Amtrak's pioneers speak out

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, October 6, 2012

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

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