Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Modern Decline of Railroads

1960s Decline of Railroads

By 1966, less than 2 percent of all intercity passengers were traveling by rail. Worse still, passenger trains faced critical problems in addition to this defection of patrons to auto travel. For one thing, railroads were hopelessly out of date in dealing with those patrons who did remain. They failed to enlist travel agents as valuable allies, and they even refused to accept the major credit cards.

Prevailing railroad work rules reflected century-old conditions and equipment, meaning that crew costs were astronomical. Even the newest equipment was a decade or two old, and more often than not, maintenance had been deferred as economics soured.

Meanwhile, the Post Office was systematically stripping passenger trains of the mail cars (RPOs) that had provided substantial (and increasingly critical) revenues since passenger trains were in their infancy. At the same time, country depots were being boarded up. In 1965, New York City's Pennsylvania Station was demolished -- an act of corporate vandalism that awoke the citizenry to the potential loss of our best buildings and sparked a landmarks preservation movement.

No doubt the most noted, rancorous, and painful of all passenger train-off decisions involved the illustrious California Zephyr, the San Francisco-Chicago service shared by Western Pacific, Rio Grande, and Burlington. By the time the Interstate Commerce Commission had reluctantly allowed this marvelous train to die, public opinion was thoroughly stirred up, and editorial writers throughout the land called to task not only the railroads, but also the federal government, for lack of a balanced and coherent transportation policy that could save long-distance trains.

In June of 1969, Colorado Senator Gordon Allot spearheaded passage of a resolution calling for a federal study aimed at saving the passenger train. This led in time to the creation of Railpax, which would be called Amtrak by the time this quasi-governmental corporation took over virtually all of the nation's long-distance passenger trains on May 1, 1971.

More to Explore