Friday, February 10, 2012


Amtrak is an interesting outfit.

They were born amid the railroad crisis that came to light with the Penn Central bankruptcy of 1968.  A ward of the government, they were generally regarded with disdain by the freight railroads that hosted their trains and by the government itself, as they came hat in hand every year, asking for enough money to live another year.

Amtrak has a split personality.  There are the fast, efficient trains of the Northeast Corridor.  Amtrak owns the railroad there, the track itself.  Half of Amtrak's revenue and passengers are generated there.  The name of the game is fast, frequent service.  Say "Metroliner" or "Acela" anywhere in the Northeast and people know what you're talking about.  The actual "running the trains" part of the business turns a modest profit.

The 20 Acela train sets earn 25% of Amtrak's revenue
The other half of Amtrak is a throw-back to the 1950s. A skeletal network of long distance trains connecting the major cities of the country.
Amtrak in 1971

Amtrak today

Most take a day or two to get where they are going.

Modern-day Crescent stops at Gainesville, GA,
midway on it's 30 hour journey from New Orleans to New York City
California Zephyr negotiates one of many scenic canyons in Colorado on it's two day trip from Chicago to San Francisco.
They are the remnant of the great network of long distance trains that used to connect every point in the country.  War surplus planes, airfields and pilots built and trained during WWII siphoned off all the business travelers.  Auto ownership, suburban migration and highway expansion, fueled by cheap gasoline, took the rest. By the late 1960s, what was left was in sorry shape and sapping the railroad industry of money is sorely needed to stay alive.

Once the premier way for businessmen
to get from NY to Chicago,
the Broadway Limited snakes it's way through
Pennsylvania in the early 1990s.
Old locomotives and old coaches kept things going on the
Hudson River valley in the early 1970s

So, the government formed Amtrak on May 1, 1971 and the railroads were relieved of running passenger trains.  The remaining network was paired down to a cohesive, interconnected network, organized and operated by Amtrak.  The railroads were now merely hosts to the trains and were paid for the cost of running them over their lines. They were still a nuisance to them to have around, but at least they weren't a financial drain.

The National Limited on it's way from Kansas City to New York City
snakes it's way around a Conrail freight train.
There are two prevailing schools of thought about how Amtrak was to turn out.  One was that it was just a convenient interim step before all the trains outside of the Northeast Corridor could be killed off for good.  The other was the some of the worst performing long distance trains would be discontinued and the money saved diverted into developing other money-making corridors around the country.  Neither occurred.

Regional politics took hold and nothing much changed.  Amtrak's routes have changed very little since it's creation and Amtrak has launched only a few new corridor services, mostly with the financial support of a few states like Maine, North Carolina and California.  Amtrak, as a whole loses quite a bit of money per passenger.  Those long distance trains with their sleeping cars and dining cars take in only about 50 cents for every dollar it cost to operate them.
In it's heyday, the Super Chief escorted movie stars to LA.
Here is remnant of this once-great train, the Southwest Limited,
gliding east through Illinois. 
So, here is Amtrak, at 40 years old, no longer trying to figure out what it should be when it grows up - the  "helicopter parents" in the House and Senate have long since killed any initiative Amtrak may have had.  Amtrak gets scolded for losing so much money and then told not to change anything.  With a few notable exceptions, they've had a steady string of leaders who were either ineffective or destructive or both. They have been beaten down so long, they no longer try to find better ways to do things, but merely hope to survive until tomorrow.  Despite all this, the trains still run - and you can ride them and see parts of America that you won't see from the air or highway. But, they are mostly a well kept, irrelevant secret.  Ask most Atlantans about Amtrak and most don't even know that there is a train that comes through town or, if they do know, where it comes from and goes to.

Despite all this, Amtrak still has some pride.  Their shortcomings notwithstanding, they have accomplished things.  They replaced the entire rag-tag fleet of passengers cars they inherited at the start with four standard kinds.  They replace their entire locomotive fleet twice, each generation being a cut above the old.  They've made improvements to the Northeast Corridor in two great steps, each time raising trains speeds and reducing trip times.  They took the successful Penn Central Metroliner and made it a household name.  They replace that with 150 mph Acela, the fastest train in the Western hemisphere. They have partnered with states and are now starting to fulfill their initial promise of fast, frequent service on new corridors.

North Carolina's growing Charlotte to Raleigh Corridor
They have a sense of their history and place in American culture.  They are currently celebrating their 40th aniversary with a special display train showing off their history and accomplishments so that people can learn of the long connection between this country and it's passenger trains..  They have also commemorated the the milestone by painting some locomotives in their older paint schemes from their history.

Amtrak 156 at NC Transportation Museum on 7/3/2012

The other day, one of these commemorative locomotives was leading Amtrak's Crescent north out of Atlanta.  I met it at Buford Georgia.  It was the original paint scheme from the days when Amtrak was new and there was hope for fast, frequent service in regions around the country.  It was bittersweet watching it go by. It's a nice train.  The equipment is in good condition and service is pretty good.  It even runs close to on time most days.  But, by now, Atlanta should have been a hub connecting cities around the southeast with fast, frequent service.  Instead, it's just the Crescent, on it's ancient route - two locomotives, a baggage car, four 60 seat coaches, a lounge car, a dining car and two 30 bed sleeping cars  - making it's slow and steady, daily trek from New Orleans to New York City.

So, here's to Amtrak, frozen in childhood, stuck between the slow and steady and fast and frequent.  Hanging on despite the odds.  Not quite fully alive, but not dead yet, either.

The Crescent rolls through the Georgia night....


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