U.S., Amtrak Formation History: Which Railroads Were In, Which Railroads Were Out And Which Were Not Invited

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 1, 2021

Who was in? Who was out? Who couldn’t be in, even if they wanted to?

For those of us who crave information and miss rummaging around in person in temples otherwise known as libraries, Wikipedia provides a good “first source” of information which can be verified by other sources.

Wikipedia offers an excellent comprehensive list of railroads which participated in the formation of Amtrak half a century ago as well as non-participating railroads – a larger list than many of us think – and railroads which were ineligible. Included in the lists are extra details as provided by Wikipedia.

Those joining Amtrak:

• Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway

• Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (hosted no Amtrak service until the West Virginian later in 1971)

• Burlington Northern Railroad

• Central of Georgia Railway (never hosted Amtrak)

• Chesapeake and Ohio Railway

• Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad

• Chicago and North Western Railway (never hosted Amtrak)

• Delaware and Hudson Railway (hosted no Amtrak service until the Adirondack in 1974)

• Grand Trunk Western Railroad (hosted no Amtrak service until the Blue Water Limited in 1974)

• Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad

• Illinois Central Railroad

• Louisville and Nashville Railroad

• Missouri Pacific Railroad

• Norfolk and Western Railway (hosted no Amtrak service until the Mountaineer in 1975)

• Northwestern Pacific Railroad (never hosted Amtrak service; not be confused with the former Northern Pacific)

• Penn Central Transportation Company (whose Northeast Corridor Amtrak acquired the majority of in 1976)

• Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad

• Seaboard Coast Line Railroad

• Southern Pacific Railroad

• Union Pacific Railroad

Each of these railroads contributed passenger rolling stock, equipment and financial capital to the formation of Amtrak. The benefit to the railroads was the contributions bought the right to discontinue passenger service; in addition some railroads received tax breaks.

Keep in mind the financial turmoil in the railroad industry at the end of the 1960s. Merger fever was sweeping the industry, diversification was the watchword most managers and boards of directors were devoted to and the federal interstate highway system was growing by leaps and bounds. The Interstate Commerce Commission – the common enemy of every railroad legal department – was still ruling with an excessively heavy hand. The elimination of what many railroad senior executives saw as the “burden” of passenger trains was a little slice of heaven.

Four of the railroads accepted stock in the National Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak’s legal name:

• Burlington Northern Railroad

• Grand Trunk Western Railroad

• Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (The Milwaukee Road)

• Penn Central Transportation Company

Six railroads, for various reasons, took a gamble and decided not to join Amtrak in the beginning:

• The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad continued to receive subsidies from the state of Illinois. It discontinued its two remaining intercity passenger trains, the Peoria Rocket and Quad Cities Rocket, on December 31, 1978.

• The Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad continued to operate service. Public funding for its commuter-oriented trains began in 1977, with the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District fully taking over the South Shore Line in 1989.

• The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad feared congestion from hosting a revived California Zephyr on its single-track mainline. It operated its last Rio Grande Zephyr in 1983, and Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr was renamed the California Zephyr.

• The Georgia Railroad received tax benefits from the state of Georgia so long as it ran mixed trains. The Seaboard System Railroad, its successor, discontinued the last mixed train on May 6, 1983.

• The Reading Company determined that its Philadelphia – Newark service was outside Amtrak’s scope. It was later operated by Conrail and New Jersey Transit, who discontinued it in 1982.

• The Southern Railway did not join until February 1, 1979, at which point it conveyed its Southern Crescent to Amtrak.

In seven instances, railroads were not issued an invitation to join Amtrak:

• The Alaska Railroad provided long distance service, but was already owned by the United States government.

• The Canadian Pacific’s Atlantic, though it crossed northern Maine, was considered a Canada-centric service not relevant to Amtrak. It was taken over by VIA Rail in 1978 and ran until 1994. Until 1977, a Canadian National Railway Winnipeg – Thunder Bay local service also crossed part of northern Minnesota.

• The Erie Lackawanna’s Hoboken-Port Jervis service was considered an ineligible commuter service; in 1973, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began subsidizing continued operation.

• The Florida East Coast discontinued its last passenger service in 1968, leaving the FEC ineligible to join Amtrak. Passenger services resumed under the purview of privately-owned Brightline in 2018.

• The Kansas City Southern Railway, having discontinued its Southern Belle in 1969, had no remaining passenger service, despite its size.

• The Soo Line Railroad was permitted to discontinue regular passenger services in the 1960s in exchange for allowing passengers to ride in cabooses on freights between Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and Neenah, Wisconsin. The mixed trains lasted until 1986, making the Soo Line the last Class I railroad in the continental United States with non-subsidized passenger service.

• The Western Pacific Railroad discontinued the California Zephyr in 1970, ending passenger service on its route. It refused to discuss resumption of service with Amtrak.

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