It seems like every other story about High-Speed Rail or Amtrak wants to give its own version of events that brought American passenger rail to its current unfortunate state. Usually they’re either biased, misinformed, or just plain wrong. Trust The Economist, Britain’s largest consumer of tweed and fine cigars, to get it more or less right:
In the 20th century rail travel languished as Americans fell in love with cars and interstate highways. Jet travel made railways even less attractive. A thinly scattered population and government subsidies for road and air travel did not help. In 1970 Congress created Amtrak to take over the ailing rail passenger service. Over the years the semi-private corporation has been plagued by poor management and volatile funding. Except for the Washington-Boston line, trains have been mostly slow, unreliable and unpopular. By 2000 rail accounted for just 1% of all intercity commercial trips. On National Train Day in May 2008 Amtrak employees handed out bumper-stickers that read “I’m a trainiac”, apparently not realising the irony of placing such a message on one’s car.
Trainiacs have had a better stretch of late. Ridership on Amtrak has jumped by 18% over the past two years. In October Congress reauthorised Amtrak for five years, and included plans to advance intercity and high-speed passenger rail. The stimulus added cash and momentum.
Worth a read, if for nothing else than to get some perspective on US passenger rail from the other side of the transatlantic glass onion.