Modern Decline of Railroads


At first, those passenger trains that survived -- and about 60 percent did not -- ran pretty much as before, but with Amtrak footing the bills. By fall, however, Amtrak had determined to purchase 1,200 of the best available cars from nine of the 20 joining railroads. In time, it would become the direct employer of all of its crews -- not just on-board service personnel, but engineers and conductors, too. In 1976, on the occasion of Conrail's formation, Amtrak took over ownership of the Northeast Corridor -- Boston to Washington, plus the spur from Philadelphia to Harrisburg -- but otherwise continued to be a tenant on the tracks of the freight railroads.

Amtrak's first locomotives and cars were all veterans purchased from participating railroads, but within a few years the corporation went shopping for new equipment. These early acquisitions -- diesel locomotives, electric locomotives, coaches, and integrated trainsets -- all proved unsuccessful.

This shouldn't have been surprising, since the technology of passenger railroading in the United States had been stagnant for 30 years. The new cars and locomotives appearing in profusion immediately after the war were modestly upgraded versions of prewar designs. Perhaps the one significant exception was the self-powered high-speed Metroliner, which the Penn Central introduced on its New York-Washington speedway in 1969. These tubular cars, built by the Budd Company, were airplane-like, with unnecessarily cramped interiors and what probably are the smallest windows ever built into a modern passenger car anywhere in the world. (Trackside rock-throwers along this largely urban route were a factor in that design decision.)

Unfortunately, when Amtrak needed some new coaches for short-haul service, the only option not involving unacceptable delays and costs for design and retooling were "Metroshells" -- Metroliners without their traction motors. Dubbed the "Amfleet," these cars, 492 in number, have been the staple of Amtrak daytime services since the first one was delivered in 1975.

Off-the-shelf passenger locomotives were no more available than coaches, so Amtrak bought diesels (SDP40Fs from EMD) and electrics (E60s from GE) that were only slightly modified freight-haulers. Both of these designs incorporated six-wheel trucks, and both proved derailment-prone at high speeds, severely limiting their utility. Amtrak did better with its next major motive-power selections, opting for four-wheel-truck locomotives. EMD began delivering a fleet of F40PHs in 1976, and the diesels became the backbone of the Amtrak fleet nationwide for the next two decades. The following year, the corporation ordered the first of what would be a substantial fleet of AEM7s, diminutive but powerful electrics of Swedish design built by EMD and the Budd Company. (Earlier, Amtrak had turned to Europe for inspiration when it purchased six Turboliner trainsets from France, then had an additional seven similar sets built domestically by Rohr.)