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Modern Decline of Railroads

Rail Passenger Service Act

There were, of course, some new beginnings, and Amtrak was perhaps the most notable -- a fragile phoenix of intercity rail service rising from the ashes of the languishing streamliners of the private railroads. Amtrak began operation on May 1, 1971, as a quasi-public corporation that had its genesis in the battles over the California Zephyr, as well as other discontinuances and downgradings. If a single individual can be called the father of Amtrak, it's probably Anthony Haswell, who in 1968 founded the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), a lobbying and advocacy group that remains a critical force in rail preservation today.

With Haswell agitating, the press providing coverage, and the government getting into the picture following the 1969 resolution led by Colorado's Senator Allot, things began to move. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) appointed a task force, while the Department of Transportation (DOT), previously opposed to passenger trains, but apparently in a more positive mood under new head John Volpe, on January 18, 1970, released a preliminary plan for what would eventually become Amtrak.

On May 1, exactly one year before final implementation, the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 was introduced, providing for the formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation -- or Railpax. A reluctant President Nixon signed the bill into law on October 30.

All railroads then operating long-distance passenger trains (as opposed to commuter services) were eligible to join Amtrak. The cost of admission: roughly half of 1970 losses on passenger service, payable in equipment, cash, or services. The benefits offered in return were enormous, as participating railroads would be free of all future passenger-related losses. Virtually all carriers rushed to join, though a few declined. Rock Island, already financially perilous and less than a decade away from total abandonment, simply couldn't afford the fee, and thus stayed with its surviving pair of short-haul Rockets.

Under the leadership of Graham Claytor (who later served as Amtrak's president during one of the corporation's healthiest eras), Southern Railway opted to run its New York-New Orleans Southern Crescent, plus a few lesser trains, on its own. The Rio Grande, not wanting to give Amtrak free rein on its highly scenic, single-track line through the Colorado Rockies, confused Amtrak's Chicago-to-San Francisco plans by staying out and running its own Denver-to-Salt Lake City Rio Grande Zephyr, using what used to be California Zephyr equipment.

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