Useful Notes / Amtrak
Amtrak, the trademark name of The National Passenger Railway Corporation, is the national railway of the United States. Privately-owned passenger trains in the US had always operated at a loss, as with most passenger rail lines in the world. As car ownership and passenger flights exploded following World War II, many railroad companies were going out of business, in part because the government required them to provide passenger service. In 1969, the largest bankruptcy in history at that point was the Penn Central Railroadnote , essentially bankrupted by money-losing passenger service, and it proceeded to get worse (more big railroads would go under) if something wasn't done.

So Congress passed a law ending this requirement and replacing it with a skeletal network that became Amtrak. It began service in May of 1971. Though ridership has rebounded enormously since then, the network is run on a very small budget, so certain priorities have to be set. It doesn't help that it is continually subject to Executive Meddling from Congress, making silly mandates such as requiring Amtrak to carry guns in checked baggage (without providing any funds for lockable cabinets for said guns), as well as threats to cut off funding for onboard food service. Then, of course, are the continual demands that Amtrak somehow pay for itself, despite no other passenger rail system in the world making a profit, and despite massive federal funding for competing highways and airports. Things are getting a bit better, now that the Vice President is a Rail Enthusiast, as well as the increasing costs and general unpleasantness of air travel, plus highways becoming increasingly congested and in some cases, rather boring to drive (especially through flat, practically featureless farmland), resulting in Amtrak setting annual ridership records for almost every year of the past decade. Amtrak is also famous for making GOP senators who cry for the abandonment of all rail travel shriek in horror if a closure of a line through their state is proposed. Amtrak does bring vital tourist dollars to rural areas of Fly Over Country (for the precise reason that a train does not fly over said country) and pretty much every politician knows and acknowledges this, the only question is whether the funding for Amtrak is worth that. The answer depends highly on whose district the line runs through. The current Amtrak system map has about as much to do with politics as it does with transportation or the behavior of host railroads.

In the most heavily populated region, the Northeast, the rail system is extensive enough to rival those of Europe and includes a high-speed line. Everywhere else, it's generally slower than rail travel seventy years ago; this isn't for any technological reason, but rather largely one of power and scheduling (i.e.: the freight companies own most of the track, and often give their trains priority over Amtrak in scheduling; this results in a lot of delays outside major rail hubs like Chicago, as an Amtrak train may have to wait as much as an hour to let one or two or more freight trains pass before pulling into the station) and to some degree infrastructure (a lot of track could use some upgrades and much of it is single-track, which slows down times, and the bulk of Amtrak's equipment dates back to the 1970s-1990s, an issue that is only now be rectified with new locomotives and cars thanks to a stimulus package during the Great Recession). However, High Speed Rail - or at least the cheap American knock off version of it - is set to be extended to other regions in the next decade (the "Chicago Hub" region—which extends from Cleveland and Detroit to Kansas City east-west and Minneapolis to Louisville north-south—has seen particularly extensive improvements to Amtrak in preparation for it). But if media depict a passenger train in the contemporary US, it will most likely be an Amtrak train. In particular, it will likely be either a Pacific Surflinernote  or a Northeast Corridor trainnote , even if the setting is somewhere completely different.

Important Stations

  • Penn Station, New York City is the busiest station in the United States. The original station was a beaux-arts masterpiece that was controversially demolished in 1964 to build the new Madison Square Garden, and the entire station complex is now underground. Amtrak is currently planning to move the station to the James Farley Post Office and will rename it Moynihan Station in honor of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who created the idea of rebuilding the historic Penn Station. However, due to lack of funds and various political infighting this plan is currently stuck in Development Hell, meaning the current overcrowded Penn Station will likely remain in use for quite some time to come.

  • Union Station, Washington, D.C. is Amtrak's headquarters, the second busiest station, and just a few blocks from the Capitol. Well known for being a tourist attraction in its own right, with beautiful architecture and many shops, not unlike New York's Grand Central Terminal. It is not uncommon for VIP's to be seem riding the train from Washington, the most notable being Delaware Senator (and current Vice President) Joe Biden, who never had a residence in Washington until he became VP, and commuted to his home in Wilmington by Amtrak for 20+ years. It has a connection to the Washington Metro on the latter's Red Line, as well as commuter rail service into Maryland and Virginia by way of MARC and Virginia Railway Express, respectively.

  • 30th Street Station, Philadelphia is the third busiest station in the Amtrak system, as it is on the Northeast Corridor and the connection point for every train into the interior of Pennsylvania. This station, built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 1900s, also has connections to New Jersey Transit to Atlantic City, as well as SEPTA's vast subway, streetcar and commuter rail network. Despite all of that, no Amtrak trains terminate here (sans two early-morning Keystone Service trains that only run from Philadelphia to Harrisburg); all Amtrak trains are through services.

  • Union Station, Chicago is the fourth busiest station and the hub of the Amtrak network in the Midwest. Traveling across the USA by train requires a transfer here. In more trivial information, the waiting room in this station has a working fireplace. Architecturally, Chicago Union Station is probably one of the most impressive in the US if not the world and reminds the visitor of the bygone era when most major cities had a train station almost as impressive.

  • Union Station, Los Angeles is the fifth busiest station and something of an oddball. It's designed to look like a giant mission-style church complete with gardens, the tracks and platforms are elevated, and it's been in a state of constant expansion since 1989. It was a major hub for Golden Age movie stars and troops bound for the Pacific, and you've seen it many times if you watched 24. It was one of the last grand "Union Statons" to be built in the US towards the tail end of the "golden age" of rail travel in the country and is one planned terminus for the new California High Speed Rail system to enter service some time in the late 2020s (the other is a yet to be constructed station in San Francisco).

Major Routes

  • The Northeast Corridor extends from Boston to Washington, D.C., serving several major cities in the northeastern region. Itís the only fully electrified Amtrak line, and thus one can instantly tell if a picture is from the Northeast Corridor by the presence of the overhead wires. The primary service on the corridor is the Northeast Regional, running from either Boston, Springfield or New York to either Washington, DC, Richmond, Newport News or Lynchburg (with an extension to Roanoke set to open in 2016). Due to the region's high population density, it is one of the few Amtrak lines that turns a profit; it and the Acela Express together generate more than half of the entire system's revenue. The route uses mostly electric equipmentnote . Note that some trains that begin in Springfield require one to transfer to a train coming from Boston at New Haven to head towards points further south.

  • The Acela Express is currently the closest thing to High Speed Rail the US has, running from Boston to Washington D.C. along the Northeast Corridor. It manages to run on normal tracks by tilting the cars with hydraulics. The ride itself is very smooth and eerily quiet, though a lot slower than comparable systems in other countries — the average speed (including stops) is only 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), only reaching its top speed of 150 miles per hour on a few stretches (240 km/h). Expect to see members of Congress from the northeast riding it to/from DC at the beginning and end of each week, or people traveling between New York City and Boston (more than half of all train and air traffic between the two cities is on Acela). On that note, its success has essentially killed commuter air shuttles on the East Coast, thanks to its speed, convenience, and lack of Overreacting Airport Security; Amtrak carries more people between Boston, New York, and Washington than all airlines combined. On the flip side prices on the Acela are high even when compared to other high speed rail systems making a profit. A kilometer on Acela costs (on average) 53 cents, whereas the Shinkansen costs a bit over 20 cents and no European high speed train costs more than 15 (Euro)cents per kilometer. But then again, the Acela is only business and first class, with the Coach class in the Regional a lot more affordable. The fact that Amtrak can charge these kinds of prices tells you all you need to know about the airlines operating along that route.

  • The Keystone Service from New York to Harrisburg via Philadelphia. There's also one train per day that goes beyond Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, which is labeled the Pennsylvanian. The section between Philadelphia and Harrisburg (known as the Keystone Corridor) is Amtrak's only electrified corridor outside of the Northeast Corridor, though as with most service, electrification ends at Harrisburg.

  • The Empire Corridor in New York State; the Empire Service travels between New York and Albany-Rensselaer or Niagara Falls. One train a day, labeled the Maple Leaf, extends across the border to Toronto, Canada, with two hours built into the schedule for customs and immigration inspections. The scenic Adirondack travels from New York to Montreal, also crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, while the Ethan Allen Express travels from New York to Rutland, Vermont.

  • The Pacific Surfliner is the busiest line in the West, from San Diego to San Luis Obispo by way of Los Angeles, and yes, tourists, quite a lot of it runs right along the beach. Especially popular with military personnel, college students, and weekend vacationers. This is also one of the few Amtrak trains where it is not required to reserve seats in advance.

  • The Coast Starlight goes from Los Angeles to Seattle. Well known for its beautiful scenery.

  • The Capitol Corridor is Northern California's answer to the Pacific Surfliner, running from San Jose to Auburn (and soon to Reno) by way of Oakland and Sacramento. Amtrak notably does not reach San Francisco.note  Popular with state officials.

  • The Auto Train from Lorton, Virginia (just outside Washington, DC) to Sanford, Florida (outside Orlando). It is unique in North America in that the passengers' automobiles are loaded onto special freight cars and are unloaded at their destination. It's so incredibly popular among senior citizens living in Florida for the winter that the Amtrak senior discount, despite being honored even on the premium Acela Express, is invalid on the Auto Train. It holds a few Overly Narrow Superlative type records, among them being the longest "passenger" train (if you count the parts that carry only cars) and the longest train route between two stops note  in the world. Also very close to making a profit, but not quite there yet. The Auto Train is the Spiritual Successor to a train of the same name run by a private company until 1981 when that company went bankrupt due to their other route (Louisville-Sanford) being a failure. Plans by Amtrak to offer a similar service on other routes are currently stuck in Development Hell, partly because of the budget woes mentioned above.

  • The Chicago Hub services include long-distance trains (California Zephyr to Oakland, Capitol Limited to Washington DC, Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, Lake Shore Limited to New York or Boston, Empire Builder to Seattle-Portland, and City of New Orleans to guess where) as well as shorter corridor services to Milwaukee, Detroit-Pontiac-Flint, Grand Rapids, and St. Louis that are all being upgraded to higher speeds; for instance, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha covers the 86 miles in 89 minutes, including three intermediate stops and slow running in city centers.