On May 1, 1971, the private railroads ceased passenger service and it was taken over by Amtrak, the government-owned National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Dozens of trains that ran on April 30th ceased to exist. Hundreds of cities lost their trains. What remained is largely the bare-bones operation, outside of the Northeast Corridor, that still exists today. This even though the nation has added 100 million people, become much more densely populated, and oil prices will make the car- and airline-based future seen as inevitable in 1971 increasingly difficult to sustain.
Amtrak was created because of a massive grassroots campaign. It was also an effort to help save the bankrupt Penn-Central and the freight railroads in general. But it was also born in sin as a deeply flawed political compromise, dependent on a federal subsidy that few lawmakers would or will admit is necessary, and a political plaything depending on who controls Congress and the White House. Something had to be done. Whether Amtrak was the answer is open to debate. America once enjoyed the best and fastest passenger rail system in the world. It was killed by automobiles and airlines that were heavily subsidized by the federal government (and continue to be), even as the private railroads were taxed and regulated heavily. Nor were the externalities priced in: Pollution, energy consumption and the resulting geopolitical instability, sprawl and its environmental consequences, etc. After spending heavily on new streamliners after World War II, railroads saw passenger business steadily fall off to this subsidized competition. Some fought on with top-notch service, notable the Santa Fe. Others couldn't wait to kill their trains, notoriously the Southern Pacific.
Both served Phoenix in the 1960s. The Santa Fe ran a classy little train from Union Station to Williams Junction, where it connected with the road's premier transcontinental streamliners, including the Super Chief, El Capitan, Chief, San Francisco Chief and Grand Canyon Limited. The SP operated three trains in each direction until the mid-1960s: the crack Sunset Limited, the Golden State and the remnant of the once grand Imperial. By 1970, only the Sunset survived, a raggedy thing that usually had a couple of coaches and a vending-machine car (a decade before, the Sunset routinely had 14 cars, including sleepers and full-service diner). Cities such as Cincinnati and St. Louis had dozens of trains, right up to the eve of Amtrak. After Amtrak, cities usually had one train, often at inconvenient hours (Phoenix had service until the mid-1990s, when the state government refused to help upgrade the northern main line of the SP).
Short-sightedness ruled. One reason for the massive number of "train offs" after 1967 was because the federal government canceled most mail contracts with railroads. Mail and express were major money makers that helped absorb costs from passenger service (the Imperial was mostly a mail train; the Santa Fe canceled its Phoenix train without the mail contract). That seems pretty stupid today, with semis crowding congested roads and freeways, adding to pollution. On a larger scale, no major common carrier operates a real system without a subsidy in any nation. It might have been better to simply subsidize the private railroads to continue passenger service. It would be ever more advantageous in the future to have a balanced way of moving people: cars, airplanes, transit and trains. As it is, Amtrak lives on a starvation diet of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion a year (current cost of the wars since 2001: $1.2 trillion on the way to $3 trillion or more, and not including externalities). The result is that service is always challenged. Still, the trains are wildly popular.
Our elites and the media are generally clueless about rail and greatly influenced by the anti-rail campaigns waged by right-wing "think tanks" and the oil, automobile, airline and trucking industries. One Stanford professor is gaining a platform by arguing the transcontinental railroad was a bad idea, hence high-speed rail is another boondoggle. Amtrak receives scrutiny and hostility never given to freeways or airlines, even though both receive much higher shadow subsidies, have much greater consequences for energy use and the environment, and in the case of airlines are in constant financial straits. No wonder President Obama's hopes to give a modest boost to higher-speed rail (while the world builds and expands true high-speed rail) are fading. Even expanding Amtrak seems a lost hope.
It seems no coincidence that Amtrak came into being just as Project Apollo was reaching its fulfillment. After that, a long ride into a nation of financial looting, offshored jobs, loss of legitimacy in our institutions and permanent war. A nation that can't do great things any more.