Modern Decline of Railroads

Growth of Amtrak

Amtrak's improving success with equipment purchases extended to cars as well. In 1975, the corporation ordered from Pullman-Standard the first of what would be an extensive fleet of double-deck "Superliners," inspired by bilevel cars that Santa Fe had operated on its El Capitan, a luxury coach train. By late 1979, when the Superliners began entering service on the long-haul Western trains for which they were intended, they were two years off schedule. Before long, however, they were running throughout the West and proving popular with passengers.

The Superliners would, in fact, significantly fuel the Amtrak resurgence that began in the late 1970s and gained real momentum through the 1980s. In the '60s and even earlier, the nation's Western trains -- the California Zephyr, the Union Pacific's fleet of "City" trains (the City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, and so on), the Santa Fe's Chiefs, and others -- were deservedly considered superior to their eastern counterparts. The advent of the Superliners only heighted the disparity.

Clearances prohibited the operation of these bilevels in the East, where long-distance service was handled by the veteran sleepers, diners, and lounges inherited from the private railroads in 1971. Beginning in 1977, many of these old cars were upgraded and converted to "head-end power" (in which electricity generated by the locomotive replaces steam and axle-generators as the source of power for heating, air conditioning, and lighting). These reconditioned cars, dubbed the "Heritage Fleet," were actually quite attractive, but they were old.

With this new and refurbished equipment, its own railroad between Boston and Washington, and crews under its direct control, Amtrak grew through the 1970s into a creditable entity. It remained a political football, as it has ever since, but the corporation's staying power has surprised many critics who suspected that its creation might have been intended as nothing more than prolonged euthanasia for the passenger train.

Whatever else it may or may not have been, Amtrak was unarguably monolithic. Though the corporation chose to preserve many of the great train names from the past, it cloaked all its equipment in "platinum mist" (or, alternatively, natural stainless steel) adorned with red and blue. Gone were the rainbow colors of the private railroads' trains, as well as their individualized services. Standardization -- of menus, accommodations, and services -- was the hallmark.