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Passenger Trains
 

Steam locomotives continued to pull passenger trains on railroads all over the country until the mid-1950s. But the number of steam locomotives rapidly diminished after the end of World War II in 1945, as new diesel locomotives replaced them soon after.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, some steam locomotives were "streamlined" — i.e., given new, Art Deco-styled exterior skins over what was still traditional steam technology underneath. Some of these locomotives were quite beautiful, such as those for famous trains like the "20th-Century Limited" from New York to Chicago, the "Hiawatha" between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and the "Daylight" between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But the real story after 1945 was the quickly disappearing railroad passenger.

In 1926, when Southern Railway locomotive 1401 was built, about 800 million intercity passengers and commuters boarded trains nationwide, and almost 32 billion passenger-miles were generated by the major railroads annually. (A passenger-mile, a standard measure, is one passenger carried one mile.)

Then, during World War II (1941-1945, when there was gasoline and tire rationing), rail travel surged to record amounts, peaking at nearly 98 billion passenger-miles in 1944.

After that, steady decline in rail travel set in as Americans took to the highways and, increasingly after 1960, to the skies.

By 2000, rail passenger-miles, for commuter and intercity, were about 15 billion. But the U.S. population was much greater, and overall mobility had expanded enormously since mid-century.

(Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation; Eno Foundation; Assoc. of Western Railways, Railroad Facts, 1958 ed.)

An electric-powered locomotive pulls a train at 90 miles per hour between Washington, D.C., and New York City in the late 1930s.
An electric-powered locomotive pulls a train at 90 miles per hour between Washington, D.C., and New York City in the late 1930s.

Electric locomotives draw their power from a high-voltage, overhead wire. The wire is held aloft by a complex suspension system called a catenary.

This type of electric locomotive (the GG-1) was styled by the industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, and ran in daily service from 1935 until the early 1980s. This photo shows No. 4800, the prototype of the class.

Amtrak's long-distance train, the 'Crescent,' crosses the James River in Virginia.
Amtrak's long-distance train, the "Crescent," crosses the James River in Virginia.
This "Crescent" is named for the former "Crescent" of the Southern Railway. Locomotive 1401 frequently pulled the old "Crescent Limited" on part of its route, including Salisbury, N.C.
Amtrak's high-speed 'Acela Express' trains started service between Washington, New York, and Boston in 2000.
Amtrak's high-speed "Acela Express" trains started service between Washington, New York, and Boston in 2000.
Like all high-speed trains elsewhere in the world (in Europe and Japan), the "Acela" is electric-powered. This train can operate up to 150 miles per hour.

In the 1960s, railroads across the country were in deep financial trouble, as both freight and passenger revenue eroded. Costs of running passenger trains, in particular, became untenable, given the steep decline in the number of rail passengers carried each year. Meanwhile, the Interstate Commerce Commision (then the federal agency regulating ticket prices and routes) would not let a railroad cease running any passenger trains without extensive hearings and long delay.

Finally, Congress stepped in to relieve railroads of the costs of running passenger trains. Amtrak— the National Railroad Passenger Corporation—started operations in 1971, taking over long-distance train service from nearly all of the rail carriers.

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