Trial by Train
The oil crisis is sending travelers scurrying back to the nation’s passenger trains, giving the railroads a second chance, and once again it looks as though the railroads will blow it. Implausible as it may sound, Congress and President Carter are now running the railroads, and if either has any knowledge of railroading, it is a clandestine possession.
I happen to like railroads. I have traveled many times by train from Rome to Naples because Capri is a cherished spot to me, and I have often gone by train from Paris to Rome, from Munich to Vienna, and from Paris to Cannes. As I said, I like railroads, but to be more precise I should say that I like European trains. American trains are something else. The latter were built on the concept that a train was to provide transportation from one place to another and nothing more; this was the dogma of the great railroad barons who carved out empires as the tracks inched westward. If it was comfort you wanted, you looked elsewhere.
Last autumn I rode the Mistral from Paris to Nîmes, and as always I was struck by the comfort, indeed luxury, of the great TEE (Trans-Europ-Express) trains. The Gare de Lyon was a beehive of activity, porters were racing about, there was excitement in the air. The train itself, once under way, was fast, clean, and comfortable. We moved south from Paris toward Aix-en-Provence and the Rhone delta. The carpeted cars were quiet, and the hushed atmosphere of the train was almost that of a library, where one is conscious of the presence of many people but few sounds are heard. Late in the afternoon, when the maître d’hôtel passed through the cars announcing the two services for dinner, I selected the premier service since I was leaving the train fairly early. There were four dining cars in the center of the Mistral, and the food was easily equal to that of a first-rate restaurant. I had a fine pâté maison, followed by sole meunière, which in turn led to the entrée, a very delicate entrecôte, served with a slice of lemon. From the wine card I selected a totally unknown but irreproachable Côte du Rhone. Later I had a fresh apricot with a large slice of Port Salut, and a cup of coffee. The dinner was not inexpensive, but the check was only slightly higher than it would have been in a restaurant in Paris. Back in my seat, I watched the small cities and villages flash by; I dozed for a while, and was shaken gently on the shoulder by the trainman, who told me we were approaching Nîmes. I descended from the train, well fed and well rested. It was a fine trip.
The disappearance of the train from the American travel scene has been laid to many reasons: the development of an excellent highway network, cheap fuel, universal ownership of automobiles, and the fact that travel by car was more economical for the family than travel by train. The growth of motels and fast food facilities along the nation’s highways made even long motor trips practical and inexpensive. These things were also true, more or less, in Europe, yet travel by train remained popular there and the financial health of European railroads never weakened. But there was one other factor involved, and that was the matter of comfort. The European railroads kept their trains in good condition, ran them on schedule, pampered the passengers with fine food and wine, and did everything possible to make their customers comfortable and content. American trains, on the other hand, were inclined to rattle and shake, the cars were often filthy, the food was almost, inedible, schedules were disregarded, and through the fabric of the entire system ran the thread of railroad omnipotence—let the passenger adjust to the railroad’s way of doing things.
A few days ago I took an Amtrak train from Boston to New York, along what is known as the Northeast Corridor. My reasons for taking the train were impressive: it took only five hours, there were no expensive taxi fares to and from airports, I left from midtown and arrived in midtown, and the fare was only $20.50 compared with $44 on the Eastern shuttle. I had read that train travel was enjoying a revival because of gasoline shortages, and that people were showing up at railroad stations around the country filled with nervous curiosity, obviously strangers to the scene. But I soon learned that a big gap separated European from American trains. The Colonial left on time but operated as a local all the way to Providence, leaving one to wonder how the railroad felt it could achieve the impossible feat of combining a commuter train with a long-range express. Long before we passed Providence the aisles were filled with standees, most of whom faced an ordeal of four hours or more.
The trip was excess footage left over from a World War II movie. Women with babies sat on the arms of seats; many rested on upended suitcases. Movement in the aisles was almost impossible. One woman was seated in a small enclosure marked “Trash,” her feet in the aisle. Going to the men’s room I stepped on her foot and apologized. “Don’t worry about it,” she said cheerfully. “Everybody steps on me.” A snack bar in the center of the car behind me dispensed coffee and sandwiches. People brought snacks back to their seats in paper boxes, picking their way through the baggage and standees and trying to adjust to the swaying of the train while carrying cups of steaming coffee. Small queues of passengers waited to get into the toilets, some of which appeared to be permanently locked for some reason, certainly not lack of need. I must admit, however, that the train crew showed no nostalgia for the standards of insolence that once prevailed on trains in the United States. They were unfailingly polite and helpful.
Why hadn’t more cars been added to the Colonial, since the railroad surely knew that the train would be overcrowded? Were more cars available? What was Amtrak prepared to do to cope with its suddenly swollen volume of business? “We are operating just about every car that is available and in operation order,” an Amtrak official told me. “During peak periods in the Northeast Corridor we even borrow equipment from the city commuter services, which we operate in what we call ‘special sections’—this means a whole extra train which follows behind the scheduled train.” Amtrak is operating today with 100 fewer cars than it had in service a year ago, and cars are said to be “self-destructing” (going to the scrap heap) at the rate of about one a day. The new double-decker “Superliner” cars, which began delivery in midsummer, cannot be used in the Northeast Corridor because of tunnel heights. Amtrak scouts are combing the world looking for passenger cars, but they are encountering keen competition in Europe, where $2-per-gallon gasoline is making rail travel more popular than ever. “If we had another thousand cars,” an Amtrak spokesman said, “we could fill them up.”
The Northeast Corridor—the Boston to New York to Washington routeright now is an Amtrak problem. But perhaps a few words about the complicated relationship between Amtrak and Conrail would be in order. Reduced to its simplest terms, when the Penn Central and other eastern railways went into bankruptcy with the government picking up the pieces, Conrail was given all of the track except the Northeast Corridor, which went to Amtrak. Nevertheless, Amtrak operates many passenger trains (such as the Broadway and the Lake Shore Limited) on Conrail track. Conrail, in turn, operates freight trains on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Conrail also operates some strictly commuter trains, but by definition Amtrak is an intercity passenger train operation.
The crowded condition of trains on the Boston-New Haven-New York leg of the Northeast Corridor has Amtrak worried because officials see very little they can do about it, and as more and more people turn to the railroads the situation will worsen. During the second week in July, an official said, one car was added to all Boston to Washington trains, but that meant only 84 more seats. “We are getting some extra cars by turning equipment faster at end points,” he went on, “but while turning equipment around faster means better utilization of equipment, in the long run it may affect our ability to maintain it properly.”
A mtrak feels it is unfair to compare American trains with those operating in Europe, and they have a good point. Congress, the President, and the Department of Transportation have permitted Amtrak’s facilities to diminish almost to the vanishing point. Here is how Amtrak compares in equipment and route length with other national rail systems:
U.S. Amtrak 27,500 1,913
British Rail 11,258 17,463
French National Railways 22,478 15,320
German Federal Railways 17,910 17,726
Italian State Railroad 10,154 10,544
Japanese National Railroad 13,218 26,099
South African Railroad 13,966 9,784
With the longest track mileage of the national railroads, Amtrak has hardly enough passenger cars to operate a toy train. Moreover, the lack of knowledge of railroad problems by the various government managers of Amtrak is almost comic. Those four dining cars that so impressed me on the Mistral would be considered “unproductive cars” by Brock Adams, who until recently was secretary of transportation. Adams applied the term “unproductive” to all sleeping and dining cars.
cars. In an effort to hold down Amtrak’s subsidy, the Department of Transportation proposed that Congress prune 43 percent of Amtrak’s route miles by October 1, a point of view that was warmly supported by that railroad expert, Jimmy Carter. On July 28, however, faced by a flood of new passengers streaming through railroad terminals, President Carter announced that he had changed his mind and that, “if the need arises,” he would recommend saving many of the routes that Amtrak was ordered to drop. The House has approved legislation reducing the original cutbacks to an estimated 5500 miles (as opposed to 12,000 miles) and the Senate is expected to take similar action. But the point of view still seems to prevail in Congress, the White House, and the Department of Transportation that the best way to cure Amtrak’s problems is to destroy as much of it as possible.
Twenty percent of America’s population lives in the Northeast Corridor, and since there are no indications that the energy crisis will be short-lived, it stands to reason that, with the airports crowded, more and more of the nation’s mobility will depend upon Amtrak. Spokesmen for the railroad frankly acknowledge that the Northeast Corridor rail system has deteriorated badly over the past several years, but they look hopefully to a bill enacted by Congress that will improve existing rail service between Washington and Boston. This $1.75 billion, five-year improvement
program is expected to reduce the travel time from Washington to New York to two hours and forty minutes (now about four hours) and to cut the fivehour trip from New York to Boston to three hours and forty minutes. In its present equipment-starved condition, it is absurd to expect Amtrak to make money; it has fewer than 2000 cars to serve a 27,000-mile system, while the German Federal Railroad has a car for every mile.
Amtrak has real problems. But it has one thing going for it, and that is its safety record. The National Transportation Safety Board showed that in 1977—the last year for which records are available—there were 34,349 deaths from automobiles, 654 deaths from domestic airlines, and 29 from intercity buses. Amtrak’s passenger death rate was zero. You may have to stand in the aisle, but you’ll get there.
PHOTO & DRAWING CREDITS
Cover—illustration, Jon McIntosh
60,63,66,70,71,77 -Oren Sherman
64—photo, courtesy of U.S.
Department, of Defense
80,81 —George Vogt
99,104 —Steve Snider