As Time Goes By

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, May 15, 2020

A big anniversary is coming up in a year, which is probably why few people seem to have focused on Amtrak’s 49th birthday on May 1.  For a relative newcomer to the railroad business, Amtrak seems to have developed a significant interest in its history, including the application of its own “heritage” paint schemes on several locomotives prior to the Norfolk Southern’s now more-prominent examples.

Another indication is this “history wall”, in honor of the company’s 45th anniversary, located on a corridor of the east side of Amtrak’s operational “home”, Washington Union Station.  I am hopeful that, financial pressures notwithstanding, Amtrak will be able to again honor its own history on its 50th anniversary next May.

However, to say that Amtrak faces an existential crisis is an understatement.  In a way, this is understandable, since at its formation, and up and until now, it has never really been clear what it is supposed to be doing, and how that should be measured.  The oft-repeated story is that the politicians who set it up didn’t expect it to last long; probably some of these long-gone players would be shocked that it now might be preparing for a 50th birthday.

Putting this in a broader perspective, non-commuter U.S. passenger trains can be said to have been under siege essentially for my entire lifetime, beginning not long after the end of World War II.  Many railroads spent large sums to re-equip with streamlined lightweight equipment after the war, only to see what was originally couched as an investment turn into essentially a drain on their companies’ treasuries.

And the “rewards” for this?  Passengers decamped to the rapidly-expanding airlines, and their personal automobiles.  The decisive blow came in 1956, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act, which led to the Interstate Highway System. 

Quoting from Joe Welsh’s Pennsy Streamliners, The Blue Ribbon Fleet (page 138), “Referring to the challenge, [PRR President] Symes wrote ‘There is such a thing as planning an orderly retreat in the face of superior forces.’  Clearly, the bugle had been sounded.”

In 1958, an Interstate Commerce Commission Hearing Examiner predicted that there would be no intercity passenger trains by 1970; he only missed by four months, effectively (and didn’t count on the Southern Railway, Rio Grande and Rock Island shying away from the government’s largesse).  In 1959, TRAINS magazine devoted an entire issue to what was now clearly a crisis; the cover bore the legend “Who Shot the Passenger Train?”, complete with simulated bullet hole. 

The 1960s in the U.S. could well be described as the “train-off” decade from a transportation history perspective; get, and read, Fred Frailey’s Twilight of the Great Trains, for a blow-by-blow analysis. The 1970s quickly produced the Penn Central bankruptcy, which proved to be the catalyst for government intervention; less than a year later, Amtrak was on the scene. 

And since, it has frequently found itself in a “Perils of Pauline” existence, ranging from lack of funding to buy equipment, in many cases, to several bouts of route eliminations, to micro-management by politicians that don’t seem to be willing to provide consistent operational funding so that the company can make reasonable plans.

Thus, I renew my call, stated above, to finally, five decades later, sit down and decide what Amtrak is supposed to accomplish; establish appropriate measurement tools to see if it is succeeding; and identify where the money is coming from to support it.

This is not the time to debate the fine points, including what emphasis will be placed on Amtrak’s “National” route system (note that I didn’t use “nationwide”; in a domestic transportation context, that would be the Interstate Highway System, not the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, whether we like it or not), versus regional corridors, or whether Amtrak should be split into entities that actually own and operate on their own tracks, versus services that have to spar with their freight railroad hosts over track time.

We can hope that this will be accomplished well before Amtrak’s Centennial, in 2071.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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