Trains in Trouble
Once, some 20,000 trains traversed the United States, many of them elegant hotels on wheels. Now, most of the great passenger railroads have withered and died and they have been replaced by Amtrak, which has mammoth troubles of its own. Is there any hope for a rail travel revival?
by Tracy Kidder
At 4:30 on summer afternoons, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s Cape Codder used to pull out of Grand Central Station bound for Woods Hole, where my grandmother kept a summer house. I rode up on the train several times in the late 1950s when I was a boy. Sleeplessness, the ritual of laying out my best clothes on a bedroom chair the night before preceded the adventure. At the last minute, when the black and orange engine stood throbbing at the platform, its contingent of stainless steel cars ranged behind, steam coming up from under the doorways, my mother would safety-pin an envelope of emergency money to the inner pocket of my seersucker jacket. Then the conductor would call.
A good-natured, cocktaildrinking crowd possessed that train. Once at a Connecticut stop, a man with an accordion got on. There was singing in the coaches. Holidays began en route. Faces shone. Salt air and pine tree smells came aboard near dusk, at the Cape Cod stations: Buzzards Bay, Monument Beach, Pocasset, Cataumet, the Falmouths, and Woods Hole at the end of the line. I liked a window seat. The Cape Codder traveled right next to the ocean, woods, and back yards, and views from the window had both a remote and a close-up, sharply focused quality, like things seen through binoculars. One day, when the train had come out of the tunnel from Manhattan and I was sitting by the window, watching the Bronx flash by, I saw a group of boys about my age playing baseball on a weed patch set among some warehouses. I remember this scene clearly: the boys, all stationary at the moment, are at that old lethargic game in the yellow afternoon and I’m already passing them by. They are playing away a routine summer but I am bound on a substantial journey aboard the Cape Codder, an imposing procession of engine and cars. The train is rocking gently, clicking along, picking up speed to leave the city behind. And I feel enviable.
Once there were thousands and thousands of passenger trains in America. People thought of them as a national institution. To ride on the “limiteds” was the height of fashion. This was some of the “varnish” American railroads used to run: the Twentieth Century Limited, with barbers, ladies’ maids, freshand salt-water baths, and stock market reports on board. Twenty-five thousand people came to see the Century pull out on its inaugural run in 1902. There was the Super Chief, which rambled across the Southwest while passengers in fancy clothes gorged on the champagne dinner or took in the scenery from the “Pleasure Dome Lounge Car.” Within the memory of an old porter who still works on the train, the Broadway Limited—the Century’s rival on the New York-Chicago run—had “drawing rooms and bedrooms finer than any hotel.”
Now most of the old trains, elegant and ordinary, and the Cape Codder as well, have departed on what is known as the graveyard run. A generation of Americans is growing up in ignorance of passenger trains, which to all outward appearances have outlived their usefulness. Trains once dominated the intercity travel market. In 1976, the small fleet still in operation handles less than one percent of the business. Other things have declined. When the Cape Codder disappeared, automobiles invaded Woods Hole, bringing in traffic snarls, motels, and a particularly angry, harried breed of tourist. On my way to Woods Hole these days I sometimes find myself immobilized in traffic near the Cape Cod Canal. From there you can see the silvery railroad lift bridge, frozen in the open position.
Since 1971 the semi-public corporation called Amtrak has operated virtually all that are left of America’s intercity passenger trains. Amtrak’s system stretches nationwide, encompassing about 450 cities on 25,000 miles of railroad track. But the Amtrak route map looks barren beside a rail map from the 1920s. In 1929, private railroads operated nearly 20,000 trains a day. Amtrak dispatches about 250, and it rarely makes them run on time. In fact, it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, but for those who remember the great days of passenger trains, it’s the only game in town.
Congress and the Nixon Administration created Amtrak in 1970 to take over intercity passenger operations from the declining private railroads. It was a hazardous mission. The law required that Amtrak run a “national, integrated” system, which meant trains running the length and breadth of the country along routes where the public had long ago gotten out of the habit of going by rail. In 1970 private railroads had lost an aggregate $400 million operating what was left of their passenger fleets, but Amtrak was supposed to operate its national system “for profit.” Moreover, Amtrak remained at the mercy of the private railroads it replaced.
Under the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, private railroads—in exchange for freedom from their passenger obligations—were to pay Amtrak $200 million, let Amtrak use their roads on favorable terms until 1996, and provide (at cost) maintenance, operating crews, and myriad other personnel, facilities, and services. Although some companies—such as the Santa Fe, the Milwaukee Road, and the Union Pacific—served Amtrak well, the offenses of other lines were legion. They cut corners on maintenance, overcharged Amtrak, delayed Amtrak trains to let their own freights pass through. In 1973 the private railroads delivered Amtrak’s trains late about 40 percent of the time.
Amtrak also suffered badly from the physical decline of a couple of the major railroads. Forty percent of Amtrak’s trains used the deteriorating roads of the giant, bankrupt Penn Central. Diversifying their investments, the Illinois Central and the Penn Central had neglected their track; on the Illinois Central, the route of the Panama Limited was a ruin. Schedules were slow throughout the Amtrak system, but on those two lines most trains never came in on time. Rides were so rough on one stretch of Penn Central rail that unwary passengers were sometimes tipped out of their dining car chairs.
Amtrak had internal problems as well. Its first president, Roger Lewis, was a former aerospace and airlines executive. Policies that worked aloft didn’t always work on the rails. Crewmen felt misunderstood and called management “the airlines bunch.” And neither Lewis nor his vice presidents ever rode Amtrak’s system extensively to get a firsthand look at what was going on. What they would have seen was that the trains were falling apart. Amtrak had purchased its cars and locomotives from the railroads, the only possible source at the time, and the railroads hadn’t invested in new passenger equipment since the middle 1950s. To repair and replace the worn-out fleet, Amtrak needed hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Rail Passenger Service Act had provided. But the predominant view in the Nixon Administration held that Amtrak was a passing phenomenon, a bridge to the graveyard for all but a few intercity passenger trains. The Administration opposed any substantial, permanent investment in it.
Roger Lewis also felt that Amtrak was temporary, or at best, an experiment. In the beginning, he spoke against buying any equipment at all. In late 1971 he modified his stance: he asked for a capital grant to make new equipment purchases. But when the Administration’s Office of Management and Budget turned him down, Lewis toed the line. Senators found out about his request and voted him the capital grant. Lewis spoke out against the Senate’s action, telling reporters, “We can’t very sensibly commit that extra money,” though he’d been the one who had asked for it in the first place. Lewis did get Amtrak a computerized reservations system and some new freight locomotives, which, the Administration reasoned, could always be sold to the railroads. But for two and a half years Amtrak failed to order any of the new passenger cars it desperately needed.
The 1970 law gave Amtrak authority to start petitioning for the discontinuance of unprofitable routes in 1973. Amtrak didn’t have any routes that weren’t unprofitable, and when 1973 came around, the Nixon Administration began in effect to dismantle the new railroad. That was the year of an extraordinary bureaucratic merry-go-round. The Administration instructed Amtrak to file for the discontinuance of three trains. Amtrak filed. But Congress objected. Amtrak withdrew the petitions. Then Congress forbade the elimination of any routes for another year and increased Amtrak’s loan authority. And, in the fall of 1973, Lewis began placing a series of large orders for new cars and locomotives; but the initiative had come from Congress, not from Amtrak.
It was at this time that the gasoline shortage began. Where it was acute, in the Northeast especially, people flocked to railroad stations only to find themselves left behind on the platforms or riding standing up or sitting in the dark, in cars without air-conditioning during the summer or heat during the winter.
Amtrak’s shortcomings were now exposed to general view. In 1974, an article in Fortune lamented the loss of “a phenomenal opportunity” and suggested that Congress find someone “with the stuff to run a better railroad.” Lewis and most of his board were fired in late 1974.
In March 1975, a forty-four-year-old railroad executive named Paul Reistrup took command of Amtrak. A West Point graduate, Reistrup spent several years in the Army, but his entire business career has been in railroading. He has worked as a division engineer, as a trainmaster, and as an executive in railroad front offices, and he came to Amtrak with a reputation for being an “innovative” manager of passenger train operations.
In the mid-sixties, when Reistrup was director of passenger services for the B&O Railroad, the management decided to move toward the elimination of all the company’s passenger trains. Reistrup was convinced that the situation had become “impossible for private enterprise,” and he presided over discontinuances without visible qualms, but in fact Reistrup cares deeply about trains. “I seem to be able to separate my interest clearly from my business responsibility. I didn’t hesitate at all to eliminate some flagship trains,” he recalls. “But you didn’t see me down at the depot to watch the last run pull out, because I don’t think I could have stood it emotionally.” Among the household possessions Reistrup brought to Washington is an HO model railroad. He built it as a boy in Sioux City, Iowa, and has kept it for his children, he says. They operate the trains. He performs the maintenance.
In his first meeting with Amtrak’s board of directors, the earnest Reistrup tried to describe himself and his intentions by saying. “I’m a graduate of West Point and a former Eagle Scout.” Two worldly board members piped up in unison, “Don’t worry, Paul. We won’t hold that against you.” Reistrup didn’t seem amused. He took on the job with a sense of dedication. His Amtrak salary was a handsome $85,000 a year, but he had given up a secure, higher-paying position at the Illinois Central to take the Amtrak job. “I believe in a rule of service to the country,” he says, and as he saw it, his mission was straightforward. People from both Congress and the Administration had recruited him, and Reistrup, who isn’t humble about his abilities, had to take that as a sign that what ev
eryone wanted now was “a fine rail passenger service.”
Running on a single line of track, railroad trains can haul at least ten times as many people in an hour as cars can on ten lanes of highway. Modern, light commuter trains use far less fuel than cars. A well-run train can make the commuter’s daily trek between city and suburbs quick and even pleasant. But of the roughly 50 million people who commute in the United States, only about one million take trains. A visit during rush hour to the highways around any large American city makes it clear where most of the rest of the commuters are: on places like the Long Island Expressway, known to the men in the traffic helicopters as “the world’s largest parking lot.”
Commuter train operations have become universally unprofitable. For a variety of reasons, some apparently intractable, expenses per passenger are high compared to the expenses an automobile driver incurs on the government-supported highways. So commuter train operators have to set fares below their per-passenger costs in order to attract customers. In general, public money is used to make up the losses, the justification being that
commuter trains benefit people who don’t use them by reducing congestion in the cities and on highways. But iow train fares alone are not the answer to traffic jams. A recent poll of Long Island commuters shows that most people who use their cars to get to New York City would continue to do so even if there were large increases in tolls and the price of gas. Although Long Island Railroad trains have improved a great deal in recent years, they are already overcrowded during rush hours, and train speeds haven’t increased significantly in fifty years. For decades the government has neglected rail transport in favor of investment in highways, and most commuter trains haven’t been attractive or numerous enough to draw the crowds.
The federal government is at last taking an interest in urban transit problems and is beginning to give the states money for commuter rail transit. Transportation authorities in places such as Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts have begun making investments in trains. About a dozen public and private railroads haul commuters.
As for Amtrak. all of its short hauls do some commuter business; the New York-Philadelphia run, for instance, is almost completely occupied by regular daily passengers on their way to and from work. But Amtrak wasn’t designed to solve commuter problems. Its responsibility is the intercity passenger tram, which generally serves the mediumor long-distance traveler.
But by the end of Reistrup’s first year, President Ford’s secretary of transportation, William Coleman, had begun calling Amtrak “a foolish waste of taxpayers’ money.” In the spring of 1976 the Administration began, as the Nixon Administration had three years before, to take Amtrak apart. So the battle lines were drawn.
Late in 1975 Reistrup filed his request for 1977 operating subsidies. He told Congress he’d need $440 million to keep all the trains running. The Department of Transportation submitted a much smaller figure, and Undersecretary John Barnum told Reistrup to make appropriate cuts in Amtrak’s route system. In similar circumstances, Roger Lewis’ reaction had been to bow to the Administration. Reistrup objected openly. In a letter to Secretary Coleman, he wrote, “We do not subscribe to the use of the budget process to make major policy decisions . . . [for] the National Railroad Passenger System. . . .” While going through the motions of following orders, Reistrup set about outfoxing the Department of Transportation paperpushers. He sent Congress and the Secretary a list of nineteen trains that would have to be eliminated if the budget cut were enacted.
Coleman was furious. He pointed out that Reistrup’s disposal list included a number of trains that went through the home states and districts of some of the most powerful members of Congress. He said Reistrup had manipulated the list in order to make it as difficult as he could for the Administration to get the budget cut past Capitol Hill.
Two Amtrak trains go through Montana and the state of Washington, and only one gets substantial use. The other is known as “Senator Mansfield’s” or “Senator Magnuson’s” train. House Majority Whip John McFall has a train too: the San Francisco-Bakersfield San Joaquin. It ran with only 34 percent of its seats full on the average in fiscal year 1975. Senator Robert Byrd’s Mountaineer traveled between Norfolk and Chicago with an average load of only 31 percent. “The Harley Staggers Special”—the Washington-Cumberland, Maryland, train, named informally in honor of the chairman of the House committee that watches over Amtrak—operated with an average of 78 percent of its seats empty in 1975. Reistrup had spoken to Congress about these trains and had let it be known that he didn’t think Amtrak routes should be chosen on the basis of where a senator or congressman happened to come from. He meant what he said, but he was also making a clever tactical move. Coleman was right in thinking that Reistrup was out to stop a drastic reduction in Amtrak’s operation. Campaigning against the budget cut in a speech in Chicago and in a talk with railway labor leaders, Reistrup harped on Amtrak’s “ancient equipment.” Testifying before the Senate, he said none of the trains had gotten a fair test yet, and he asked for time.
In some ways, Reistrup’s first year had been Amtrak’s worst. Passenger volume was down, the operating deficit was approaching $.5 billion a year, and what a transportation committee staffer described as “a significant sector” in the House was asking whether the country needed Amtrak at that price. This was perhaps the beginning of a trend, but for the time being a majority in Congress sensed that America still loved the sound of a train whistle in the night, and still felt that the United States should have what Senator Magnuson wants: “a high-quality rail passenger system.” By May 1976, it was clear that Congress would vote Reistrup most of the money he requested, at least for 1977.
The general feeling on Capitol Hill, according to staffers on the transportation committees in both the House and the Senate, was that Reistrup was the right man to rebuild passenger service. The staffers used words like “honest,” “hardworking,” “competent“ to describe him. They said legislators were impressed by the way Reistrup came to Congress to testify, without bringing a guard of experts.
At Amtrak headquarters in Washington, executives in government affairs, scheduling, marketing, operations, and public relations also praised Reistrup. Some said, sotto voce, that he probably hadn’t fired all the old executives he should have, but at least he had moved them out of positions of importance. Others said he had eliminated the “fear factor,” and with it much of the “cover-your-ass mentality” that had been rampant among middlelevel managers. Everyone mentioned the reorganization. In his first week on the job, Reistrup found a bill for $9.49 lying on his desk awaiting his signature. He realized then that the Washington office was making even the smallest decisions for the entire railroad. So he decentralized the corporation, placing responsibility for operating decisions with various district headquarters, out where the trains were in fact being operated.
On the trains, some of the crewmen shrug about the change in management. But most agree with steward Michael Koch, who said, “Reistrup threw out all that airlines stuff, thank God,” and with steward Henry Thompson: “You get the feeling somebody knows what he’s doing for a change.“ Citing improvements in the cleanliness of cars to back up his conviction that a change was taking place, William Vickerstaff, a veteran porter on the Broadway Limited, said, “I know Reistrup’s good from my Illinois Central days. See, I know he’s good. He’s a railroad man.”
In Oklahoma City the railroad station is a small building of Spanish mission design at the edge of town. “SANTA FE” is written on its façade. Inside, it is quiet, nearly empty most of the day. The only other sign of the change in the old order of things is a small shingle with the Amtrak logo on it, hanging over the front door. I met Paul Reistrup there in the waiting room one evening last fall. He is of medium height, pale, rather slender, and balding. He was wearing a loose-fitting, somber suit, Army-style low quarter shoes, and a necktie with stars and eagles on it, which he called “my Bicentennial tie.“ Since taking over Amtrak, he had ordered all his vice presidents to start riding the trains and had set out himself on an intermittent journey across all 25,000 miles ot the system. “I’ve ridden 23,300 miles,” he told me, pulling out a worn copy of an Amtrak route map on which he’d recorded his progress.
Only one train visits Oklahoma City, Amtrak’s Houston-Chicago Lone Star. It came in on time, its headlight pale in the dusk, two red, white, and blue engines hauling eight silvery cars. Smiling, Reistrup refused the red-jacketed porter’s offer of assistance and carried his own luggage aboard. We rode north.
That night in the dining car, Reistrup and the steward traded reminiscences, the steward saying that he had worked on the Santa Fe’s Super Chief in the good old days when every dish was cooked to order and served on silver. Reistrup recalled the Panama Limited. Food on board that train had been so fine, he said, people used to climb aboard and ride a few stops just to eat. The steward nodded in approval.
Those days are gone of course. But the Amtrak meal we ate was adequate—prices for dinner ranged from about $3 to $8. As for the train itself, Reistrup graded it “A-minus.” He had reason to be pleased.
Shoulders seesawing, he ambled down the aisles of the old coach cars and found the furnishings threadbare in places but clean. He went into the bathrooms and looked under the sinks—“They’re keeping it clean from Houston”-through the lounge—“You can get snacks twenty-four hours a day”—the dining car—“Thirty-six seats, that’s pretty good”—and past the open kitchen door—“The cooks are wearing their hats, which I like to see.” Along the way some crewmen appeared and gathered around him, pumping his hand and grinning. This scene repeated itself several times, Reistrup and the men in their element, talking railroad on contemporary subjects like the “trainlining“ of “bad-ordered” cars. There was traveling music in the background—rhythmic, distant-sounding rumbles, squeaks, rattles, and the horn blowing at grade crossings, a seaside sound, stretching out behind the train. This clean, well-lighted train made the right amount of noise and just enough jiggle and sway to give a journey substance. In the venerable sleeping cars, each compartment had its own armchair. A bed and sink were hidden in the walls, like utensils inside Swiss Army knives. Late that night. I turned out the lights in my room, pulled up the window shade, and for a long time lay on crisp sheets watching Missouri fields and farmhouses drift by in the moonlight. I woke up beside a bright yellow cornfield in Illinois. There was French toast for breakfast.
The Penn Central was a huge, mismanaged company, the product of a merger of the once mighty Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, and its failure in 1970 threatened the economy of the entire Northeast. In 1973 the federal government, anxious to preserve rail service and to avoid nationalizing bankrupt companies, came up with a plan for a new railroad called Conrail. Conrail would take over the Penn Central and six small northeastern bankrupts. Conrail represents the largest one-time corporate reorganization in American history. It started operation on April 1, 1976.
In accordance with the plan, Conrail has streamlined its operations by abandoning large stretches of its predecessors’ redundant and least economical track. The new company is supposed to make profits someday, but at the moment the government is propping it up and will provide $2.1 billion for new equipment and the reconstruction of damaged facilities. Conrail is in business mainly to haul
freight, about one quarter of all the freight that American railroads handle. It is also responsible for numerous commuter trains, and it is required to serve Amtrak under the same general terms as other railroads. Amtrak is much less dependent on Conrail than it was on the Penn Central because under the law that created Conrail, Amtrak had to buy or lease the entire northeast corridor, and now owns the property. But Conrail still operates several important Amtrak trains, and the new road’s success or failure in repairing its damaged inheritance will have a direct effect on Amtrak’s overall performance.
The Conrail plan has detractors. Presidents of western railroads and Wall Street observers don’t give the new corporation much chance of turning profits. Outright nationalization of the road sometime in the future seems likely if not inevitable. Conrail’s final system plan has not been well received in locales left off the railroad. And environmentalists and some transportation experts feel that Conrail’s abandonment of trackage can only result in an increased reliance on trucks, which are generally less energy-efficient freight haulers than trains. But Conrail’s angriest critics are the numerous institutions, among them Citibank and the Equitable Life Assurance Society, that had loaned vast sums to the Penn Central and the six other absorbed roads. There are also 150,000 disgruntled people who held stock in the defunct companies Conrail took over, The bone of contention is money. Conrail’s management has estimated that the government should pay about $.75 billion for the assets of the bankrupt companies. But the trustees of the Penn Central say their railroad alone was worth $7 billion. The Conrail case, already in court, will provide careers for many young men now taking their bar exams, and may even outlast the century.
There was really just one thing wrong with the Lone Star; it lacked passengers; there were only twentysix aboard. Later, writing stern instructions to his marketing department, Reistrup confessed, “It was sad.” And as he toured the proud Lone Star, poking into its corners, finding very little to complain about, he recalled trouble elsewhere on the line.
A conductor Reistrup spoke to had had a suggestion and hadn’t been able to bring it to management’s attention, (“Wrote a letter about it, didn’t get an answer,” the conductor said.) Amtrak wasn’t exercising effective control over the onboard personnel it hired directly. Trains carried polite porters one trip and surly ones who smoked marijuana in the bathrooms on the next. Conductors on some trains seemed to dislike having passengers aboard. Amtrak had no direct authority over conductors or engineers and no direct line of communications with them. They were still being rented from the private railroads, and in most parts of the country probably always will be. This means, among other things, that Amtrak can’t negotiate archaic union work rules, under which conductors get a day’s pay for every 150 miles they travel. Reistrup recognized the problems. He hadn’t solved them yet.
Using the butt of his pen for a key, Reistrup opened up electrical lockers. The cars on the Lone Star had been purchased from the Santa Fe. “The Santa Fe kept them in such good shape,” was how Reistrup accounted for the fact that all of them were functioning perfectly. But that wasn’t the history of many of the cars Amtrak had bought from railroads.
Inside the electrical cabinet of the sleeper at the rear of the train, dust lay like fur on the bundles of wires. Reistrup said, “The last time I was on the Broadway I fixed one of these old cars myself.” He had been putting mechanics on heavily traveled trains, he was trying to keep cars with chronic mechanical problems off the road, he was having some of the fleet rebuilt. But, he said, the railroad’s future lay with new cars, because they are more reliable, cheaper to maintain, and with their larger seating capacities, more economical to run than reconstructed antiques. New cars cost from $400,000 to $600,000 apiece. Lewis ordered 727 before he left. Reistrup plans to order another 543 over the next five years and to retire all the old gear within ten. In the meantime, he will have to wage a holding action.
From the door of the electrical locker, Reistrup took a report form which listed the dates on which this old Pullman had received its treatment for vermin. “Interesting,” he said, and made a few notes. This entry appears in his report on the Lone Star, his “debriefing”:
I am quite concerned about the increasing reports of roaches in the coaches and wish to report that in . . . the only locker I opened with a bug report in it, a notation had not been made since July. Are we getting every car each month?
Then there was track. Out of the remains of the Penn Central and other eastern bankrupts, Congress had created Conrail, the vast freight-hauling railroad which was supposed to restore the parts of the road that Amtrak used. Under court order, the Illinois Central was repairing its track to 1971 condition. Reistrup will probably have to sue the C&O/B&O to get it to do the same with its rapidly deteriorating right-of-way. He can insist on 1971 standards, but on 1971 track the trains won’t be able to match the schedules in 1950s timetables. Reistrup estimates that it will cost $2.8 billion to bring about a renaissance in track. He believes the government should make the investment, for the sake of the freight-carrying railroads as well as passenger service.
Reistrup was peering out the window at the rear of the Lone Star, studying the Santa Fe’s rails, which went shooting back, gleaming under the trackside lights. “It’s in reasonably good shape.”
Everything under the Santa Fe’s control was satisfactory. The train made all its stops on time. When a minor problem developed outside of Wichita, a mechanic appeared at the next station and corrected it at once. But not long before, I had ridden through Penn Central territory in a lurching, overheated car that smelled like a public bathroom. When a woman had complained, the conductor had said, “Whataya want me to do about it?” No mechanics had ever appeared. To a great extent, the quality of a ride on Amtrak still depends on which railroad’s territory your train is passing through.
Although Reistrup plans to buy $300 million worth of shops and commissaries from the railroads, and to take over all Amtrak’s important maintenance work, he can’t take all the track, dispatchers, and operating crews. Amtrak now owns the northeast corridor, the Washington-Boston line. Elsewhere, Amtrak operates in the shadow of the railroads.
A general design for a new American passenger railroad has been in circulation a long time. Reistrup and his planners are working on the particulars, some of which have been published in Amtrak’s “Five Year Plan.” Now and then pieces of his developing scheme pop out in conversation. At one point, on the train, Reistrup looked up from a magazine he’d been reading and said, “I’d kinda like to run a Turbo out of Kansas City in the morning, into Chicago. We’ll run it 100 miles an hour. That’ll really whip the automobile.”
On the imagined railroad’s route map, a basic network of completely re-equipped long-distance trains, carrying dining cars and both coach and first-class accommodations, would travel over smooth track at what Reistrup calls “the old express-train speeds of 85 miles an hour.” The longdistance system would be only slightly larger than the 1976 network, but would penetrate all the contiguous states. Sleek 100and 120-miles-an-hour trains with automat food service would depart every couple of hours or so on journeys five hours long or less, through populous regions, between such cities as Los Angeles and San Diego, Chicago and Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, to name a few of the routes. How would these “emerging corridors” develop? In Reistrup’s scheme, the Boston-Washington northeast corridor would become such a fine piece of passenger railroad that people in other parts of the country would grow envious and demand that their representatives get them a corridor, too.
Congress has passed legislation mandating the reconstruction of the northeast corridor, and has gone so far as to specify train speeds of 120 miles an hour, 99 percent on-time performance, and running times of two hours and forty minutes between New York and Washington, three hours and forty minutes on the New York-Boston leg. In 1976 new trains are replacing antiques throughout the corridor. The new cars, designed and ordered during Lewis’ tenure, have snack bars and tray tables at their rather tightly spaced seats. The style is late American airplane expressed in the customary plastic. These aren’t classic railroad cars. On the other hand, they work, and the seats are soft. In 1976 it is possible to catch any number of modern trains and ride between New York and Washington in about three hours. But the ride is rough. On the New York-Boston section, in the former domain of the New Haven Railroad, the track and roadbeds have been deteriorating for years. An average of nine trains a day serve this half of the corridor, and their scheduled running time at present is four hours and forty-five minutes.
Hundreds of bridges, some dating back to the nineteenth century, lie between New York and Boston. About 200 must be replaced. Down the length of the corridor, tunnels have to be repaired, electrification installed and revamped, track straightened, and 900,000 new track ties laid. The engineering alone will take a year or more. Running times will lengthen while the work goes on. Trains will be delayed. It will be 1977 before the frequency of service between New York and Boston begins to increase, 1979 before speeds begin to rise, and 1980 before all the work is done. Congress has authorized $1.6 billion for the job. The timetable in the Northeast coincides with Reistrup’s overall five year plan. It will be 1980 before the railroad he contemplates can begin taking shape. The total price will be about $8 billion.
There is a substantial body of opinion opposed to Reistrup’s plans. Reistrup says Amtrak can never break even. It will always need subsidies. Spokesmen for the National Association of Motorbus Owners and Department of Transportation officials argue that continuing “heavy” subsidization will allow Amtrak to compete unfairly, to engage in “predatory pricing” against private companies that “pay their own way.”
Bus company owners might be richer if there were no Amtrak, but on the whole, the talk about unfair subsidies is nonsense. Other modes of transportation benefit from government munificence. Airlines get subsidies. And of the $430 billion local, state, and federal governments have spent since 1921 on the country’s roads and highways, about one-third has come from general revenues, not from user taxes. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that the United States will have to spend another $400 billion or so on roads in the next fifteen years. Again, general revenues will pay at least a third of the bill.
Enemies of Reistrup’s railroad of the future say it won’t yield benefits commensurate with its cost. But the Department of Transportation estimates that once the northeast corridor is reconstructed, Amtrak trains will carry almost 20 percent of intercity corridor travelers. This contribution to that congested area’s mobility will be achieved at a relatively modest price. New highway construction is far more expensive than rebuilding railroad rights-of-way. New York City’s proposed West Way is admittedly a special project, but a highway nonetheless. It will be five and a half miles long and cost $1.2 billion. Fixing up the railroad’s northeast corridor, which is 456 miles long, will cost $1.6 billion. Those are some of Reistrup’s favorite statistics. No new land will have to be ripped up to redevelop passenger service in the Northeast and in the emerging corridors, and that seems important in view of the fact that the nation’s roads have already put an area the size of six eastern states under pavement.
Opponents say that Americans are inveterate motorists and won’t use the trains. In general, long-distance trains like the Lone Star have limited potential markets; they are much slower than airplanes and about as expensive, if you buy a sleeping car ticket; and they can’t serve all their stops at convenient hours because they are one-a-day trains. But they are important transportation for people who don’t want to drive and hate the airplane and the bus, for residents of areas with marginal airline service, for people who live in places that get snowbound in the winter, for vacationers who want to see the country while riding in what rail fans call “roiling national parks.” As for short hauls, demand for them hasn’t materialized along many of Amtrak’s routes, but there is evidence that the public will take to short-distance, emerging-corridor trains when service improves. In 1975, for instance, Amtrak put three new French Turboliners on the Chicago-Detroit run, and revenue passenger miles for the route jumped 68 percent. Amtrak should probably drop some trains, starting with the political ones. Others should be added. I have a candidate. It runs from New York City to Cape Cod.
Reistrup says Amtrak’s passenger volume will double by 1980. The anti-passenger-train faction points out that doubled passengers will mean that after five years and billions of dollars, Amtrak will account for only 2 percent of total intercity travel. And Amtrak won’t have the capacity to handle much more than that. “Taxation without transportation,” says a PR man for the bus company lobby. “A step in the right direction,” says Amtrak board member Edward Ullman.
To people who believe that the country must start luring some citizens from their cars for the sake of energy conservation, 2 percent by 1980 is a fair beginning. It is true, as the motorbus lobby eagerly asserts, that Amtrak’s ponderous relics are less fuel-efficient than buses. Some of the old trains don’t do their work much more efficiently than automobiles. The new equipment Roger Lewis ordered will reduce Amtrak’s fuel consumption per passenger mile, but the new trains are heavier than they ought to be and don’t match the trains of Europe or Japan for efficiency. That doesn’t mean, however, that Amtrak can’t become a tool for conservation. Behind bicycles and ski lifts, the railroad train is potentially the most efficient of overland travel modes.
Will America get a passenger train revival? Congress is committed to the northeast corridor project. On the other hand, some legislators seem to have just realized that Amtrak won’t break even. When Reistrup delivered the news to a House subcommittee in 1975 that Amtrak would always lose money, a congressman from Kansas named Joe Skubitz said, “If I thought for a moment what you say is correct . . . I would be ready to vote you out of business.“ Reistrup has lost one important skirmish. The House and Administration killed a $700 million track improvement program which the Senate had designed, and which Reistrup had wanted badly. “You need track to run the trains,” he’d said. Would Congress wait five years and come up with $8 billion? Could Reistrup solve Amtrak’s problems soon enough to keep Congress interested in trains?
You can ride Amtrak between all the large northeastern cities, sometimes in a roundabout way. You can ride longand short-haul trains north, west, and south from New York and Washington and in all directions from Chicago. Trains patrol the west coast, but none visit Maine, New Hampshire, or South Dakota. Several western states, particularly Idaho, enjoy only token service, and there are no trains to Des Moines, Las Vegas, or Boise. Although there are dozens of trains a day to choose from in the northeast corridor and several a day on emerging corridor runs such as Los Angeles-San Diego and Chicago-Detroit, most Amtrak routes carry just one train a day in each direction. And many places get their one train in the black or gray hours of the morning.
One of the best railroad journeys left is on the New York-New Orleans Southern Crescent of the Southern Railroad, a line that stayed out of the Amtrak pact. If I had to travel to Los Angeles from the East and had a few days to spare, I’d get a ticket for the through sleeping car and catch the Crescent on a Monday, Wednesday, or Saturday at 3:05 in the afternoon from New York’s Penn Station. The equipment is aging, but the Southern, which assumes control of the train once it reaches Washington, has always taken pains to keep its gear and roads in shape, and crews are most courteous. When the Crescent pulled into New Orleans, at eight the next evening, I’d go to town, and probably bed down well past midnight in the through sleeping car at the station. The Los Angeles-bound Sunset Limited leaves that afternoon with the through sleeping car attached and the clever passenger inside, sleeping off the effects of New Orleans sights, sounds, and tastes. The Sunse travels through the territory of the profitable, wellkept Southern Pacific Railroad and is a respectable train in spite of the Southern Pacific’s long antipassenger tradition as seen in its refusal to tighten up the train’s slack schedule. Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Limited is a somewhat tarnished version of the Santa Fe’s Super Chief, but all trains run well in Santa Fe country and there is enough of the old Super Chief left, fine dome cars and diners, to make the Southwest the flagship in Amtrak’s fleet. Amtrak’s new wide-windowed, well-cushioned Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis French Turbotrains are also worth riding, and demonstrate how far ahead of the United States other countries are in passenger train design.
The outer protective windows on many of Amtrak’s old cars are scratched, but if you can find a clear one, you will enjoy some spectacular views. The most scenic ride in America is provided by the non-Amtrak Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Its Rio Grande Zephyr travels the mountain route between Denver and Salt Lake City, and the Rockies are gorgeous there. I am partial to Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha. I once spent an afternoon and evening in its dome lounge car, heading west. Eagles were perched in the trees beside the Yellowstone River. There are stunning views from the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder and agreeable ones from the New York-Montreal Adirondack, both equipped with domes for panoramic sight-seeing.
Even the best Amtrak trains break down, but some of them have exceptional shortcomings, and in general these are found on the deficient or uncooperative private railroads. Amtrak has had a tendency to assign its worst equipment to the problem roads where maintenance is often inadequate, and rough track and demoralized crews are the rule. Passenger complaints have ranged from faulty air-conditioning, the most common item, to vermin in the diners and locked bathrooms. Although both trains are improving, you can get carsick riding on the Chicago-New Orleans Panama Limited and the Chicago-New York Broadway Limited. The Washington-Chicago James Whitcomb Riley is undistinguished. Many Amtrak short hauls are served by old. swaying, dimly lit antiques.
Uneasiness about the future was general around Amtrak headquarters. But Reistrup was full of cheer. “I am convinced that Amtrak will succeed,” he was telling senators and anyone else who wanted to listen. On the Lone Star, he spoke optimistically to a very old porter, a black man who said he was going to retire soon, after more than forty years in service on the road. Reistrup told him. “We’re making progress.”
They faced each other near the baggage rack, in the dimly lit vestibule of a gently jiggling coach, in motion somewhere on the plains of Kansas. The red-jacketed porter looked at Reistrup and nodded gradually.
“I’d tell ya if I didn’t think we were,” said Reistrup, looking the old man straight in the eye.
“You got a big job,” said the porter. □
Probably the worst ride in the Amtrak system is on the St. Louis-Laredo Inter-American, which travels through hostile territory, over the road of the Missouri Pacific. The track is in excellent shape, but MOPAC won’t let the train go over 55 miles an hour. It is tempting to say that a traveler should avoid the Inter-American, a wretched train in many respects, but that is precisely what MOPAC’s management would like the traveling public to do. The train should be ridden for spite.