Making the trains worth leaving


I spend far too much time worrying about passenger service, I suppose; but, somebody's got to do it.

Besides, my biggest problem isn't losing sleep or developing ulcers. It's knowing in my heart what could be, yet is not.

I recall Amtrak's first advertising campaigns. According to the newly hatched quasi-public corporation, they were choosing to keep the best of existing rolling stock. They were creating gourmet delights for their diners. They were developing credit card sales protocols and simplified ticketing procedures and a toll-free telephone reservation line.

All accompanied by this nebulous assurance: "We're making the trains worth traveling again."

Of course, there were many trains back in 1971 which were already "worth traveling." Several roads, even those who had essentially given up on the concept of passenger train operations under existing rules, took offence at Amtrak's unconscionable effrontery. Furthermore, there were two companies which, at the time, went on record saying they would have opted out of membership in the National Railroad Passenger Corporation had they been given a fair opportunity to do so: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad.

Enter Amtrak - and reality. Much of the best rolling stock was lost to higher bidders (since those in Washington seemed to honestly believe there was no market for it apart from the N.R.P.C., despite the existence of several independent class Is and auto-train and Mexico). The promised "gourmet delights" fell to the budgeter's axe (since they couldn't even maintain what they'd been GIVEN). The Santa Fe had already begun accepting credit cards; the Penn Central was experimenting with computerised ticketing; the Burlington Northern's WATS line for information and reservations was up and running.

Even Amtrak's promise to make the trains worth traveling again was soon diluted by an alarming suffix: "All we ask from you is a little patience."

The N.R.P.C. eventually realised (after-the-fact) that it took a LOT of money to market "plate glass and varnish" - so much so that every one of the trains which member roads had been attempting to discontinue immediately prior to the passage of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 was abandoned by Amtrak. Adding insult to injury, our own government (by way of the Interstate Commerce Commission) had previously required those trains to be maintained with private capital (something about the public interest, convenience and - get this - "necessity"!). The bankrupt PC had been fielding four through trains from Chicago to New York along their former Pennsy main right up 'til the day Amtrak was born. The 'trak immediately reduced that to one. Now, there are none.

Back to the Santa Fe and SCL for just a moment:

W. C. "Bill" Burk, then Manager of Santa Fe's public relations department in Chicago, vividly remembered the Amtrak takeover. "[President John] Reed didn't want anyone running passenger trains across Santa Fe but Santa Fe. Those trains were the pride and joy of the railroad - the pride and joy of the nation, as far as he was concerned." The AT&SF knew it wasn't the fleet leaders which caused the greatest fiscal damage; it was the trains few people used or, really, even wanted around.

SCL's President Tom Rice was far more direct: "If we had been permitted to cut service to the level that Amtrak has cut it - we never would have joined Amtrak."

It's funny how so much of this is still so fresh and poignant after all these years. I can't bring myself to blame our railroads for making business decisions (since they are, after all, businesses) and, as the years go by, I find it increasingly difficult to imagine the Grand Manner surviving the past four decades completely unscathed.

On the other hand, it's pretty easy to point fingers at Amtrak: an inept government operation with a fairly abysmal record which, from the outset, has possessed an intolerable holier-than-thou attitude.

"We're making the trains worth traveling again," my clavicle!

So, why did all this come to mind over the past couple of days? No special reason; just another example of the way(s) our private railway industry could manage to make things work while Amtrak consistently fails.

It's a long story, involving back room deals with the UP and regrettable conciliations by Amtrak President Joe Boardman and crew. Suffice to say that the storied Sunset Limited, the oldest name train service in the world, still running only three days-per-week and sans through service east of New Orleans into Florida, is returning to its traditional post-late 1960s timetable. This includes an early morning westbound arrival into Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, "early morning" will now be defined as 5:35.

Yes, that's 5:35 A.M.!

Amtrak, with (barely) a nod toward its "first class" passengers, has stated it will allow occupancy of sleeping car accommodations until 6:30.

Mighty generous of 'em, eh?

Can any of you who, like me, are old enough to have experienced the Grand Manner first-hand even IMAGINE this happening during the railway age?

"We're making the trains worth traveling again. Now, GET OUT OF YOUR ROOM! It's almost dawn!"

Right now, I'm attempting to discover if there are any reasonable explanations for this arrival plan. For example, is there an issue concerning track and/or platform capacity (or the lack, thereof) during weekday morning rush hours at Los Angeles Union Station - something which might prevent a set-out car or two from being tethered to hotel power for a few hours?

Please; all I'm asking for is an excuse that makes sense! ANYTHING but "it's easier this way" or "we don't want to break up the consist in the depot (or before we reach the coach yard or unless we have to)" or "it shouldn't/doesn't (?!) really matter to our [cough] 'guests'."

A long-haul Limited arrives at its terminal point in a city which, quite often, doesn't awaken before the sun is warm.

The Limited's passengers, many of them vacationers, are unceremoniously kicked off before the sun has even risen!

It's enough to make a fellow give up.



  • Nice essay, Garl, and I offer the following related info in support:

    Amtrak, as we know, was created and activated in 1971, at a time when railroads were trying to abandon much of the privately operated passenger trains.  The ICC had become a bit more liberal and the system clearly was shrinking.  It would not have been many years before passenger service would disappear entirely.  Oh, there might have been a Super Chief on the Santa Fe, a Broadway or 20th Century Limited on the already bankrupt PC, a Crescent on the Southern, but they would have lasted only until the very expensive equipment had to be replaced.  Southern was one of the few that stayed out of Amtrak, willing to absorb passenger losses, but it, too, joined Amtrak when the Crescent train sets reached the point where they required replacement.  By the way, in those days of regulation, it was expected that railroads would cross-subsidize their passenger losses with the profits from freight service.  That was declining to the point where something more than 25% of U.S. rail mileage was operated by companies in bankruptcy proceedings.

    There were several competing views of how to deal with the passenger rail "problem."  Nationalization was one, but the Nixon Administration had decreed that not be done - wouldn't do for a Republican White House to advocate nationalization of anything, would it?  There was the most efficient idea: subsidize the railroads to continue operating the trains, but Congress already had made the railroads the "bad guys" who allegedly were trying hard to end passenger rail service, so that was politically undoable.  Amtrak was the least bad alternative.  Amtrak on its first day did terminate half the passenger trains it inherited, leading to Tom Rice's comment that you quote above.  You may recall also that John Reed refused to allow Amtrak to use the Super Chief name because he thought the Amtrak decor was too much like that of a French bordello.  I interviewed Mr. Reed for the BNSF history I wrote, but didn't have the guts to ask how he knew what a French bordello looked like.  Amtrak never has been funded properly by Congress.  One result is that its contract with the railroads requires that it pay avoidable cost for the use of rail lines and facilities, and that it pay the entire capital cost of any capital improvements for its sole benefit.  No capital (from Congress), no improvements.  Besides, if a siding is lengthened so a two-mile long coal drag can be put in the siding, giving Amtrak right of way that Congress thought it had mandated, who does the lengthened siding really benefit.  The freight railroad dispatcher certainly doesn't need it; he/she just puts the Amtrak train on the existing siding and is "clean" on the mandate of giving Amtrak preference.  There simply was no other place to arrange a more efficient meet or pass.  

    Amtrak has bounced from an effort to provide "fine dining" to the provision of plastic food on plastic dinnerware that would make airline fare (if there still were airline fare) look good by cmparison.  You don't like a 5:30 am arrival in LA?  Try the same arrival on Delta of its Maui-Salt Lake red-eye service.  And just try staying in your seat for an extra hour of shut-eye; TSA will have you busted in a heart-beat.

    Elsewhere at this PR blog site I engage one of the resident idiots who prattles regularly about railroad common carrier obligations, but doesn't quite understand what common carriage is.  The same idiot thinks that Amtrak would be profitable if the railroads would only run it profitably.  He has lousy spelling and grammar, too.

    At least you write well and understand the issues, making it a pleasure to engage you in discussion, Garl.  As for the Sunset schedule change, you mention not that the Sunset is to have better connection at several points between New Orleans and LA, and that's the kind of thing one should expect from a network as opposed to the current unrelated set of point-to-point individual trains.  Might Amtrak have negotiated a better agreement?  We'll never really know.  UP appears to have given Amtrak something it wanted and in exchange Amtrak has committed to leaving UP alone for a specified period of time.  That allows passenger (you) and freight (me) advocates to engage in more yin and yang.

  • Thanks for the memories of the death of private passenger trains and the birth of Amtrak . I was with the Family Lines when the SCL made the valent effort to keep passenger service alive and the ATSF did likewise. A commendable effort in spite of the subsidizes to aviation and highways. As was pointed out, and the Southern Railway experienced, the cost of maintaining and replacing passenger equipment in a non compeitive supply and demand environment due to government favortism to

    air and highway passenger modes would have been a expenditure that could not be justified to shareholders.

    I wish the FEC and Iowa Pacific the best in their private efforts to enter the passenger market altho they leave the door open for government partnerships . I also support the privitazation of Amtrak , but only after aid to competiting modes above user taxes and fees are eliminated. Yes I am a Tea Partier supporter of Amtrak as a temporary measure until an even playing field is achieved, and we must be sure that the inequities that led to the decline of the passenger train are corrected. A correction that could be made is to give freight railroads , property tax relief on lines that host passenger trains.

    The legislation that created Amtrak seems to resemble Obamacare legislation that is built on Nancy Pelosi's

    premise of "lets pass the bill and then we can see what is in it".  

  • Not to worry, Clinchfield.  There were plenty of people in 1970-71 who knew exactly what was in the National Railroad Passenger Act.  Some of them clearly lied, others simply deluded themselves and a goodly part of the public along with them.  Unlike health care that everyone is for but few wish to pay for, rail passenger service was broadly popular with people who didn't ride trains and was a candidate for euthanasia by those who make up the core of today's tea party movement.

  • Check out the GM/Ford/Chrysler/AAA Auto-Club/Albert P. Sloan/Oily-Moily/Roads-Trucking-Airlines-Rent-a-Kar Lobbies sponsored (Heartland Institute) and the insane crap that helped to RAIL-o-botomize the US population.

  • You really are a thoroughly obnoxious individual, Railwayist.  Kindly leave this blog site for those who are capable of conducting a rational discussion of contemporary issues.  You obviously do not belong.