An interesting take surfaced on railroad.net (<-- direct link to comment in question) that brought up a point I hadn't considered regarding the creation of Amtrak--the regulatory burdens that made it necessary for a federal takeover of passenger rail in the first place (not to mention most of the Northeast freight rail infrastructure).
In short, if you were a freight railroad, you had to run the passenger trains the government said to run. You could not discontinue services that were bleeding cash without permission (which was seldom granted) . You could only charge the fares the government allowed you to charge (which didn't cover expenses), and the state set the property taxes upon the land your tracks and facilities occupied at whatever the state felt like charging.
Sounds like to me, if the Staggers Act (along with regulatory relief pertaining to passenger services) had happened in the (early) 1960's, freight railroads might have remained healthy enough to shoulder the losses inherent in passenger rail, at least until the beancounters found their new religion in the "Church of the Holy Operating Ratio". I base this on Conrail, which was something of a raging dumpster fire until freight rail deregulation.
Now whether we'd have a passenger rail network any more extensive than Amtrak's current one is anyone's guess. The NEC at least would probably still need to be a federal operation, owing to the expense of maintaining electrification (like it is anywhere else in the world).
---PCJ (who uses the service at least three times a year)
Given what I have read about the railroads and their history, I doubt that given the post war world that the railroads would have kept passenger service. The decline of the railroads was a combination of federal regulation, especially ICC setting freight rates and losing ground to long haul trucking thanks to the interstate highway system, and then too it was bad management as well. I suspect had they been allowed to drop passenger service they would have done it a ways before they actually did. Even if they could charge what they wanted, by the early 1960's the penetration of cars combined with the interstate highway system, the explosion of air travel, likely they would have found had they been able to raise fares, it would only drive more people to drive or fly. Not to mention that to the freight railroads, passenger service "got in the way' of freight......
Obviously we don't know what would have happened had the government done for railroads what they did for other industries like the airline industry and the trucking industry (for example, the very real fact that trucks cause a lot more damage to roads than their diesel fuel tax and road use taxes pay for, while cars pay a lot more than they cause in damage),or the various subsidies the airlines get, for example, what if the government helped subsidize rail travel, by perhaps running the stations, helping pay for infrastructure improvements like better track, or even (to use a modern context) be responsible for PTC and signalling system costs on the railroad (analogous to the FAA air traffic control system roughly)...it is interesting to think about,but not solving anything.
In one sense, I think a proposal to shut down Amtrak entirely would not be a bad thing, and here is why. Every time things are proposed by Amtrak (like for example, using buses on some parts of the long distance routes), suddenly politicians come out of the woodwork demanding that this not happen, or when Amtrak proposes cutting back or eliminating service to areas, politicians object to it, people rally to try and stop it, etc......perhaps if we had that conversation on a system wide scale, the politicians who come out of the woodwork when it affects their district but spends the rest of the time yelling about how much Amtrak costs, that the government shouldn't be in the rail business, etc, might actually realize their contradictory behavior, those who support rail service but normally aren't active in pushing for better rail service, more spending on capital projects, etc, might wake up and act. What is the old expression, you often don't value something until you are about to lose it?