How Trains Work

Passenger Railroad Systems

The lounge on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train looks pretty comfortable, so why aren't more people riding on the only nationwide passenger railroad in the United States?
The lounge on Amtrak's Coast Starlight train looks pretty comfortable, so why aren't more people riding on the only nationwide passenger railroad in the United States?
Lee Foster/­Getty Images

­Early on in U.S. train travel, freight railroads offered passenger services, but didn't make much money. In 1970, Congress created Amtrak to take over passenger services from the freight railroad companies. Amtrak operates corridor services amid major urban areas on the East Coast, Midwest and West Coast. It also offers cross-country services.

Amtrak operates on tracks owned by host railroads. In fact, 70 percent of Amtrak routes are owned by Class I freight companies. It serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states. In 2007, Amtrak carried 25.8 million passengers (average of 70,000 passengers on 300 trains daily).

Amtrak receives federal, state and local support in return for offering passenger and commuter services. Despite the government support and increased ridership, Amtrak hasn't turned a profit. In 2007, Amtrak's expenses exceeded its revenues by about $1 billion. One potential reasons for the shortfall is the fact that Amtrak faces steep competition from automobiles and airlines, but more about that later.

­In contrast, European railway systems are devoted primarily to passenger traffic. Most European railways are government-owned. In 1959, the Eurail Group was created to handle the increased tourism load. The organization coordinates and markets passenger rail traffic among 30 European countries. The European network connects most European cities. Eurail's high-speed trains have become competitive with airlines and are more efficient than automobiles.

Russia, China, Korea, Japan and Australia also offer passenger rail service. Each country has an extensive rail network for passenger travel. Furthermore, the European train network is being linked to railways that travel to China, India and Southeast Asia. However, not all countries or continents have established international rail networks. Neither Africa nor Central or South America boast such networks. And while Mexico, Peru, Brazil, South Africa and Morocco have trains, those trains operate on tracks located solely within those countries.

We can't let this page end with mentioning a few of our favorite famous passenger trains.

  • The Orient Express was one of the first luxury trains. In 1883, it carried passengers from Paris to Giurgi, Romania. The Simplon Tunnel expanded the train's service to Venice in 1906. By 1923, the train's route lengthened again to reach Istanbul. Its popularity peaked in the 1930s, but travel declined after ­World War II. Its last trip was in May 1977. Agatha Christie's favorite train was reborn in 1982, and its travel route from London to Venice was re-established.
  • Eurostar became the first railroad to link the United Kingdom with the European mainland. It travels through the Channel Tunnel that extends under the English Channel. Eurostar offers high-speed train service from London to Paris and Brussels. You might remember Eurostar from its cameo in the movie "Mission Impossible."
  • TGV, the French, electrically powered high-speed train, whizzes among Paris, Lyons, Bordeaux and Marseille. In April 2007, it set the world record for fastest train travel at 357 miles per hour (575 kilometers per hour). It routinely travels at 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour).

Will train travel catch on in more than a few select countries? Keep reading to find out.