What if Amtrak had never been formed

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What if Amtrak had never been formed
Posted by KBCpresident on Saturday, February 03, 2018 3:40 AM

If Amtrak had not been created in 1971, what do you think passenger rail in the United States would look like today? Would it exist at all? Do you think private passenger rail would still exist, or would all the Class Is have eventually abandoned passenger travel? If so, how long do you think they would have held out? 80s? 90s? I know my "what if" posts aren't all that popular, but I'm curious how people think that would have played out.

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Posted by Overmod on Saturday, February 03, 2018 5:08 AM

We'd probably have had accelerated train-off notices until there was effective Balkanization (to use John Kneiling's term) of any 'national' system of passenger trains.  Some systems, Southern for one, would hold out a few years, but shut down with changes in management or difficulties with aging equipment.  Absent the mandate Amtrak was given compelling passage rights for its trains I doubt that many organized passenger services under private ownership would have thrived (Auto Train likely being one, but going belly-up for most of the same reasons it did, and without an Amtrak to revive the idea with less perceived risk in case of accident).

NEC preserved (how could it not be) likely with local organizations expanding to fill 'gaps' like the one between MARC and SEPTA and coordinating long-distance interstate traffic as well as provide strictly local service in their own names.  Regional corridors would likely develop out of state agencies much as they have, with companies like Keolis probably forming specialized passenger-train management practices earlier to fill the 'void' from not having an Amtrak to run (and in cases politically excuse) corridor services outside the Northeast.  Look for Conrail (likely forming post-Agnes just as it did historically, but still tasked with all NEC passenger ops in the absence of Amtrak) to get rid of operating through trains just as it did with commuter services -- outsourcing to concentrate on becoming as profitable as circumstances would let them, and incidentally shucking most of whatever redundant interstate trains on 'component' roads had not yet succumbed to train-off petitions...

I'd expect companies to set up cruise trains on a variety of routes; they'd work much like my observation of New York restaurants.  Open with great fanfare, run until traffic drops off, cancel and sell the equipment to the next greater fool who will try using it again.

Hard to say where much budget for new long-distance equipment would come from. Budd would likely shut down any car production much earlier absent the Amfleet order, so you would have the same situation with perpetual rebuilding of '50s equipment that we now see in Canada.  A bit like the situation with B52 airframes, with all the mod cons for each new rider cohort going in at sequential major rebuildings.

Be interesting to see if subsequent governments revived the Johnson high-speed development program or a grant program to build high-speed rail solutions.  Or indeed re-establish a more coordinated network as demographics changed.

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Posted by oltmannd on Saturday, February 03, 2018 7:19 AM

KBCpresident

If Amtrak had not been created in 1971, what do you think passenger rail in the United States would look like today? Would it exist at all? Do you think private passenger rail would still exist, or would all the Class Is have eventually abandoned passenger travel? If so, how long do you think they would have held out? 80s? 90s? I know my "what if" posts aren't all that popular, but I'm curious how people think that would have played out.

 

I pretty much agree with Overmod.

The long distance trains were pretty much toast.  Maybe ACL keeps the Florida trains going for a while until the equipment is shot.  Maybe Santa Fe keeps the Super Cheif and BN keeps the Empire Builder for a while.  Maybe into the late 70s?

The NEC between NY and DC probably keeps going.  I'd guess that the states on the route - NY, NJ, PA, DE and MD - figure out a way to keep it funded with Conrail becoming the operator.

One difference you'd see is that there would be a lot more freight traffic on the NEC and a lot less on the LV-RDG route from NJ to points south and west.

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

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Posted by Overmod on Saturday, February 03, 2018 8:24 AM

oltmannd
One difference you'd see is that there would be a lot more freight traffic on the NEC and a lot less on the LV-RDG route from NJ to points south and west.

And a substantial part of it probably electrified to this day, with both GM straight electrics and dual-mode-lite diesels (or the equivalent of electrified MATEs with slug-mother connections).  Perhaps by extension electrification of progressive islands towards Pittsburgh, probably consolidated as intermodal traffic ramped up. Might have given us key parts of Don's future long before 2040!

We would not have had the Chase wreck and what followed as its aftermath.  That alone is an interesting alternative-history item.

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Posted by Convicted One on Saturday, February 03, 2018 4:10 PM

KBCpresident
or would all the Class Is have eventually abandoned passenger travel

 

I'm going to play this one from a different angle than the rest have.

I believe that Amtrak was created as a means of relieving the railroads of their obligation to provide passenger rail.   I always thought that many of the railroads had the requirement to provide passenger service (to serve the public good) as a condition of their original charters. That bond being part of the bargain that got them eminent domain powers.

So, unless I'm wrong about that, I think that the railroads we have would still be providing some forms of passenger service.

Toward the end of independent passenger service, many of the railroads were  employing questionable methods to depress ridership, and otherwise justify cut backs to the levels of service they were providing, as a way to stack the deck in their favor to support their petitions to stop services.   Some areas were just starting to fight back in opposition to those ploys by the railroads.....but the creation of Amtrak made those discussions moot.

SO, if Amtrak had never been created, I think it's likely that some of those opposition movements would have picked up momentum. And service cuts would have become more difficult to gain approval for.

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Posted by blue streak 1 on Saturday, February 03, 2018 4:47 PM

How slowed would the conversion to HEP have been ?  With all the different carriers probably not much standard type and completely incompatible ?  AAR would have had to step in ? Steam lines many more years ?

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Posted by Overmod on Saturday, February 03, 2018 4:59 PM

blue streak 1
How slowed would the conversion to HEP have been ? With all the different carriers probably not much standard type and completely incompatible ?

You'd have evolved an industry standard PDQ especially in a situation where revenues are crashing but costs of maintaining steam-based heat and axle-based electric -- including the safety hazards Amtrak now recognizes for Spicer drives -- escalate increasingly.  It would almost certainly have been based around the 440V AC systems already developed around that time for transit systems, probably with the construction and continued use of 'power cars' or built-in power in baggage or other head-end equipment being a significant part of the early years; those cars would then be passed down to 'poorer' railroads as newer equipment and locomotives came to be built or rebuilt.

Comparable phenomena converging take rate around an evolving practical standard can be seen easily in the history of technology; one that comes quickly to mind is SCSI.  Of course there would be some 'likely' different approaches, especially on railroads or systems that wanted some form of "HEP-lite" (perhaps just for lighting, leaving axle-generated charging for cheap HVAC where provided in older converted consists). 

Perhaps the chief 'argument' would become whether the power should be taken off the traction alternator at sustained high rpm of the prime mover or derived from an efficient 4-stroke truck-engine-derived genset.  This is enough of a timeless topic in a heavily subsidized world that it would apply in alternate history as well.

 

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Posted by Deggesty on Saturday, February 03, 2018 4:59 PM

I have the impression that all passenger cars in regular service depended upon steam from engine for all heat (and some, such as Santa Fe and Southern, also depended upon steam for cooling).

I wonder if, when there were through cars from the east coast to the west coast, if the non SFe cars' cooling systems gave the SFe maintenance people trouble--and likewise if the PRR and NYC crews that handled SOU and SFe passenger cars also had trouble. Maybe not. 

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Posted by BaltACD on Saturday, February 03, 2018 6:04 PM

Deggesty
I have the impression that all passenger cars in regular service depended upon steam from engine for all heat (and some, such as Santa Fe and Southern, also depended upon steam for cooling).

I wonder if, when there were through cars from the east coast to the west coast, if the non SFe cars' cooling systems gave the SFe maintenance people trouble--and likewise if the PRR and NYC crews that handled SOU and SFe passenger cars also had trouble. Maybe not. 

I am sure the cars assigned to the Trans-Con service were done with the understanding of the requirements of all carriers involved.

         

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Posted by Deggesty on Saturday, February 03, 2018 8:00 PM

I forgot to add that not only were there axle-driven generators, there also were Waukesha generators.

Relying on axle-based generators to supply your air conditioning was fine, as long as you ran the cars far enough to keep the batteries charged; however the Wildwood-St. Pete combines were not run enough to keep the combines cool, even in February (I rode in the combine on the Silver Meteor in February of 1971, and the conductor apologized for the warmth in the car, explaining that its run was not long enough to keep the batteries charged; it was cooler in the diner, which had come down from New York).

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Posted by Overmod on Saturday, February 03, 2018 9:56 PM

Deggesty
I forgot to add that not only were there axle-driven generators, there also were Waukesha generators.

Not to mention Waukesha Ice Engines for air conditioning, in addition to Enginators.

Were there not some restrictions about the use of propane in tunnels, though?

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Posted by seppburgh2 on Saturday, February 03, 2018 10:43 PM
From the vantage point of observing Amtrak from start to today, there would be no long distant trains/intercity trains except for commuter services in the North East. Southern and ATSF would have lasted a few years. There may have been some tour trains, such as the Auto Train and maybe a cross country charter train. If not for intervention, we all be reading about the "good old days of train travel" on the Classic Trains site.
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Posted by BaltACD on Saturday, February 03, 2018 10:46 PM

Without Amtrak the only operations left would be the NEC and that would probably only be from NY to DC.

         

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Posted by Miningman on Saturday, February 03, 2018 11:35 PM

Is it viable or reasonable to ask if the Railroads got together at some point to form their own seperate entity, backed by real estate holdings and equity and formed their own system of reasonable passenger service. This would have removed the yolk of government from their necks and given them better control. I am sure they could have received low cost loans for new revitalized equipment from the States and the Feds in good faith with few strings attached. Maybe not. 

Sometimes the minuses and the minuses make for a positive. 

I wonder if they ever got together to discuss this. 

Something akin to the Chase wreck would have occurred soon enough. Disabled cab signals, stoned crews, it could not go on like that. 

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Posted by PennsyBoomer on Sunday, February 04, 2018 1:24 AM

The NEC's freight volume was significant and if conscientiously managed could have been a revenue source for Amtrak that it's going to need. The NEC wasn't built as or promulgated as a passenger only investment. PRR did a damn good job running the NEC and Penn-Central certainly tried, and I suspect Conrail would have run a class operation were it turning a profit.

The seachanges in the passenger biz following WWII were a slow, inexorable change much as the disappearance of the anthracite coal biz (as one example). I guess the situation, had Amtrak not been instituted, would have been a domino reaction of failing roads and deteriorating service. And that is exactly what was happening in the east that precipitated Amtrak. It took Penn-Central and Hurricane Agnes to get everyone's attention.   

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Posted by tree68 on Sunday, February 04, 2018 6:46 AM

BaltACD

Without Amtrak the only operations left would be the NEC and that would probably only be from NY to DC.

My thoughts as well, although it's possible local interests might have tried to maintain or expand any other commuter/corridor operations elsewhere around the country.  I'm sure Chicago commuter operations would have survived.

What probably wouldn't have happened was any new operations.  Amtrak kept passenger service's "foot in the door."  I'm sure the railroads would have fought any such incursions on freight operations.

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Posted by Deggesty on Sunday, February 04, 2018 8:09 AM

Overmod

 

 
Deggesty
I forgot to add that not only were there axle-driven generators, there also were Waukesha generators.

 

Not to mention Waukesha Ice Engines for air conditioning, in addition to Enginators.

Were there not some restrictions about the use of propane in tunnels, though?

 

I do not recall seeing in such restrictions, but I certainly remember the stink by the train at least once when I was boarding in Central Station in Chicago.

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Posted by Shock Control on Sunday, February 04, 2018 8:18 AM

BaltACD
Without Amtrak the only operations left would be the NEC and that would probably only be from NY to DC.

I would suggest DC to Boston.  There is a lot of activity between New York and Boston.

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, February 04, 2018 10:12 AM

Shock Control
BaltACD
Without Amtrak the only operations left would be the NEC and that would probably only be from NY to DC.
 I would suggest DC to Boston.  There is a lot of activity between New York and Boston.

 
Yes, but that portion of the Corridor was relatively run-down under the chronically bankrupt New Haven, and of course the portion north of New Haven or on the alternative inland lines was not electrified.  The latter might be easily addressed with more Turbotrains, but then the former becomes a glaring limitation verging on a safety hazard for effective service times.  So I would expect run-throughs with GG1s just as we got them, from Washington to New Haven, probably with some kind of Connecticut and Massachusetts and DOT assistance to get more modern passenger power north of there to Boston.  Remember that even today revenues come nowhere near maintaining the NEC in full running condition, so expect buy-in from state agencies as well as some Federal program assistance (which I leave carefully unspecified).
 
Certainly not a complete train-off between New York and Boston, and very likely not a train-off between New York and New Haven even with the presence of by-then-subsidized commuter service on that portion.  But it is at least technically possible that some of the Boston-New Haven service would be run as a 'shuttle', connecting with GG1-hauled trains 'the rest of the way', perhaps with trains of SPV2000s with streamlined noses, optimizing resource use to the part of the line requiring self-propulsion.  It was not difficult to fix the serious emergent issues with the SPV2000 design, and the history of these units, and perhaps of the Budd company in the absence of Amfleet, might have been very different and much more successful.
 
Oh, yes: Turbo service might have stayed directed into GCT for a while, making something of a disconnect for passengers wanting to get as swiftly through New York as they might have gotten to New York from either end of the Corridor, but I suspect the development of third-rail compliance into NYP would have proceeded without Amtrak, and pretty quickly too -- the catch, of course, being the reliable switchover of the shoe apparatus.  In the PC days I'd be tempted to assign a couple of 'Turbo tracks' lined for across-platform transfer to Metroliners, and re-lay those on one side with NYC-compliant third rail out to where the turbines could do their job...
 
(As an aside: Even in the absence of a large-scale program to upgrade the electrified part of the Corridor, like the one in the Carter administration, the issue of rebuilding the passenger Gs would have come up early, and the same approaches I used would have been available, but at comparable cost vs. new construction.  With trackwork at an early-Seventies level, rebuilding even at about 4-1/2 million per unit would make better sense than trying to adopt any of the comparable designs of the day that could reach anticipated speed.  Might have been interesting!)
 
(As another aside: there was some early work in providing 11kV electrification for the Cripe Turbotrain design -- it was deprecated, of course, by the Red Team Metroliner folks, but in the true Collinwood Black Beetle American style, some design work on how it could be done was conducted.  As I recall it, this placed the pan support on an enhanced A-frame at one of the single-axle trucks and not on one of the power-dome units, with a variety of locations for the initial transformer, and there was discussion about optimizing the design for conversion to 60Hz "as soon as expedient" to reduce weight and packaging issues.  It was specifically designed to fit Park Avenue clearances but still have aerodynamic pan performance at elevated speed.  Such a train could easily operate the length of the NEC at the highest speeds the track could support (and give us all an unforgettable show from the domes while doing so!) while at the same time dealing with at least some of the post-'73 fuel price shock for turbine power.
Sadly, no private entity whatsoever could, let alone would, have paid for electrification north of New Haven, even with extension of the commuter zone north of there had demand warranted.  Might have been interesting indeed to see any political attempt to build that out with Federal money with most of the perceived benefit going to just three states...)
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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, February 04, 2018 10:25 AM

Shock Control
 
BaltACD
Without Amtrak the only operations left would be the NEC and that would probably only be from NY to DC. 

I would suggest DC to Boston.  There is a lot of activity between New York and Boston.

At the time of Amtrak's creation - NY to Boston wsa a run down mess and was only electified to New Haven.  Without Amtrak where would the money come from to improve conditions North of New York?  Remember, at the time of Amtrak, ConRal had yet to be formed and the financial condition of the railroads in the Northeast had yet to be acknowledged.

         

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, February 04, 2018 10:31 AM

Note that in everything we're discussing, the assumption is only that 'Railpax' as it evolved in the Nixon Administration was not implemented as Amtrak (whether 'born to fail', as some have indicated, or not).

We might gainfully look at some of the initiatives to 'fix' the rail passenger problem that were contemporary with Amtrak's formation, and see where any of these would have gone had Amtrak not been established.  I think it is highly unlikely that "all" rail passenger service would have continued to wither away unremarked; some other political step (perhaps comparable in a way to Staggers) would have been taken, even if only to provide a national rail system comprised largely of Harley's-Hornet-style corridor services of convenience.

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Posted by erikem on Sunday, February 04, 2018 1:10 PM

Overmod

Were there not some restrictions about the use of propane in tunnels, though?

 
Yes. This was discussed in White's book The American Railroad Passenger Car. The propane tanks had to be removed efore going into NYC's passenger tunnels, but not, as far as I know, for normal mainline tunnels.
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Posted by Shock Control on Sunday, February 04, 2018 9:05 PM

BaltACD
  At the time of Amtrak's creation - NY to Boston wsa a run down mess and was only electified to New Haven.  Without Amtrak where would the money come from to improve conditions North of New York?  Remember, at the time of Amtrak, ConRal had yet to be formed and the financial condition of the railroads in the Northeast had yet to be acknowledged.

 

My point is that the corridor between Boston and DC would have been financially viable.  It would have happened. 

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Monday, February 05, 2018 7:41 AM

Miningman

Is it viable or reasonable to ask if the Railroads got together at some point to form their own seperate entity, backed by real estate holdings and equity and formed their own system of reasonable passenger service. This would have removed the yolk of government from their necks and given them better control. I am sure they could have received low cost loans for new revitalized equipment from the States and the Feds in good faith with few strings attached. Maybe not. 

In the regulatory atmosphere of the time, that would have been highly unlikely.  Railroads were still being regulated as public utilities and the change in public opinion toward regulation was still a long way into the future. 

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Posted by Overmod on Monday, February 05, 2018 8:06 AM

Miningman
Is it viable or reasonable to ask if the Railroads got together at some point to form their own separate entity, backed by real estate holdings and equity and formed their own system of reasonable passenger service?

I almost hate to have to mention this, but are you aware of something called 'American Premier Underwriters'?  Look up the history of that company if you don't know it, and then come back and decide if your question is still as valid...

In the pre-Staggers era, government still looked at a large railroad as a kind of evil cash cow.  I believe the prohibitions against pooling and such that applied to freight would still apply to passenger operations, no matter how unprofitable they were individually, without specific and reasonably directed Congressional legislation.  Which, at the time, would almost certainly have gone down an Amtrak-like path rather than trusting private enterprise of the Saunders/Menk/Biaggini type.

I am sure they could have received low cost loans for new revitalized equipment from the States and the Feds in good faith with few strings attached.

You must be from Canada.  Access to capital is different up there.  As stated, this is one of the funniest comments I've ever seen on the Forum, especially considering that the loans/grants you're proposing would be to private railroads, in the interest of increasing private revenues, with little or no State (or Federal) oversight.  Now, it would be a fine thing indeed if this happened, and in fact there are examples where it did happen for a while (my beloved U34CHs being one example) but in general private railroads wanted to get rid of passenger operations like poison, and at any time in the late '60s through the '70s would have been eager to do so -- look at what most railroads provided 'free' to Amtrak to get out from under when that system was established.

Where the money was in those years was in the real estate, or the financial markets where IC went, or perhaps a bit later in communications ventures (you do know what the "SP" in the Sprint telecommunications company originally came from?) -- in short, in things offering far more effective ROI and growth than even freight railroading provided.  Why lose money even under the best of conditions propping up passenger service that interferes with freight? 

(I could mention the sorry history of REA in the great die-off of cheap slow passenger service to all those little service points, but that's just an illustration from a different direction.)

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Posted by daveklepper on Monday, February 05, 2018 8:41 AM

1.  The Turboes were rerouted by Amtrak from GCT to Penn, making across-the-platform transfers to Metroliners,

2.  At the time of Amtrak's formation, I felt a far far better way to retain passenger service would be direct subsidiy of the freight railrioads through tax credits based on service and passenger numbers.  But the thought was that Amtrak could be profitable.

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Posted by Overmod on Monday, February 05, 2018 9:12 AM

daveklepper
The Turboes were rerouted by Amtrak from GCT to Penn, making across-the-platform transfers to Metroliners

We know that.  The question is how that would have come about in the absence of Amtrak, especially given the incompatibility of Penn third-rail with the Turbotrains 'as delivered'.  Essentially with a bankrupt PC likely doing the work but with money from the high-speed ground transportation Federal program that would have been supporting some of the Turbotrain service testing at that general period in time.  I still think that laying a few thousand feet of 'alternative' third rail to specific tracks would have been cheaper, easier, and perhaps MUCH more "reliable" in service than 'ginning up and then maintaining adaptable switchover shoe arrangements on all the Turbos.  (Although I'm sure UA or one of its contractors would have been almost sickeningly eager to provide workable shoe-control options if the Government had agreed to underwrite the effort... Big Smile)

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Posted by Miningman on Monday, February 05, 2018 10:42 AM

So today multi billionaire NFL owners demand new multi billion dollar stadiums under threat of moving the team, plus the tax concessions and breaks are through the roof. Or how about Solindra or other boondoggles. 

I like Dave Kleppers suggestion of direct subsidy through tax credits based on service and passenger numbers. 

Besides, I was merely asking not telling.

Yes, I envision a Godfather like scene on the 32nd floor in the Penn Central Boardroom with all the railroad bigwigs from across the land smoking their cigars, Empire State Express picture in the background, getting together to run passenger trains after making an offer to the Government that they can't refuse. 

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Posted by Victrola1 on Monday, February 05, 2018 11:03 AM

Without Amtrak, how long would the Interstate Commerce Commission have continued requiring railroads to maintain money losing passenger trains? 

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Posted by Convicted One on Thursday, February 08, 2018 3:39 AM

Can you say "accommodation run"?

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