Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Today, Amtrak turns 40.

May 1st, 1971 was a bittersweet day for American railroading. That day, under half the number of trains operated in April 30th would run. But the loss of service on countless routes was tempered by the promise of a federally supported system.

By the late 1960s, the provision of rail service by private railroads was becoming increasingly difficult to justify, and the future of passenger trains was very much in doubt.

When Amtrak was formed, few expected the railroad to survive as long as it has, but the company has persevered. And it has built upon the bare-bones system of 1971, improving service in many areas.

The Northeast Corridor is an excellent example. Investments in the busiest and fastest rail corridor in the country have almost doubled the ridership of 1975. Since Amtrak took over ownership of most of the Northeast Corridor in 1976, they’ve completed electrification of the entire route. Speeds have been increased from a maximum of 110 mph to 135 mph south of New York, and from a maximum of 90 mph to 150 mph between New York and Boston.

And today, Corridor trains — both the Northeast Regional and the Acela Express — make an operating profit. However, despite it’s “above the rail” profit, the Corridor faces a massive $5.2 billion backlog of maintenance.

But Amtrak continues to look to the future. In September, they released a proposal to create a 220 mph high-speed corridor between Washington and Boston.

Amtrak’s investments are paying off. Ridership has been increasing for the past several months, and March was the 17th consecutive month of year-over-year ridership growth.

President Obama’s rail improvement initiatives promise to build the foundation for a bright future for rail in America. Even in the face of the cancellation of high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin and Florida, federal money is already laying new tracks from coast to coast. New cars and new locomotives are on order, and Americans are riding the rails in record numbers.

The last 40 years have certainly been tumultuous for Amtrak. Things seem to be looking up for Amtrak today. Hopefully the next 4 decades will be smooth sailing.

Make sure to come out next Saturday, May 7th, to celebrate National Train Day at Union Station.

Tagged: amtrak, transit

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.