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Rail Passengers Looks Back at 50 Years of Amtrak

April 30, 2021

The Rail Passengers Association—the oldest and largest national organization, serving as a voice for the more than 40 million rail passengers in the U.S—is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Amtrak’s inaugural run with a look back at five decades of advocacy for more and better passenger trains in the U.S.

For Immediate Release (21-07)

Contact: Sean Jeans-Gail (202) 320-2723; [email protected]

Rail Passengers Association Looks Back at Amtrak’s 50 Years as 'America’s Railroad'

Washington, D.C. - The Rail Passengers Association—the oldest and largest national organization, serving as a voice for the more than 40 million rail passengers in the U.S—is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Amtrak’s inaugural run with a look back at five decades of advocacy for more and better passenger trains in the U.S.

Our association’s founder, Anthony Haswell, worked closely with key members of Congress and committee staff to help develop and enact the Rail Passenger Service Act to establish the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, later rebranded as Amtrak.

We’ve gathered a selection of memories, commentary and insights from past Rail Passengers leadership who have been fighting for a better rail network for America’s passengers across all 50 of those years.

“Rail Passengers Association was founded in 1967 as the ‘National Association of Railroad Passengers’ (NARP), and we’ve been with Amtrak every step of the way. It’s important to look back and see how far we’ve come—and how often we were able to narrowly avoid disaster. However, we also need to look to Amtrak’s next 50 years, and the future of America’s Railroad has never been brighter.

“‘Amtrak Joe’ has more than lived up to his nickname. His public support for rail and public transit has given ‘permission,’ if you will, for supporters in Congress and among elected officials around the country to broach transformative discussions. Nobody has to nibble around the edges any longer. Will these proposals go through unaltered? Probably not. But as a marker, a starting point, the path is now clear to catch up with decades of neglect in these investments.”

-Jim Mathews, President & CEO (2014 - Present)

“I’ve been involved with Amtrak for all its 50 years. In 1971 I was a Passenger Trainman in Philadelphia. Through 1972 I was a Rider, a travelling troubleshooter, on Metroliners. In 1973, I became a Fireman, and ultimately, a Northeast Corridor Locomotive Engineer. In 1988 I joined a consultant and spent 23 years working on passenger rail projects.

“Through almost all those years I have been an Rail Passengers member, and a Board member since 1988. The time has been one of disappointment, with Amtrak struggling to hold on, with minimal funding.

“But this is an exciting time! The Biden Administration is expressing a level appreciation of the value of passenger rail that we have never seen before. The Administration desires to secure adequate funding to expand services and replace the fleet. Once daily service is being suggested as the minimum. I would argue that twice daily service should be the minimum if we are going to offer it to every station at a reasonable time of the day.

“Currently, the RPA is working with Amtrak to move support for Amtrak away from the flawed concept of a ‘someday profitable’ operation to one that creates value in the towns and cities that the trains serve, and should serve.

“I’m looking forward to the continuing success for Amtrak, and an acceleration in the growth of passenger rail.”

-Ken Briers, Chairman (2020 - Present), Rail Passengers Association

"Numerous airlines have come and gone, many bus companies have come and gone, but Amtrak, America's Railroad, is still around after 50 years. Previous administrations and lawmakers tried to financially starve it to death. Routes were cut, stations closed, services curtailed, food service was reduced, trains ran late.

“Through it all, though, there was this constant public demand for trains. The public has clamoured for more trains, better trains, to serve more cities and towns. More people buying tickets to ride on Amtrak's skeletonized network meant ridership gains year after year (pandemic excepted) and now America's Railroad is on the cusp of a rail renaissance like we have never seen before.

“Looking back over a half-century of service is important, but it's time to look ahead to 50 years of expansion. Let's give the travelling public more of what it wants. Let’s ride."

-Peter J LeCody, Chair Emeritus (2016 - 2020), Rail Passengers Association

“I’m glad to see that Amtrak is still alive after 50 years. Frankly, many people thought it would die in 1971. Unfortunately, it has had lots of problems over the years. Every year Amtrak is forced to go to Congress to ask for money, and it has never been given enough funding to really develop a truly great national system. It should never have been considered a for-profit company—something many of us argued against from the beginning.

“People can make a big difference in any organization, and Amtrak has had its share of good and bad—and even great. But what Amtrak has shown is that people will ride their trains when the service is clean, on-time, with good frequencies, reasonably priced, and with good onboard services.

“With more and better service we could drastically cut down pollution, energy consumption, car accidents, and deaths. I am very glad it has survived 50 years. It is in the best interest of our nation to have a truly national rail passenger network.”

-Robert J. Stewart, Chairman Emeritus (2010 - 2016), Rail Passengers Association

“Happy 50th Birthday Amtrak! Congratulations. You’ve survived. You’ve overcome enormous obstacles. You’ve kept the passenger train alive in America. As a reality. And—even more important—as an idea.

“Thanks to you, we still can travel across America by train. Thanks to you, we still have a way to avoid the boredom of driving or the misery of flying. Thanks to you, we still have key parts of the once extensive rail infrastructure that passenger train service requires. Thanks to you, much of that infrastructure has avoided downgrading or outright abandonment. Thanks to you, we now have a foundation on which to build a modern passenger train network. Thanks to you, we can now reimagine rail as a 21st Century solution to America’s mobility needs. Thanks to you, we now have an opportunity to transform our transportation system in ways that will improve its ability to connect people with solid middle-class jobs, stimulate sustainable economic development, reduce carbon emissions and do it in a way that will minimize the negative impact that future growth of our current air/highway transportation system would otherwise have on the environment.

“Trains are back to the future. Even in America. The wind is finally to your back. The people are with you. The Congress is with you. The Administration is with you. Seize the opportunity. Make it possible for future generations to say, ‘Thank Amtrak! You did it.’ Make modern passenger trains a reality for all of America. Go Amtrak!”

-George Chilson, Chairman Emeritus (2004 - 2010), Rail Passengers Association

“Congratulations to Amtrak and the thousands of employees over the years whose hard work has disproved the theory some had at the start that Amtrak was ‘designed to fail.’

“The early years were rough. Once when I testified before Rep. Jim Florio (D-NJ) who chaired the predecessor of today's Railroads Subcommittee, he apologized to me for needing me to testify again so soon in defense of Amtrak funding.

“The 1979 route structure debate almost cut the heart out of Amtrak, but strong citizen support based partly on intense leafleting by volunteers turned a proposed 43% cut in the size of Amtrak's route structure to just 15%.

“The Crescent survives today in part because of the NARP’s work before the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1978. When I visited the Administrative Law Judge who heard the case she commented favorably on NARP's pro bono attorney, John Heffner, and the fact that he was not intimidated by the bevy of Southern Railway lawyers and others arrayed against him.

“At a ceremony in Cumberland for the relaunch of a Washington - Cincinnati train, Amtrak President Paul Reistrup said ‘down the tracks there is a switch—the right turn would take you to Pittsburgh but that's not where we're going.’ Of course, eventually the right turn was made and that service exists today.”

-Ross Capon, President Emeritus (1975 - 2014), Rail Passengers Association

About Rail Passengers Association

The Rail Passengers Association (formerly known as the National Association of Railroad Passengers) is the oldest and largest national organization serving as a voice for the more than 40 million rail passengers in the U.S. Our mission is to improve and expand conventional intercity and regional passenger train services, support higher speed rail initiatives, increase connectivity among all forms of transportation and ensure safety for our country's trains and passengers. All of this makes communities safer, more accessible and more productive, improving the lives of everyone who lives, works and plays in towns all across America.