Commentary

HISTORY OF AMTRAK and what has happened since 1971

Commentary by Anthony Haswell, Vice President, Arizona Rail Passenger Association
prepared for National Train Day, May 10, 2014, in Tucson, Arizona

NOTE: Mr. Haswell is the founding father of NARP. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

The first job of any historian is to determine when a historical event began. Since Amtrak was created to deal with intercity rail passenger service, we must step back before Amtrak arrived in 1971 and see what happened to passenger trains in earlier years. 1920 saw the all-time high in peacetime for US rail passenger travel, both in passenger trips and passenger miles. However, those trains were slow – only a few achieved start-to-stop averages between given points of over 40 MPH and almost none reached 50. Locals and branch line trains were much slower. Reclining coach seats, then called chair cars, were a rarity. Air conditioning was still in the future; soot from the coal-burning steam locomotives entered freely through open windows. But the alternative for many people, unless they were lucky enough to have access to an electric interurban, was a drive over dirt roads in a Model T Ford. Rail passenger traffic did not share in the prosperity of the 1920’s. Indeed, by 1929, it had declined 35%, mostly in coaches as sleeping car patronage did not peak until 1927. Sharp fare increases after WWl did not help. By the end of the decade, trains were not much faster than ten years earlier. Meanwhile, people were driving Model A’s on an ever-increasing network of hard roads, which also benefited intercity bus service.

Nevertheless, by 1930 rail travel had become fundamentally safe, and passenger service nationally still showed a financial profit. In contrast to the fortunes of many Americans, rail passenger service saw its /1 golden era” in the depression years of the 1930′ s. The widespread introduction of air conditioning coincided with the debut of the fast lightweight /1 streamliners” – the Zephyrs, Rockets, 400’s, Hiawathas and many others – which enabled spectacular reductions in travel time, sometimes by several hours. Coupled with sweeping fare reductions, by 1937 these improvements resulted in recovery of much of the traffic loss since 1929. Financially, the ’30s were a mixed bag. Overall, passenger operations began to lose money on a full cost basis, a trend that was only briefly interrupted by the World War II years. However, the new trains individually, particularly the coach services, were quite profitable.

During the last year of the war, the railroads ordered lots of new equipment, hoping that at least some of the wartime traffic would stay on the trains. It was not to be. Service quality was adversely affected by an Interstate Commerce Commission order limiting train speeds in accordance with the type of signaling on given lines, and by an increase in mail, express and package business on passenger trains requiring longer dwell times at stations. By 1950 train travel was less than half the wartime peak, having been lost to better automobiles, improved roads, and rapidly expanding air services. The coming of the Interstate Highway system and the jet airplane in the late ’50s were the final blow to the ability and desire of the private rail companies to provide competitive passenger services.

Meanwhile, financial losses were steadily increasing. Experiments with new designs of fast lightweight trains went nowhere. The ICC produced a major report in 1959, warning that something had to be done soon if service in many parts of the country was not to disintegrate and disappear. In the early ’60s, support for a positive solution to the passenger train crisis began to develop. A Congressional committee released a report suggesting that all intercity passenger services be consolidated into a single national entity. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island became the leading advocate for preserving and improving service in the densely populated Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

After a modest respite in 1966, financial losses on passenger trains reached an all-time high the following year. The initial reaction of Congress was to consider a massive subsidy bill to reimburse railroads for their losses on a 0 fully allocated” basis. Since this would have given the companies more than they could have saved were all service eliminated, it was looked upon as a “railroad welfare” program and did not get Congressional support. Meanwhile the Department of Transportation, while not an enthusiastic supporter of passenger trains, concluded that substantial elimination of the service was not politically feasible and explored other options. It decided to create a for-profit national entity which would relieve the railroads of the financial burden and hopefully would become profitable through good management and the economies of consolidation. Senator Winston Prouty of Vermont became the champion in Congress of this approach.

The bankruptcy of the newly-merged Penn Central railroad in June 1970 together with the incessant complaints of the industry about the financial drain lent a new urgency to the situation. Senator Pell argued for establishment of separate regional entities in high density corridors in the Northeast and
in other parts of the country, but western Senators who feared loss of trains in their states opted for a single national organization. In late 1970 Congress passed and sent to President Nixon a bill creating “Railpax”, soon to be renamed Amtrak. The President felt that the bill would simply transfer the passenger service deficit from the railroads to the government and briefly toyed with vetoing it. He signed it under pressure from the railroads and fear of the political consequences of a veto, but the passage of time has proven his concern valid. The bill called for creation of a “basic system” of passenger service by the Department of Transportation which would be provided by Amtrak by paying the railroads to run the trains. That chore was completed in April 1971 and resulted in about a 50% reduction in passenger service across the country when Amtrak commenced operation in May. Some of the choices were questionable, including continuation of less than daily service between New Or leans and Los Angeles and routing of Chicago-Los Angeles service via Flagstaff rather than Tucson and Phoenix.

The legislation provided for a modest initial operating subsidy plus one-time payments from those railroads which were relieved from the obligation of providing service on their own dime. This was considered enough to carry Amtrak into 1973, at which time if Amtrak was not profitable it would be
liquidated and the trains discontinued. When 1973 arrived, it was clear that Amtrak was losing money and would continue to do so. The Congress reacted by appropriating enlarged and ongoing funding. By this time the President was politically weakened by the “Watergate” scandal and was in no position to veto a popular and relatively non-controversial program.

Not long after Amtrak commenced operation, trains were added between Chicago and New York via Buffalo and Cleveland and between Minneapolis and Seattle via Billings and Missoula, the latter of which did not survive. Service between New York and St Louis and between Chicago and Florida was discontinued in 1978. In the early 1980’s, trains were added between Chicago and Portland via Boise and between Chicago and Los Angeles via Las Vegas. Both were discontinued in the mid nineties. By that time New York-Chicago service via Pittsburgh had faded away. Amtrak was authorized to add short-to-medium distance services outside the basic system if states agreed to pay part of the losses. In the ensuing years, state-sponsored services have been a major Amtrak success story, most especially in California, Washington and North Carolina. By 1994, Amtrak deficits were rising rapidly and Tom Downs took over as its CEO. While not a railroader, he initiated several actions to improve Amtrak’s service and financial results:
— instituted a new accounting structure to better portray the financial picture of individual trains and routes
— discontinued two sets of money-losing trains in the west
— ordered design and production of the high-speed Acela trains for service in the Northeast Corridor
— tried to improve the financial performance of long distance trains by adding mail, express and package freight
Unfortunately, in 1997 when Downs proposed steps to reduce Amtrak’s labor costs, the Amtrak Board of Directors, responsive to the labor organizations, forced him out of his job.

So where is Amtrak today and where is it going? Its current performance is not inspiring. Unfortunately trains on most Amtrak routes are slower than comparable trains of 1941 and have a mediocre on-time performance. On-board services are inferior to those of many years ago. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, major improvements are being planned and driven at the state level – e. g., the high-speed projects in California and Illinois – while Amtrak seems content to “keep ’em rolling” and make no waves.

I close by reminding you that unlike other modes, railroads are a fixed guideway form of transportation. That guideway must be properly maintained, and where Amtrak shares it with freight or commuter services, Amtrak trains must be accorded sufficient priority to allow fast and dependable schedules. If it
is not, the consequences are very clear – witness the many years of unreliable operation of the Sunset through Tucson and the current problems facing the Empire Builder across North Dakota and Montana. There is no easy solution short of exclusive rights of way for Amtrak trains, which is not economically feasible outside of high density corridors.

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