Fred Frailey Blog

Amtrak's pioneers speak out

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A memorable part of this year’s Lexington Group meeting, held in Peoria, Ill., was a panel of former Amtrak officers moderated by Bill Howes, who ran pre-Amtrak passenger services for the Baltimore & Ohio and Chesapeake & Ohio railroads. Bill asked them what they enjoyed about their Amtrak years and what frustrated them. Here is an edited version of their remarks (the event lasted the greater part of two hours), plus my occasional comments.

John Baesch. John was a transportation superintendent in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. He and I have had a few memorable experiences together, one of them being walking through the Baltimore tunnels circa 1983 as trains rumbled by. John’s remarks: “The Amtrak I came to in 1976 looked like the land of opportunity. You could do some good and have fun doing it. I was assigned to run its operations center. We believed then we could run the place as a business and if we couldn’t make money, at least be looked on by the public as favorably as the Coast Guard. My job was to make sure the trains had at least one locomotive and the appropriate cars.

“We survived. We got through it. When we got to be a railroad in our own right, we could stand tall with anybody. Disappointments? Picking up wrecks was never fun.

“The enthusiasm is still there. The sense of purpose is still there. The struggle goes on.”

Cliff Black. Cliff for most of Amtrak’s life was its public face, the media spokesman. I want to say that Cliff loved reporters and we loved him. The guy must have sprinkled truth serum in his cereal every morning.

“Rational public policy was badly needed in 1970. The process of enacting the Railroad Passenger Service Act was so convoluted that it was unlikely Amtrak would survive. In fact, a lot of people thought the new company was an acceptable way for the U.S. to lose passenger rail service gracefully.

“An event in 1973 saved Amtrak: OPEC’s oil embargo hit, and all of a sudden Amtrak trains were full, standing room only. Amtrak had the opportunity to buy turbotrains from France, too. Some time was bought for us.

“My regret today is that Amtrak is considered a money loser, first and foremost, instead of being seen as a provider of good transportation for millions of people every month.”

Paul Reistrup. At about age 80, Paul still retains the wry sense of humor acquired during his Iowa boyhood and ramrod-straight bearing of his West Point training. Paul says he was recruited four times to be Amtrak’s second president (1975-1978) and gave in the fifth time. What he forgets is that I recruited him, too. Really! I was Chicago bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. Bill Harsch of the Chicago Sun-Times and I took Paul to lunch in 1974 and told him it was his patriotic duty to run Amtrak and save it from the idiots then in charge. I don’t think we were very effective.

“Amtrak shouldn’t have happened but it did and is still improving, gradually. I was involved in acquiring the Northeast Corridor. It was so cheap we should have bought more! The price to Conrail was $85 million, but we had no money. So we made a barter deal with Conrail, giving them credit for that amount in trackage rights fees.

“My biggest disappointment was that we could not complete the electrification north of New Haven. We now have modern electrification on the north end of the corridor. Another plus was getting Mighty Mouse, the AEM7 electric locomotives. They’re still running. However, at the time everyone wanted us to reinvent the GG1. My goodness, those things weighed 250 tons and were breaking their frames on the rough track we inherited. We also acquired Beach Grove shops in Indianapolis. We needed a place to repair all that museum equipment we had.

“My wife still takes Amtrak to Atlanta now and then. She says every trip is an adventure.”

Ira Silverman. Ira is one of the few people to work for Amtrak, leave for greener pastures, and come back to the company for more punishment, before finally retiring.

“One thing that never changes is the lack of consistency in service. It’s always ‘I had a terrible trip on the Builder’ and then ‘I had a wonderful trip on the Capitol.’ We never delivered consistent service. It can be done. The Rocky Mountaineer does it. The only Amtrak train I can safely recommend is the Auto Train because it has always been run independently of the rest of Amtrak.”

Craig Willett. Craig had two careers at Amtrak without ever leaving the company. First, he was a manager in the Midwest, working on scheduling and state-supported services. He finished his Amtrak years as an engineer on the Empire Builder.

“It was hard to explain to politicians how much capital was needed to launch a quality service. Railroads are expensive toys. My biggest disappointment was lack of consistency. We don’t have managers out riding the trains, as Mr. Reistrup used to do. Because of that, consistency of service is tough to achieve.”

One person I wish were present on the panel was Alan Boyd, who followed Reistrup as president. So I’ll tell a story Alan tells on himself, and I apologize that it has no Amtrak content. While he was president of Illinois Central, Boyd learned that he was being paid somewhat less than Santa Fe president John Reed. This bothered Boyd greatly. He stewed over it all day, and when he got home his frustration overflowed in complaint at the dinner table. His wife listened briefly and then smiled sweetly. “Oh Alan, cut it out. You know you’d do this for free!” Yes, the best railroaders, like the five panelists in Peoria, love their jobs. — Fred W. Frailey

  • Fred, Thanks for posting this.

  • So do you   -----   love your job(s)     And hats off to you,    And thanks also/

  • For these gentlemen and for all of the rest of the pioneers I would like to add one comment.  Once Amtrak began I could get on the train at Providence, R.I. and not have to worry about having to stand until New Haven.  That made a big difference to me.  

  • Amtrak is very vulnerable to poor service, rendered by employees that are too often in "dead end" jobs. That was a problem 40 years ago and is still a problem. The solution, namely accountability, is only a dream. When some level of accountability is achieved, consistency of service might emerge in time.

  • On the corrridor and commuter only versus retaining long distance, I would like to comment:

    Long distance trains are generally used by people for trips between once and five times a year, for visits to family, business, and vacations.   So passenger counts do not reflect the percent citizen usage of the corridor and commuter trains versus the long distance trains!!   So the subsidy per citizen is probably actually far less on a yearly basis for the riders of long distance trains than it is for corridor trains.   This is a per citizen basis, not a per journey or journey-times-miles basis.

    So the politicians of the less populated areas that insist that their long distance trains stay in service if they are to support the corridor subsidies have a point.   It is not just politics but also fairness.

    In my view the college student getting a graduation present of a once-in-a-lifetime transcontinental train trip is just as worthy of s subsidy as the Philadelhpia-New York daily commuter.   Subsidizing the second is essential for the cities to function, and subsidizing the first is a matter of fairness, in my opinion.

  • My dream is to take another trip from Washington State to Chicago on the Empire Builder. My wife and I took this trip in 1972 soon after our marriage so she could meet my family in Chicago. The trip was great! Two years ago we took the EB from Seattle to Leavenworth, WA on an excursion trip. The ride was wonderful but the food and service was not very good. With the airlines increasing fares and their poor service, I hope more people try rail travel again. It is more relaxing.

  • "His wife listened briefly and then smiled sweetly. “Oh Alan, cut it out. You know you’d do this for free!” Yes, the best railroaders, like the five panelists in Peoria, love their jobs"

    Thanks for letting the cat out of the bag, Fred!  Even some of us who are "not the best" would work for the fun of it. We preferred it remained a secret!

  • Railroaders, professors and writers who love railroading attend meetings like the Lexington Group after retiring from the day to day.  You never hear from those again who were in it just for the money.. And not surprisingly, most of those who love railroading were the greatest contributors

  • I couldn't agree more with Cliff Black.  Unless we're careful, the present candidates will put Amtrak on the block again along with Sesame Street.

             GW Herkner Jr

  • I live less than ten miles from downtown Peoria and did not know that this meeting was taking place.  Was it open to anyone?  Was it publicized?

  • You must be a member of the Lexington Group to attend, altho truth be told, it's easy to just walk into the room and sit down. No, it was not publicized because of what I just said.

    Fred F

  • The Amtrak pioneers' session would have been worth the trip to Peoria.  Notice, though, how little things have changed over the past 42 years.  The voices of those who hate subsidies - or at least subsidies for choo-choo trains but who think nothing of subsidizing trucking and aviation - are louder than usual this year.  Louder, but just as mindless as in 1970.

  • I'll bet you that they couldn't give blood.  They probably have diesel fuel in their veins.  They controlled a verrrry big train layout!!

  • for whatever it is worth, i just traveled from new york penn to san diego and back on 49/3 and 4/48.

    the service was consistent and good all the way.  we were :15 late into chicago westbound,

    :15 late in fullerton westbound, :25 early into chicago eastbound. :20 early into new york penn eastbound.

    i had crab cakes, french toast, talapia, steak and a wine and cheese platter (eastbound out of chi

    on 48) - among several other meals - and everything i ate was prepared well and served courteously.

    even the attendants in business class on the pacific surfliner went out of their way to insure a pleasant

    journey with breakfast goodies in the morning and wine and snacks at night.  every train (six in all)

    was clean when i got on, and was cleaned by the staff en route.  3 and 4 had their windows washed

    in albequerque by hand.  announcements varied in style but not in essential content -- we knew when

    jane was closing the cafe for her lunch break -- with time to purchase things b4 she went -- and we knew

    how long it was to the next station stop, and if it was a smoke stop.  air conditioning and heat functioned

    appropriately, as needed.  the scenery - from gary to gallup - was, of course, wonderful.  i'm not sure

    how much better a modern american train trip could be........

Amtrak's pioneers speak out