The Business and Politics of Passenger Rail; 2013-08-23
A Companion Digest of Events, Opinions, and Forecasts to
This Week at Amtrak
By J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
Jacksonville, Florida • United States of America
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail firstname.lastname@example.org • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 3, Number 1
Founded over 35 years ago in 1976 by the late Austin Coates, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia, Texas, New York, and other locations. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents and a compendium of This Week at Amtrak, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization.
History is often instructive; reviewing the March 1971 edition of The Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment, a quick count of passenger car fleets of all of the railroads still operating passenger trains just before the dawn of Amtrak operationson May 1, 1971 reveals there were close to 10,000 passenger train cars in the American fleet. This included the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co. with 491 cars, Burlington Northern Inc., comprising the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, Great Northern Railway Company, Northern Pacific Railway Company, and Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Company with a total of 1,067 cars, and the Central of Georgia Railway Co. with 30 cars.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company, which by this time also included the Baltimore and Ohio, boasted 86 cars. The Chicago and North Western Railway Co. had 325 cars, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company had 309 cars. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific R.R. Co. operated 270 cars, the Delaware & Hudson Railway Co. came in with 27 cars. The Denver and Rio Grande Western R.R. Co. standard gauge had 28 cars, and the narrow gauge had 21 cars.
The list goes on, including the Penn Central, Seaboard Coast Line, Union Pacific, and other carriers many remember. Much of the sleeping car fleet had been decimated by this point; the Norfolk & Western had only three sleeping cars on its roster, and the C&O had seven sleeping cars.
So, what happened to all of this equipment? Much of it went to Mexico, some of it went to Canada, and some of it went to the Middle East. The majority of it went to Amtrak, where Henry Christie eventually pared down the car roster by created his famous “A” and “B” lists. The “A” list was mostly cars built by Budd using stainless steel, the “B” list included mostly Pullman Standard cars; while well-built and well-designed in their day, the cars were built using carbon steel, not stainless steel, and much of the fleet was simply lost to rust.
The “A” list cars were converted to head-end power for onboard hotel power, and the individual car generators were scrapped, along with the large battery systems. The conversion to head-end power was perhaps one of Amtrak’s greatest accomplishments for what became its Heritage fleet of sleepers, diners, baggage cars, and lounges, along with some coaches supplementing the new Amfleet cars in the 1970s.
Looking back at available passenger train schedules in those gloomy couple of years just after the loss of the Pullman Company in 1969 and the creation of Amtrak, there wasn’t much to cheer about across America.
Seaboard Coast Line was still offering premium train service from New York to Florida, and making money. The Santa Fe was still operating its premier passenger trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, and keeping up standards set decades before which others could only hope to match. The Southern Railway and the Denver and Rio Grande Western both kept their trains going, choosing not to join Amtrak for its 1971 debut. But, elsewhere, passenger service was declining, and the railroads moaned openly about the success of the airlines flying the Boeing 707 (one of the transformational airliners of the 20th Century) while train stations rotted, onboard personnel became grumpy, and on-time performance was more of a dream than a goal.
As everyone knows, if you repeat something often enough – true or not – it becomes gospel. Those who rode the trains from the early 1960s until the advent of Amtrak were hearty souls, hoping for the best. The managers of the railroads operating these trains mostly because a heavy-handed government in Washington forced them to run the trains, spent less and less time worrying about how good the trains were, and more and more time scheming to find ways to get rid of them.
With a couple of bright exceptions like Seaboard Coast Line, the Santa Fe and Union Pacific, it wasn’t a pretty picture for train passengers.
Here we are 42 years later, and the opportunity is ripe for a new golden age of train travel.
Most of the people who remember the bad old days of train travel are either in assisted living facilities or no longer with us. The railroad managers of those days are also long gone, replaced by a new cadre of managers who are primarily interested in finding ways to maximize the investment in their infrastructure. Here’s a thought for you: The vast majority of railroad employees today have never ridden a train. Railroad office cars are few and far between, and many railroad executives today travel by company-owned jet aircraft or travel on commercial airlines like the rest of us. Only a small amount of operating employees have ever ridden in the cab of a locomotive; all of the cabooses are in museums or someone’s backyard. While Amtrak welcomes railroad employees to ride on a pass, those passes are not as plentiful or generous as they once were prior to Amtrak. So, to the average railroad office clerk or front line manager, or railroad IT professional or anyone else working on the railroad, a ride on a train is somewhere between rare and non-existent.
Since Amtrak remains America’s best kept secret, most Americans don’t know whether or not their city or town is served by Amtrak. As of this writing, the population of America is 316,445,000 people. Amtrak’s long distance and regional ridership is about 20 million passengers per year, and the Northeast Corridor ridership hovers around 11 to 12 million passengers a year, meaning if every Amtrak passenger was unique (taking only one trip per year) the railroad would carry about 10% of the national population. But, since so many of those riders on the NEC are repeat riders, and most long distance train riders travel round-trip, then the percentage of the population which travels on Amtrak is probably less than five percent.
Hence, there is the opportunity. Most Americans aren’t aware of train travel, most Americans have a blank emotional slate regarding train travel (meaning no bad experiences), and many probably find the thought of taking a train as transportation intriguing. This is where entrepreneurship comes in; there is a huge pool of potential travellers just waiting to fall in love with train travel, from college students to senior citizens.
The question becomes, what is somebody going to do about it?
J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
Jacksonville, Florida USA