After World War II, the railroads started facing unprecedented competition for intercity passenger transportation services through the building of the national highway system and the advent of air travel. As a result of the changes, many private railroads started losing money from passenger and freight revenue, causing many railroad passenger services to drop. They were reduced and eliminated through a combination of the increasing expense, decreasing profits, and decreasing passenger demand.
The railroad also faced combinations of nationalization during war time, taxation, government related issues, and the loss of mail contracts. These all forced the government to form Amtrak in 1970 by asking all the freight railroad companies at the time that operated passenger services to come together to form a single national system. The company is operated by the US Federal Government and the board of directors are directly appointed by the president.
Since the formation of Amtrak, the company faced a ton of consolidations and cancellation of services and makes very little profit to this day. The national passenger rail system pales in comparison to the service offered by airlines and the connections and freedom offered by roads.
That said, the train system has many advantages over airline travel, and for some people, remains a very popular and preferred way to travel. The train system in the United States is among the worst in the world for first-world countries, but it still enjoys a lot of popularity on certain corridors where taking the train takes less time than air travel and car travel.
Many cities and states are starting to reinvest in rail systems on a state and regional level because of the economic benefits it would provide. The following routes are among the most popular in the nation, and many of them are in the process of being converted to higher-speed rail and are increasing frequencies in service.
10 Northeast Regional
The Northeast Regional is a higher-speed rail service connecting various points along the Northeast Corridor and connecting some outlying metropolitan areas. There is daily all-reserved service about every hour during the day.
Trains generally run between Boston, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. with more between New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, and extensions and branches to Springfield, Massachusetts and Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, and Lynchburg in Virginia. It handles about 8 million passengers a year and is the most popular route.
Travel times are about 4.5 hours between Norfolk or Newport News and Washington, two hours between Washington and Philadelphia, 1.5 hours between Philadelphia and New York, 3.5 hours between New York and Springfield, and four hours between New York and Boston.
9 Acela Express
The Acela Express is the only high speed rail corridor in the United States. It is also the second-most popular route carrying about three million passengers between Washington DC and Boston, Massachusetts.
It is only beaten in passenger counts by a passenger train that goes along the same route. It is facing problems mainly due to the sharing of tracks with slower trains and the age of the infrastructure.
8 Capitol Corridor
The Capitol Corridor runs about 2 million people between San Jose and Sacramento in California. It was developed under the Amtrak California brand and is being further developed to eventually become a part of the high speed rail system in California.
Before this, the only passenger trains in the area were long distance trains, which ran at inconvenient times for people in the area. Due to the popularity of the route, several route extensions are proposed.
7 Keystone Service
The Keystone Service carries about 1.5 million passengers a year from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and New York City by way of Philadelphia. Part of the route lies along the Northeast Corridor and the Keystone Corridor, the only two routes that are directly owned by Amtrak. The rest of the corridors are on tracks that are owned by freight railroads.
This corridor is also up for redevelopment as a high speed rail corridor because of the popularity of the rail travel between medium density cities. The corridor is in the process of eliminating at-grade railroad crossings.
6 Pacific Surfliner
This passenger train carries a couple million people a year between San Diego and San Luis Obispo along the Pacific Coast. It also connects many points in the Los Angeles basin, accounting for a majority of the passengers taking the route. It is also a corridor that is in the process of being converted to high speed rail over the next 30 years.
The Pacific Surfliner is primarily financed by the California Department of Transportation and is a part of the Amtrak California system.
5 San Joaquin
The San Joaquin essentially connects the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the San Francisco metropolitan area. It carried around a million passengers in the past year and goes through the Central Valley region. The line stops in Bakersfield and continues to Los Angeles as a bus line because of restrictions over the Techachapi Pass.
The line is also the site of the first phase of the California High Speed Rail System and will essentially serve as the backbone of the system itself. The line splits its six trains a day between terminating at Sacramento and Oakland.
4 Empire Service
The Empire Service runs through upstate New York. It runs from New York City to Albany and west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It runs along a set of tracks called the Empire Corridor, which is also a candidate for upgrades to high speed rail. It carries about 900,000 people a year along a route of 460 miles. It is also supplemented by many trains that lead to major cities in Canada, like Montreal and Toronto.
It is facing a lot of political pressure to increase speed and may soon see upgrades as long as funding is there. It is also supplemented in passenger numbers by the Lake Shore Limited, the Montrealer, and the Maple Leaf train lines, which share track for a time with the Empire.
3 Amtrak Cascades
This track goes from Vancouver, Canada to Seattle, Washington and on to Portland and Eugene, Oregon.
Total ridership was about 850,000 people last year. It is also funded by the state transportation departments of Washington and Oregon, along with help from the government of British Columbia in Canada.
2 Hiwatha Service
This train runs 11 trains daily over a 1 hour and 30 minute, 86 mile route from Milwaukee to Chicago with two other stops in between. It is a popular way to get between the two cities. It has great access to Milwaukee Airport and to northern suburbs of Chicago.
It is funded by the state departments of Illinois and Wisconsin and it is also one of the most popular short distance trains in the midwest. It has about 800,000 passengers riding every year. The train is also a popular candidate for upgrade to high speed rail as part of the Chicago Hub Network, which also connects Chicago to many other cities currently using Amtrak.
1 Empire Builder
This is the only long range passenger train to make the cut of being one of the most popular. The train travels from Chicago, Illinois to Seattle, Washington.
Other major stops are Milwaukee; Fargo; Whitefish, Montana; and Vancouver, Washington. The train travels along BNSF Railways and along the historic Great Northern Route that has existed since the late 1800's. The Empire Builder carried over a half million passengers a year. The service runs one train a day and it takes about two days for the train to make the complete route. The biggest problems facing the railroad are flooding and freight train interference. Despite this, it remains a destination, as well as a journey for the people who ride this train.