Long before there was at least one automobile in nearly every household and the nation’s love affair with cars blossomed, spurred by the lure of independent, spur-of-the-moment travel, people relied upon passenger trains to get them from point A to point B, complete with stops along the way.
American life has changed radically since May 10, 1869, when the presidents of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific met in Promontory, Utah, to drive a spike ceremonially linking their railroads and making transcontinental travel possible for the first time.
Even now, with an estimated 287 million vehicles registered in the United States last year, rail transportation remains a necessity for some folks, meeting a public need whether it be a daily commute to work and back or an occasional trip home to visit family and friends.
The National Railroad Passenger Corp., doing business as Amtrak, provides many of those rides, with the quasi-public company celebrating its 50th anniversary last Friday. Formed to operate numerous routes after President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970, Amtrak began service in May 1971.
Medium and long-distance intercity service is offered to more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, with more than 300 trains running over 21,400 miles of track every day.
Cumberland residents regularly see passengers disembarking and climbing aboard at the little Amtrak station near the Baltimore Street crossing, with service to the Queen City part of the Capitol Limited route between Chicago and Washington.
Longtime U.S. Sen. Joe Biden was a fixture on Amtrak trains between his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and the District of Columbia when Congress was in session. He continued riding as vice president in the Obama administration. Fittingly, as president, he was on hand to celebration its golden anniversary.
Because of security concerns, Biden flew to Philadelphia for the celebration at the city’s bustling 30th Street Station, where he was introduced by a conductor who worked the route when the president was a regular. The next generation of the high-speed Acela train, slated to enter service next year, was displayed.
Described by Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn as one of the rail service’s “most loyal customers,” the president’s controversial $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan reportedly would devote $621 billion to improving roads, bridges and public transit. Of that, $80 billion would go toward Amtrak’s repair backlog, improving service along the Northeast Corridor and expanding service across the country.
Amtrak President Stephen Gardner expressed optimism, saying ridership is slowly but surely getting back to pre-COVID-19 levels.
The U.S. has long lagged behind other nations in its passenger rail network. It seems like a prudent use of taxpayer money to enhance Amtrak, with a likely benefit of decreased traffic, especially given the current push for reductions in vehicle emissions.