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 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 service.
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. 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 famous for massive delays and unreliability, although high-speed rail 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 Surfliner or a Northeast Corridor train, 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, DC is Amtrak's headquarters, the second busiest station, and just a few blocks from the capitol building. Well known for being a tourists attraction in it's 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, and commuted 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).
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.
Northeast Corridor runs 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) and stops in every major city along it's route. Due to the area'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. It is also the only electrified Amtrak routenote except for the Virginia section of the corridor from Washington DC to Newport News or Lynchburg, and the branch line from New Haven to Springfield, which are diesel-powered, and thus one can instantly tell if a picture is from the Northeast Corridor by the presence of the overhead wires. 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 America's only high-speed line, running from Boston to Washington, DC. 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.
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 it's 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. Popular with state officials.
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. This line is Amtrak's only electrified corridor outside of the Northeast Corridor, though as with most service, electrification ends at Harrisburg.
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.