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 or barely covering costsnote . As car ownership and passenger flights exploded following World War II,note 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. Richard Nixon intended Amtrak as a "Last Hurrah" that would demonstrate once and for all that Americans didn't want or need passenger trains and thus allowing his administration to quietly shut the system down after a few years. Nixon's plan failed. 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 gunsnote ), 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 non high speed passenger rail system in the world making a profit, and despite massive federal funding for competing highwaysnote and airports. Things got a bit better during the Vice-Presidency of Rail Enthusiast Joe Biden, while the increasing costs and general unpleasantness of air travel, the growing awareness of flying's environmental impacts, plus highways becoming increasingly congested and in some cases, rather boring to drive (especially through flat, practically featureless farmland) resulted in Amtrak ridership numbers topping 30 million for five straight years (FY 2011-2015) breaking ridership records several times along the way. 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 being 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.
Another issue Amtrak has to contend with is the fact that American rail regulations are very different from those in Europe or East Asia. While Siemens could sell its high speed "Velaro" in five moderately modified versions in Spain, Germany, China, Russia and to Eurostar with only details like the electric system or the type of legacy train controlnote changed, that train would violate several regulations in the US and would have to be adapted in such a way that it would be heavier, less fuel efficient and less likely to be allowed on European rails. This means that a) Amtrak cannot easily procure used rolling stock from Europe, even when much relatively young rolling stock of a suitable type were otherwise availablenote b) basically all trains have to be "custom built" for US needs. This means that Amtrak cannot place a common order together with another (European) railroad to lower costs and fewer manufacturers are likely to bid for a rolling stock order of Amtrak. Additionally, Amtrak never has enough cash on hand to make one big purchase (instead of several small ones), so Amtrak ends up making small orders for trains that nearly nobody manufactures and nearly nobody else can use.
- Penn Station, New York City is the busiest train station in the Western Hemispherenote . The original station was a beaux-arts masterpiece that was controversially demolished in 1964 to build the new Madison Square Garden, and the station was entirely underground for almost 60 years. In 2021, Penn Station expanded into the James Farley Post Office after decades of Development Hell. This annex has been renamed Moynihan Train Hall in honor of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who created the idea of rebuilding the historic Penn Station.
- Union Station, Washington, D.C. is Amtrak's headquarters, the second busiest station, and just a few blocks from the Capitol. It's 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 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. The station also serves as DC's hub for intercity bus services like Greyhound and Peter Pan. It is not uncommon to spot a VIP or two while you're here.
- 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 Philly's vast network of subways, streetcars, and commuter rails, and New Jersey Transit to Atlantic City. Despite all of this, no Amtrak trains terminate here except two early-morning Keystone Service trains that only run from Philadelphia to Harrisburg; all other Amtrak trains are through services.
- Union Station, Chicago is the fourth busiest station and the hub of the Amtrak network both in the Midwest and long distance travel in general; of the thirteen long distance routes, only fivenote don't have Chicago as a stop, and the remaining eight all have Chicago as a terminus. Traveling across the USA by train requires a transfer herenote . In more trivial information, the waiting room in this station has a working fireplace. Architecturally, Chicago Union Station is arguably one of the most visually-impressive train stations in the US 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 sixth-busiest station (#5 is South Station, Boston if you're keeping count) 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 before the advent of passenger air travel, 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).
- Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Railroad Station, Wilmington, Delaware is a small but fairly active station for the size of its city, serving the busy Northeast Corridor as well as SEPTA commuter rail to Philly, but it's most notable for its connection to the current US President Joe Biden. When Biden was still a US Senator from Delaware, he rode the train to DC from his home in Wilmington (about an hour commute) the entire 36 years of his tenure, and he has long championed increased funding and support for Amtrak. In fact, he and wife Jill never even had a Washington residence until he became Vice President under Barack Obama in 2009. And when Obama's term ended eight years later, the Bidens returned to Delaware via train, of course.note In honor of Biden's decades-long patronage and advocacy, Amtrak and the city of Wilmington named the local train station after him in 2011. He also rode the train during his 2020 presidential campaign and planned to ride it back to Washington for his inauguration, but security concerns in the wake of the January 6, 2021 siege on the Capitol Building (in protest of his confirmation as president-elect) precluded this.
- The Northeast Corridor extends from Boston to Washington, D.C., serving several major cities in the northeastern region. Its 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 Roanoke. 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. This route, particularly the Pennsylvanian, is also popular with the state's large Amish population, as they don't drive and generally find rail travel more culturally agreeable than flying. Once they reach Pittsburgh they're able to take the Capitol Limited into Ohio and points further west.
- 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 Lake Shore Limited, one of two long distance trains that goes from New York to Chicago, has the New York branch start on the Empire Corridor until it joins the Boston branch at Albany-Rensselaer, at which point it follows the Empire Service and Maple Leaf route until the Buffalo suburb of Depew, at which point it splits to go towards Chicago.
- 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. It used to be so notorious for the aforementioned delays due to freight trains that it was nicknamed the "Coast Starlate."
- 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. The previous train station in Oakland was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and has been out of use ever since. Passengers wanting to reach San Francisco can either board a Thruway bus in Emeryville across the bay. The Richmond and Oakland Coliseum stations also have connections to BART and the San Jose Diridon station has connections to Caltrain and VTA light rail to reach other Bay Area destinations. However, the California High Speed Rail project includes a new station for San Francisco and construction is already underway. 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 Texas Eagle is one of Amtrak's thirteen long-distance routes. Of the seven trains that run from Chicago a week, four terminate in San Antonio, while the remaining three go all the way to Los Angeles. This Chicago-Los Angeles route is notable for being the longest Amtrak route in the system - the current timetable has it as 2728 miles, and the route's page on Amtrak's website tallies the recommended time for the train at over 65 hours. For contrast, the other Chicago-Los Angeles route, the Southwest Chief, takes over 40 hours to cover 2265 miles.
- The Chicago Hub services include long-distance trains (California Zephyr to Emeryville, Capitol Limited to Washington DC, Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, Texas Eagle to San Antonio or Los Angeles depending on the day of the week, Lake Shore Limited to New York or Boston, Cardinal to New York, 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.
- Finally, there are five other long-distance trains that do not stop in Chicago. In addition to the aforementioned Coast Starlight on the west coast, there is the Crescent, which starts in New York and takes a southern route through Atlanta to reach New Orleans; the Sunset Limited, which runs on the same days as the Texas Eagle from New Orleans to Los Angeles;note and the Silver Star and Silver Meteor, both of which run from New York to Miami via slightly different routes after Washington.
Areas Not Served
- Amtrak is only active in the 48 contiguous states, with some routes extending north to Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Alaska has its own railroad company, the Alaska Railroad, which provides both freight and passenger service, while Hawaii is obviously better reached by plane and boat, though Honolulu will be gaining its own Urban Rail after decades of Development Hellnote . Of the Lower 48, the only states not served by Amtrak in any capacity are South Dakota and Wyoming. President Biden's plans for expanding Amtrak service would include a link to Cheyenne, Wyoming, but no such luck for South Dakota.
- While San Francisco is often cited for its lack of intercity rail service, the truth is that you can take a train to Oakland right across the bay, so the Bay Area isn't completely without an Amtrak connection. The Bay Area is also served by stations at Martinez, Richmond, Emeryville, the Oakland Coliseum, Fremont, and San Jose. Major cities with no direct Amtrak service to speak of include Phoenix, Columbus, Las Vegas (as surprising as that may sound given its status as a tourist hub), Nashville, Louisville, and Tulsa.