Waiting for the Train

Why Amtrak can’t get us there from here.

Remember the Hardy Boys books?

In an era of accelerating change when conversations turn to future shock and generation gaps, some things stay the same—or seem to. One of my warmest recollections of childhood in the early Fifties is the series of suspense­ful yarns about the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy, fictional teenage sons of an eminent if somewhat incompetent private eye. The same series entertained preadolescent youngsters as long ago as the 1930s. Most of the books are still in print, avidly devoured by the children of the Seventies. Through a Great De­pression, three wars, and the onset of shortages, not much else has lasted so well.

My favorite was always Number 20: The Mystery of the Flying Ex­press. Much of the action (pursuit of spies: this was copyrighted in 1941) revolves around a crack transcontinen­tal passenger train with observation cars, “luxurious sleepers,” long shiny coaches, and a locomotive capable of producing a “thunderous roar”: the Flying Express was nothing less than “the great giant of the rails,” and its presence suffused the commonplace narrative with an exotic distortion of time and distance.

Not long ago I ran across an up-to-date copy on sale in a Corpus Christi bookstore. This is how the Flying Ex­press was described:

The ship’s sleek hull had en­closed cabins forward and aft, and a rakish pilot’s bridge. The windshields of the wheelhouse looked out over a metal deck. This forward deck obviously was not for passengers. The rear deck was slightly lower and guarded by white pipe railing.

“Quite a boat,” Frank said ad­miringly.

Same series, same title, but the mag­nificent train was gone. In its place was a “shiny white fiberglass vessel” providing hydrofoil service across a bay. A new copyright dated 1970 in­dicated that the publishers had simply concluded that a railroad train carry­ing passengers would likely be as un­familiar as a yak caravan to their ten-year-old American readers. Ac­cordingly they had ordered the book rewritten.

In 1970 their decision must have seemed perfectly sensible. Rail passen­ger service had deteriorated all across the country. Railroad executives, eager to discard this bothersome interference with their more-profitable freight busi­ness, scornfully compared passenger trains to stagecoaches and steamships. From a peak in 1929, when they trans­ported 77 percent of intercity travel­ers, the railroads’ share of the com­mon carrier market had been sharply eroded by airplanes and buses. A sud­den burst of traffic during and imme­diately after World War II proved only temporary. The Texas postwar experience was as typical as any: in 1947, 8.5 million passengers produced $28.2 million worth of revenue in Tex­as; by 1970 there were only 371,000 passengers and $2.5 million in revenue. Blame for the decline has been placed on hostile railroad management (by travelers) and on the changing tastes of the traveling public (by railroad management); but its reality was indis­putable. More than half the 20,000 pas­senger trains running in 1929 had dis­appeared by 1950. By 1970, fewer than 450 remained, and only the reluctance of state regulatory agencies and the In­terstate Commerce Commission ( ICC) prevented the discontinuance of most of these. The straight-line thinkers who published the Hardy Boys saw an obsolete book on their hands.

Amtrak, the National Railroad Pas­senger Corporation, came into existence on May 1, 1971, largely because it of­fered something that both the traveling public and the railroad companies wanted. The public wanted passenger operations taken away from railroad company management—many of whom were dedicated to making life miserable enough for passengers to drive them away from the trains altogether, thereby providing a legal justification for dis­continuing service. Amtrak offered the encouraging prospect of a friendly, quasi-public corporation to run the trains and integrate them into a unified network.

The railroad companies wanted to rid themselves of passenger service as quickly as possible. Amtrak provided a way to do this without the need to deal with skeptical state regulators and the ICC on a tedious, case-by-case basis. The Rail Passenger Service Act that cre­ated the new corporation did more than designate a limited number of passenger routes for inclusion in Amtrak’s basic nationwide system; at the instigation of certain railroad companies, the law was phrased in a manner that actually de­prived the member railroads of legal authority to operate intercity passenger trains of their own. Thus, if a railroad “joined” Amtrak (and all but four in­tercity passenger lines did), the com­pany granted Amtrak the right to oper­ate a few selected trains across its tracks and simultaneously stripped itself of the right to operate any others. To the rail­roads the idea was immensely attrac­tive, like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch. More than 200 passenger trains were left unprotected. The inauguration of Amtrak on May 1, 1971, was accom­panied by history’s greatest transporta­tion bloodbath. By the next morning an eerie calm had descended upon the member railroads’ tracks. Only Am­trak’s sixteen chosen routes escaped the carnage.

If this compromise was an idea whose time had come, it assuredly was not an idea that either side viewed as a perma­nent solution. Consumer groups like the National Association of Railroad Pas­sengers promptly agitated for the inclu­sion of additional routes. And the rail­roads, particularly those like Southern Pacific ( SP) that have been most con­sistently antagonistic to passenger serv­ice, treated Amtrak as a temporary annoyance to be tolerated for a few months until it collapsed of its own dead weight. Southern Pacific President Benjamin Biaggini declared: “There is no market for long-distance, intercity passenger transportation by rail. People just won’t ride it… I think Amtrak’s function should be to preside over an orderly shrinkage of rail passenger service.” He said “shrinkage,” but most pas­sengers knew he meant “termination.”

To the astonishment of the railroad doomsayers, however, Amtrak did not die. Political support in Congress propped it up for a while. And the public refused to abandon the remaining trains. On practically every line, ridership increased. The average traffic count in August at El Paso on Amtrak’s Houston-to-Los Angeles train, for ex­ample, rose from 600 in 1971 to 1900 in 1972 to 2250 in 1973. Then, when the

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