains have two classes of service — coach and sleeper class. The sleeper rooms are usually far more expensive than coach seats not only because of the additional space and comfort they provide, but because they include dining. One important thing to note, however, is that part of Amtrak’s plan for profitability is to eliminate traditional dining consisting of high quality meals and table service and instead replace it with “flexible dining” that consists of a pre-made, still relatively high-quality meal.

Here is a list of Amtrak’s long distance routes (click on each to see more information):

Given that these routes only operate once in each direction daily and have quite high operating costs from track maintenance and contracts to run on tracks owned by freight companies, these trains have became a major political issue as they lose Amtrak (and therefore the federal government) billions of dollars each year. These long distance trains often are the most delayed in the system, some up to 10+ hours due to freight traffic along the line. For now, these trains are here to stay as congress refuses to get rid of them due to their importance to rural communities, but as mentioned earlier, “flexible dining” and some other service cuts may be a common occurrence in the future.

Intercity Trains

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In addition to long-distance routes, Amtrak also operates numerous intercity trains that cover varying distances. None of these trains are overnight and many operate once daily in each direction similar to long distance routes. In most cases, these routes connect major cities and are usually quite popular. You can normally expect at least 5 cars on these trains and nearly all intercity trains operated by Amtrak run in the Midwest or the East Coast. These trains make Amtrak lots of revenue, but due to their limited frequency, they aren’t the major money earners for the system.

Here is a list of what I consider to be the intercity trains that Amtrak operates (this is somewhat of a gray zone as some could be considered corridor trains):

Many of these intercity routes are similar to the long distance trains in that some people ride them to view the scenery outside, particularly on routes like the Vermonter or Adirondack. That being said, all these routes connect big cities to rural areas in the vicinity or to big cities not too far away. These route dynamics change the demographics and purpose of those who ride intercity trains, and the added capacity over long distance trains allows for these routes to make decent revenue.

Corridor/Commuter Trains

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The last category of Amtrak trains in this article that I’m going to focus on is the cornerstone of Amtrak’s money making strategy: corridor/commuter trains. Technically they aren’t officially commuter trains, but some of these routes, such as the Downeaster from Boston to Brunswick, ME can be used by commuters commuting into Boston. These trains operate at the highest frequency of any Amtrak route and connect large cities, often on higher speed track. The top six Amtrak routes in terms of ridership are all corridor trains, with the top two being the Northeast Regional and the Acela Express, the backbone of the Northeast Corridor Route.

Corridor trains have became increasingly popular in recent years as increased ridership has equated into increased revenue to invest in improvements. Additional frequency has been added and this creates a virtuous cycle in which the routes, in a pre-pandemic world, continued to accrue increased ridership.

List of Corridor/Commuter Routes:

As stated before, these routes attract the most riders due to them connecting large cities and running at high frequency; Amtrak is able to run at high frequencies on many of these lines due to them owning the track in the case of the Northeast corridor, but also by negotiating agreements with commuter train companies in cities such as San Diego, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Profitability and Future

Amtrak has seen a resurgence and continued rise in passengers in large part due to continued track improvements and more competitiveness with airplanes when it comes to trip times. Track speeds are increasing and Amtrak is modernizing their rolling stock with the acquisition of the more environmentally friendly Siemens SC-44 Charger to replace the aging GE Genesis P42DC locomotives that you can see nationwide.

Long distance trains in the way they are run at the moment will never be a large money maker for Amtrak (especially with COVID induced service cuts), but by minimizing their losses with them by doing track maintenance to reduce delays, Amtrak can continue to trend towards profitability. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic will make that objective nearly impossible as Amtrak is forced to sell less seats. When the pandemic is over, people may prefer to take the train over a plane as Amtrak trains provide consistent comfort and space that would make for a safer journey when traveling between cities.

Amtrak has been a polarizing issue for politicians and as many of the trains are operated by the federal government (some services are subsidized by states), funding is crucial for Amtrak’s operation. While many politicians seek to defund Amtrak because of their skepticism of rail travel, the fact of the matter is that additional funding can make Amtrak consistently profitable in the future if invested in the right places. If Amtrak is able to obtain additional funds to acquire new trains among other things, we could see a dramatic shift towards train travel in this country.

So next time you are pondering over flying a short distance or driving that same distance, consider the train as an option and see if there is an Amtrak train near you (it is more environmentally friendly after all); chances are the timing could work out such that you could spend less money to enjoy a relatively seamless ride on Amtrak. The amenities nowadays are underrated—they provide free wifi with ample legroom on all trains in all classes.

Trains are underrated in this America, and under the leadership of Richard Anderson and William Flynn, the negative stereotypes of Amtrak could soon be a thing of the past.

Jack Turner is a high school student from the San Francisco Bay Area. If you have feedback on how to improve this article, feel free to write it in the comments.

Rising HS senior; I have interests in transit, sports, aviation, politics, progressivism, and everything in between.