Amtrak is a government owned passenger rail corporation in the United States. It was established in 1971 with the goal of retaining national train travel as a transportation option, and while Amtrak is no longer required to operate nationally, it has retained many of the original routes from its early days of operation. Tickets are available directly through the company, at Amtrak stations, and through travel agents.
Amtrak is the only rail company providing extensive national service in the United States. In many other countries, multiple train companies compete for passenger travel, often handling freight as well. This diversity of choices and competition promotes constant refinements, from the development of more energy-efficient trains to luxury service.
Historically, the United States relied heavily on rail transport for travel and shipment of freight. Most passengers and goods used trains well through the middle of the 20th century, when trucking began to be used for freight, and people started driving cars in large numbers. In the late 1960s, some people began to fear that rail travel for passengers would disappear altogether, and in response, the government established Amtrak.
As a government-owned corporation, the corporation's board of directors are appointed by the President and subject to confirmation in the Senate. The government provides funding to supplement passenger revenues, and the corporation has struggled since its inception with chronic underfunding. Initially, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, as Amtrak is formally known, used rolling stock and equipment contributed by participating railroads, with companies joining the railroad so they could turn passenger operations over to Amtrak and focus on freight service.
In terms of efficiency and safety, Amtrak is one of the best transportation options in the United States. It is more environmentally friendly than planes, buses, or personal automobiles, with the per-passenger use of energy being comparatively low. Amtrak also has a strong safety record, and a decent reliability record, with some routes being more reliable and efficient than others.
In the early 21st century, Amtrak began to suffer a massive drop-off in customers, and some people feared that the days of passenger train travel might be over. However, rising costs of fuel and economic pressures in 2008 led many Americans to turn to Amtrak for transportation, boosting the ridership considerably. In response, the government provided additional funding and considered extending some routes to provide additional service, in order to attract more passengers to the system.