Trains For America

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Happy Birthday Amtrak

On May 1, 1971, Amtrak took over the passenger train operations of 18 operating railroads. The following is from memory and consists of random thoughts.

Richard Nixon signed the bill as corporate welfare. Amtrak became responsible for railroad company labor protection costs and Railroad Retirement benefits.

From memory, Southern, D&RGW and Rock Island did not participate. Is that correct?

You never saw a more rag-tag collection of junk as the original fleet of rolling stock which became the Amtrak passenger car fleet. They were running a GM&O dining car from the 20s. The Santa Fe equipment was nice and new but most everything else was ready for retirement. It is much like the current fleet of Amtrak equipment – way over due for replacement.

None of the equipment “matched” so maintenance was a nightmare. The order of Superliners went into service around 1981, a full decade into operation.

Amtrak is to this date a whipping boy for everything that goes wrong in the federal government, yet there is probably no agency (although Amtrak is not an agency) that gets the level of congressional meddling. I say this often but the tinkering goes right down to the dining car operations.

I note today that congress is conducting hearings on the BCS bowl system and I am goad of it because they will be off Amtrak’s case for at least a day.

While I do not include myself among those who blindly believe more money will solve every ill of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, I do think it would be a beginning. Amtrak desperately needs a reasonable subsidy and stable management that will concentrate on a business plan.

The constant struggle for life extends down to on board service. How would you like to work for a company under unceasing duress?

The original name of  NRPC was Railpax. There is a country music song that uses the word: She’s a Railroad Lady. Cannot remember the artist.

Jimmy Carter was Amtrak’s biggest enemy. Decimated the system in a day. Cut a dime worth of expenses and lost a dollar’s worth of revenue.

I am informed that truckers intend to fight further appropriations for Amtrak till the last dog is hung. More money for rail means more freight shipped by rail. That is the pathetic condition of American transportation policy.

Amtrak might provide an essential service to hundreds of small and medium sized towns, but that would take leadership that responds to more than the financial contributions of well heeled special interests and a vision that goes beyone this week.


Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

9 Responses

  1. Tim Lynch says:

    Well said Pat. I remember the early days of Amtrak. They benefitted from Union Pacific and Northern Pacific equipment as well as Santa Fe. A year later the Broadway Ltd. had a set of unit-diners and an ex-C&O Pullman Lounge observation, plus a Big UP mid-train lounge. The number of passenger trains running had been cut in half, but the clock was ticking on an ageing car fleet. A lot like today!

  2. Mad Park says:

    The company also benefited from Great Northern’s fabulously maintained fleet in addition to AT&SF, NP and UP as mentioned. But, yes, it was a strange looking bunch of trains there for the first few years. The Broadway’s twin unit-diners were a nice touch as was the re-introduction of the Montrealer. My memory is that the first amfleet cars arrived in 1974, and the first superliners in 1979. President Carter’s evisceration was the beginning of a transformation of the company from a national system to a series of disconnected corridors scattered around the US. While higher speed corridor trains are essential to reducing energy use in the US, we must also maintain a robust national system of daytime and overnight trains to offer non-auto transport options to the many citizens who do not live in or near a large population conurbations. AND it is way past time for an order for about 1500-2000 new cars – not just to maintain the current levels of service but expand the company so it can grow revenues and be more self supporting.

  3. The “nonparticipating railroad” question is a good one for after-operating-session bull sessions. Southern and Rio Grande opted out for operational reasons (the original system plan envisioned a government train on their rails) while Rock Island opted out for lack of ransom money (management calculated that they’d lose less money continuing to operate the Peoria and Davenport trains). There are three additional services that opted out: the Reading – Central of New Jersey Crusader and Wall Street, which hung on as a cheaper alternative to the Metroliner that was faster than a transfer of commuter trains at Trenton; the South Shore Line, which claimed exemption as a commuter service; and the Georgia Rail Road. That last one is the hardest one for people to come up with, but the carrier was running an Atlanta-Augusta mixed train and some branch line mixed trains to retain an old state tax exemption, and counsel were of the opinion that the tax costs of joining Amtrak would swamp whatever deficit the mixeds incurred for the passenger service.

    I remember that old GM&O diner, it, and some of the heavyweight coaches, often got into Milwaukee on the run-through trains that began in the fall of 1971. Those were interesting trains: Burlington dome-parlors, the GM&O diners, Hiawatha coaches not officially part of the Amtrak roster. As you note, lots of older cars. The Amfleet cars still doing most of the short haul work today are now older than those Hiawatha coaches were in 1971.

  4. Bill says:

    The country music song Railroad Lady was written by Jerry Jeff Walker. One of the early performers of the song was Lefty Frizzell, but it is Willie Nelson’s rendition which fully brought out the melancholy sadness of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the prevailing sentiment was that the railroads were indeed dying. Recalling that era — the birth of Amtrak and the death of many passenger trains and indeed entire railroad companies — presents quite a contrast with today, when the development and expansion of passenger rail in America has become a given, and the only question is how soon the development will occur.

  5. Paul says:

    I didn’t know Carter cut so much. I thought there was a big increase in the Amtrak budget at that time but as I search the web it seems he did cut routes. Perhaps there was a large order for rolling stock during Ford’s admin. that delivered during Carter’s time. Any clarification would be interesting. I don’t want to dwell on the past but I would like to have this clear in my mind.

  6. Deacon says:

    happy B-Day amtrak! First off glad to see Amtrak is still hanging in there. Lets hope everybody for once pulls in the same direction on public transport so we can get some proper alternatives flying, after reading about all them bird strikes, I can’t wait. Not to keen on landing in rivers etc.

    I can see the truckers getting their nickers in a twist over improved freight service, but don’t the likes of UP, BNSF, CSX and the like own their tracks? The truckers also don’t need to get all pissy they can be part of the solution too. Intermodal transport can benefit everybody, it can save them money in the long run if they support it. (Again see France for success story)

    Amtrak as I understand only owns very little of the tracks that it runs on. Hence all the delays because they have to wait for the freight trains. Which also greatly contributed to the Acela Express being built like a freight train incase it ran into one. Didn’t they deliver mail at one point?

    O the frustration at the ignorance shown toward this.

    Why don’t they look get a panel together say 10 ladies and gents that are now the USHSR Commission and send them to all the countries with HSR (Let them fly economy like the rest of us usually do) then let them ride those HSR Trains. Use the systems etc. Tell them they have 3 months to get their report together and present it to the powers that be also publish it on the inter-webs so we all can see what they think and what they recommend.

    1. That will give them 1st hand experience of traveling on a proper HSR system.

    2. They can meet up with all the powers that be there and get a feel for how its run and what is required. Were they get the money from etc.

    3. They can then come back and say right this is how they do it. this is how we recommend we do it. (This needs to happen, they need to go there and see it working IMHO, otherwise we’re going to have a bunch of nay sayers talking out their backsides)

    They need to be way more proactive than they’re being. I see a lot of talk and nothing else. Sorry patience is not one of my virtues.

  7. Tom says:

    Find the money, and you can have yourself a high-speed train. No money, no train. Congresspeople have been going to Europe and riding their HSRs for decades.

    How do you do it? By laying track, at $20 million per mile. (Note: over open country. Over populated areas, add in the cost of eminent domain.) Where does the money come from? Taxes.

  8. Mad Park says:

    Thank you Tom for re-enforcing a point I’ve made many times on this and other blogs. A truly national passenger train system in the US w/ route miles comparable to the Interstate highway system, and about 40% of those miles usable at 125 MPH or greater will conservatively cost US$1 Trillion over 25 years or so. Do we have the national will to forgo cars and planes fueled by oil for electrically powered trains? Do we have the leadership to get us there?

  9. Yeah, about 38 years ago it was a great event. My best wishes.

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