The Ups And Downs Of Rail In The West, Both Past And Present

*Note: This audio essay first aired on KRCC (Colorado Springs’ NPR affiliate, 91.5 FM) on April 29, 2021. The link to the program is here; the audio file and the text from the essay are below.

Have you ever wondered how the West was won? 

There’s really only one answer. By train.

Civilization rode the rails into the American West on an iron horse, for good and for ill. Everyone used to ride the train. A hundred years ago, and right up through World War II, it was the thing to do. 

That is…until it wasn’t. In the 1960s, passenger rail all but died. In 1970, Penn Central, the largest railroad in the Northeast, approached bankruptcy and planned to discontinue 34 of its passenger trains. It threatened to cripple the economy. 

Just months later, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act. It formed a private entity to consolidate and assume operation of national passenger service. It was originally called “Railpax,” but just two weeks ahead of launch they scrapped that name. 

And so Amtrak was born on May 1st, 1971. 50 years ago this week, Amtrak started rolling across America and hasn’t stopped since. 

And between you and me—have you tried train travel? 

I’m all aboard. It’s transportation that all Pikes Peakers should experience. 

When you fly, you tend to look down on America as a series of dots, if you look at all. When you rail, you sit eye-level with a true slice of the country. So much more becomes visible. Animal tracks, hidden gorges, red rocks, giant mesas, much of it well beyond the sight lines of airline or car-lane. 

Recently, Amtrak said it’s committed to a new passenger rail line as part of its 15-year plan—from Cheyenne, Wyoming, right through the Pikes Peak region, on down to Pueblo. 

So today’s Peak Past may just be a look into our future. 

Until our next mountainside chat—be good, be well, and no matter what, climb on.

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