May Day means Amtrak Day #1

Commentary By Bruce Richardson, URPA

Once again, for the 43rd time, here we are on May Day, the anniversary of the official day of Amtrak operations beginning on May 1, 1971. It was the day most of the still-operating passenger trains in the country disappeared, and the freight railroads breathed a sigh of relief because the heavy hand of the ICC was no longer upon them forcing them to run trains they didn’t want to run “in the public interest.”

The almost exclusively all-male railroad management cadre of the day, many of them struggling to save their own freight operations from bankruptcy in a heavy regulatory environment, were happy to be rid of the cost of passenger stations, a fleet of cars and locomotives which were reaching what everybody thought was the end of their useful life (sadly, this was especially true of equipment built by Pullman Standard, which used a different assembly process and materials than its wiser competitor, Budd), and all of the expensive employees it took to run passenger trains. They could cascade many of their unwanted employees onto Amtrak’s employee roster (of particular note, the former Pennsylvania Railroad employees in Philadelphia who were sure they could run passenger trains better than anyone else), and, allegedly, finally do what they thought railroads should only do, turn themselves into corporate conglomerates (remember the various “Industries” titles tacked onto the end of railroad names?) focusing on moving products, not people, and buying and managing other businesses they didn’t know how to run.

None were ever as successful as the guys at Canadian Pacific, who had the know-how to run CP Rail, a successful airline, a successful hotel chain, and a successful ship line. After CP got out of the cruise business, those ships were sold to the founder of Carnival Cruise Line in Miami, and they became the beginning of Carnival. It is said in the very early days, money was so tight, when the ships came back into home port, they cleaned out the money take in the onboard casinos and that’s what they used to pay the fuel oil bill for tanking up the ship for the next cruise.

So, here we are 43 years later. Amtrak has added a few routes, but more have been cut during the Carter route slaughter and then the Clinton years, we had the Ed Ellis express experiment which was done wrongly in so many ways, and we have the ongoing argument over whether or not Amtrak should just be a bus on wheels with no food service and no sleeping cars.

Everyone will always remember the fateful decision to help Conrail by “generously giving” the Northeast Corridor to Amtrak. That one single act of sabotage has done more to hurt passenger rail in the United States than any other move.

We had the heroic efforts of the Amtrak Reform Council and then the abject ignoring of its fine work. But, for the rational and intelligent among us, there was hope something may happen.

Fast forward to today. Much of the country’s former mainline infrastructure has been “downsized.” The greed of local and state taxing authorities helped the railroads make decisions to abandon track to be rid of maintenance costs and property taxes. They succeeded, but the railroads left themselves with so little in the way of options in case of derailments or other track problems, one choke point can have disastrous multi-state rippling consequences.

But, there is a bright light. Michigan understands the importance of passenger rail and wants to grow its system.

Indiana, as a state, is looking for a passenger rail marriage partner. And, they’re going to get a good one, if they make the right decision.

Connecticut, for the Hartford service, is actively looking for a new passenger rail operator – on track Amtrak owns!

Washington and Oregon want to be rid of Amtrak, too.

All Aboard Florida is completely divorced for anything to do with Amtrak and is poised to become the first completely private passenger train operation in the country since May 1, 1971.

North Carolina is showing the way on state-run passenger rail with the best run state system in the country. The Downeaster service shows Amtrak colors on the equipment, but runs things itself better.

California figured out a long time ago if its buys its own equipment, its a start to having a better intrastate system.

We’ve come a long way since May 1, 1971. Just wait until May 1, 2015 and see how different the landscape will be.

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