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- The US has long lagged behind other countries when it comes to passenger rail.
- In 1971, Amtrak was formed from 20 other ailing passenger railroads.
- The railroad has expanded to cover 21,000 miles on 33 routes — but has never escaped financial trouble.
150 years ago this month, the United States completed one of the most impressive engineering feats of the time (and to this day): a single railroad, connecting sea to shining sea.
In the decades following, American trains — carrying both freight and passengers — would flourish. Railroads shuttled passengers between thriving urban centers, and streetcars criss-crossed towns around the country. By 1916, 98% of all intercity travel took place on rail, according to US Census Bureau statistics.
But by the 1940s, American’s insatiable appetite for automobiles had begun to take shape.
Railroads’ share of the travel market began to shrink drastically as the government began to incentivize road building and airport investments. And by 1970, the last year that America’s rail network was privately controlled in its entirety, the total miles traveled on trains had fallen to less than 100,000.
That’s when the federal government stepped in to create what would become known as Amtrak. Here’s the history of America’s passenger railroad, which has managed to lose money in every single one of the 48 years since its inception.
The Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 combined 20 of the country’s ailing passenger railroads into on privately-controlled, but government-owned, corporation.
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"The Congress finds that modern, efficient intercity railroad passenger service is a necessary part of a balanced transportation system," lawmakers of the 91st Congress wrote in the bill. The law established basic frameworks for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation and a 15-person board of directors.
President Nixon signed the bill into law on October 30, 1970.
Today that same company is known as Amtrak (a portmanteau of "America" and "track").
Here, U.S. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe (left), Amtrak President Roger Lewis (center) and Amtrak Board of Incorporation Chairman David W. Kendall (right) unveil the original Amtrak route map.
Amtrak’s first service began on May 1, 1971, with the first "Clocker" train traveling between Philadelphia and New York City.
Patty Saunders was one of the first passenger service representatives hired by Amtrak. According to Amtrak’s archives, female passenger service representatives could chose from pieces such as hot pants and a floor length skirt that could be mixed with various tops and sweaters according to the season.
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