11 Fast Facts About Amtrak

MBTafan2011, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
MBTafan2011, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / MBTafan2011, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s been 50 years since Congress established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to salvage the nation’s struggling passenger rail system. The new company, which became known as Amtrak—a blend of American and track—was a public-private partnership designed to ensure the U.S. had multiple public transit options. It gradually consolidated the country’s 20 private passenger railroads into one and began with 21 routes serving 43 states. And in 50 years, Amtrak has had a storied history.

1. The first Amtrak train left New York City on May 1, 1971.

The first Amtrak train was a Clocker that left New York City for Philadelphia shortly after midnight on May 1, 1971. The commuter-focused route between Philadelphia and New York ran until October 2005, at which point New Jersey Transit added four express trains to provide replacement service for the discontinued Amtrak Clockers.

2. Amtrak doesn’t own most of the track it uses.

Today, Amtrak operates more than 300 trains a day with 21,000 route miles in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and three Canadian provinces. Ninety-seven percent of its route miles are on host railroads [PDF]. The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 provided Amtrak with rights on host railroads and gave it preference over freight transportation. Meanwhile, six freight railroads operate on Amtrak-owned tracks on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston; Amtrak owns and operates 80 percent of the mainline Northeast Corridor.

3. Amtrak’s oldest named route appears in a silent movie.

The Sunset Limited, running between Louisiana and California, is Amtrak’s southernmost route and the oldest named route in the country, debuting in 1894. (Service east of New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, was suspended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.) A silent movie filmed in Fingal, California, in January 1898 shows a section of track where two Sunset Limited trains pass each other; passengers and crew wave white handkerchiefs to people on the ground.

The Sunset Limited also experienced Amtrak’s greatest catastrophe when it derailed in Mobile, Alabama, on September 22, 1993. A tugboat struck a rail bridge at 2:45 a.m., knocking the tracks out of alignment several minutes before the train came roaring through. Three locomotives and four cars plunged into the water, killing 47 people.

4. Amtrak tried to woo passengers away from planes with distinctively designed train cars.

In the 1970s, Amtrak ordered 492 cars with the distinctive tubular bodies and stainless steel fluting. The Amfleet I train car was modeled on the Metroliner, a train car used between Washington and New York. The unique rounded appearance, according to the company, was intended “to try to emulate the design of an aircraft to attract would-be flyers to ride trains instead.”

5. The Texas Eagle is Amtrak’s longest route.

The Texas Eagle route travels from Chicago to Los Angeles. The first train, Train 421, runs from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, where, after a layover, passengers transfer to Train 422—the Sunset Limited—for the remainder. The entire route is clocked at 65 hours, 20 minutes and travels through seven states and 42 train stations (15 of them in Texas). National Park Service volunteers often entertain travelers with stories about places of interest during parts of the trip.

6. Amtrak’s logos and color schemes have evolved over the last 50 years.

Amtrak, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Amtrak inherited a variety of equipment and logos from their predecessors and set out to establish a uniform identity among them. Amtrak’s red, white, and blue “arrow” logo “signifi[ed] speed and purpose of direction” when it debuted in 1971. The original typeface was a customized variation of the Helvetica font. The distinctive design remained Amtrak’s primary logo until 1999.

In 2000, Amtrak unveiled a new logo with three curved and wavy lines, “suggestive of movement, using abstract lines and negative space, creating two rails that curve toward the horizon,” according to the company’s Paint Scheme and Logo Branding Guide. The high-speed Acela's logo is an abstract of a sea turtle’s fin; Acela is derived from the words acceleration and excellence.

7. Amtrak introduced Railfones in 1986.

Until 1979, telephone service on Metroliner Service trains used microwave frequencies allotted by the Federal Communications Commission. Amtrak made Railfones—public telephones using cellular technology—available on all Metroliners running between New York and Washington in 1986. The pay telephone service allowed customers to make calls outside the train for a fee of $5 for the first three minutes and $1 a minute afterward. Passengers could call anywhere in the country, including Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. Each train had three phones.

8. You can take your Jet Ski on Amtrak’s Auto Train.

The Auto Train runs nonstop from Lorton, Virginia, to Sanford, Florida, near Orlando. You can transport a car, van, motorcycle, SUV, limo, small boat, Jet Ski, or other recreational vehicle on the train while you settle into a passenger train car, avoiding the hassle of driving the 900-mile distance on I-95. With two locomotives and 40-plus passenger rail cars and vehicle carriers, the Auto Train is the longest passenger train in the world, and the 1480-foot-long platform in Lorton is longer than Chicago’s Willis Tower is tall (it’s 1450 feet, excluding antennae).

9. Amtrak took over America’s last private passenger train service in 1983.

Kabelleger/David Gruber, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In July 1983, Amtrak replaced the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s Rio Grande Zephyr, the last privately operated intercity passenger service in the country. The Rio Grande Zephyr connected Denver and Salt Lake City through a scenic stretch of the Rocky Mountains. As part of the deal, Amtrak rerouted its existing San Francisco Zephyr from stations in Wyoming to a route through Colorado and renamed it the California Zephyr. To this day, Wyoming has no Amtrak train station.

10. Amtrak originated the concept of the Quiet Car.

In 2000, a band of early-morning commuters on the southbound Northeast Direct out of Philadelphia, fed up with cell phone talkers and loud chit-chat, pleaded with the conductor for a quiet space to work or sleep. The idea of the Quiet Car—a first in the U.S. transportation industry—soon took off. By June of the following year, Amtrak had added one to nearly every weekday train between Washington, New York, and Boston. In the Quiet Car, passengers have to keep their voices low and use headphones with electronic devices, and phone calls are not permitted.

And Amtrak conductors definitely enforce the rules. In 2015, then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie was kicked out of the Quiet Car. Christie allegedly got on by mistake and then proceeded to talk loudly on his phone and to his security staff. (In his defense, the Quiet Car can be tough to locate.)

11. You can charter an Amtrak train.

Yes, you can actually charter your own private train. Amtrak allows companies, sports teams, or other groups to arrange private transportation in style, even down to the onboard food and drink menu, decorations, entertainment, or in-station events. Prices start at $30,000.

If by chance you already own a private train car, you can pay to hitch it to an Amtrak train and be towed on an existing route. (According to The Wall Street Journal, there are about 150 private luxury railcars in the United States.)