A note about the photos you see enlivening this post. The picture above was taken by Steve Schmollinger near Colfax, Calif. in July 1973. The other photos you'll see from here on are courtesy of Larry Mack, and snapped in the Midwest during the same time period of the early 1970s, which is known as Amtrak's "rainbow era". You'll read why it's called that later. Thank you, Steve and Larry!
Branch-line passenger service had begun to drop in the 1920s as automobile ownership increased and the reach of paved roads grew. That drop in ridership coupled with the Depression resulted in many short-distance passenger trains being discontinued prior to WWII. During the war, passenger traffic exploded on all lines, in part due to wartime rationing of gasoline and tires, though service was ragged due to unprecedented demand.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant carrier within California and along the Pacific Coast, became notorious by the 1960s for its bad service and zeal for discontinuing trains. (Railroads could not unilaterally discontinue trains as they were heavily regulated by the government. Discontinuance petitions had to be made to the Interstate Commerce Commission which by no means was a rubber stamp for the railroads.)
By 1970 a discussion was well underway in Congress, and between the Nixon Administration and Congress, which ultimately resulted in the bill that created Amtrak. (This is politically ironic, because in general it has been Republicans over the years who have used Amtrak has a punching bag, even though Amtrak was created under a Republican president.)
Below are maps of the U.S. intercity rail service at the end of the private railroad era (30 April 1971) and at the beginning of the Amtrak era (1 May 1971). (Maps are scanned from "Journey To Amtrak", recommended at the end of this post for further reading.)
Because so many trains had already been discontinued in California prior to Amtrak, the cuts were probably less severe than elsewhere. Trains in northern California that made their last runs on 30 April 1971 included Southern Pacific’s Del Monte (San Francisco-Monterey), the San Joaquin Daylight (Oakland-Los Angeles) and the Redwood (Willits-Eureka), as well as the Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief (Chicago-Richmond, Calif). (Western Pacific’s California Zephyr did not live to see Amtrak; it was discontinued in March 1970, although the name would be resurrected a number of years later by Amtrak for a train that only partly used the same route as the original Zephyr.)
Southern Pacific’s Daylight (San Francisco-Los Angeles) and Cascade (overnight between Oakland and Portland) would be amalgamated into Amtrak’s Coast Starlight running from Seattle to Los Angeles. Other than commuter service to San Jose, San Francisco has been without mainline intercity passenger rail service since 1971, except by way of the Amtrak bus connection to trains in Oakland and Emeryville.
The history of Amtrak itself is not the subject of this series as it would easily fill many posts. A few key points are worth noting.
It was a number of years before Amtrak ordered its own equipment (locomotives and passenger cars) so the initial years (roughly 1971-1974) are known as the "Rainbow Era", because the passenger cars that the railroads had to contribute in order to join Amtrak ended up being used all around the country. A silver and red Southern Pacific car might be next to a green Burlington Northern car which was next to a golden yellow Union Pacific car. Eventually all of this equipment would be painted in Amtrak’s own livery and look more or less the same. Most - but not all - of this railroad hand-me-down equipment has been replaced by locomotives and cars ordered by Amtrak.
Decisions about adding or cutting routes, have invariably involved input from Congress. Historically the Democratic Party has been more inclined to support Amtrak, and the Republican Party to disdain it, but exceptions to that rule render it only a rough guide. Under President Jimmy Carter several Amtrak routes were axed and Republican stalwarts former Senator Trent Lott and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have been two of Amtrak’s best friends. Though invisible to the traveling public, Amtrak’s headquarters is in the upper floors of one of the nation’s busiest and prettiest train stations: Washington Union Station. And coincidentally or not, the U.S. Capitol is just a few blocks walk in distance.
Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Introduction
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South