by Evan Stair
Amtrak is at a critical point in its history. Never before have the threats been so real to the sheer existence of this passenger carrier. Within the next four years Amtrak will be required to live up to the provision of its original charter. It will be required as any business to become self- sufficient or throw in the towel. Many believe that this true privatization will be a welcome relief to United States taxpayers. There is little doubt that Amtrak will change and more than likely shrink or completely pass the way of the steam engine outside of the Eastern seaboard commuter corridor. Many will lament the end of a colorful alternative to the highway or the air.
Is Amtrak a National Treasure or an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer? This depends on your perspective and political persuasion.
To Live or Die
Like most modern issues, the lines will be drawn between liberal and conservative. Entitlement debates rage today and Amtrak should be at the center of this debate. Although we are free to travel in this country, that freedom comes with a cost. Do you ever think about what it costs to operate a motor vehicle? Not only is the initial “investment” expensive but an individual’s tax burden used to support road projects is not small either.
I frequently travel a choked Oklahoma interstate which follows an underutilized railroad. I have no alternative. Can Amtrak truly become a viable part of our national transportation infrastructure? Economically Amtrak does not make sense but neither does the interstate system. Our interstates are supported with tax dollars and other than toll roads I don’t know of any road projects which show a profit. Should the freedom to travel include socialized passenger railroad programs? You be the judge.
An Era Past
Few if any passenger trains paid their way in the 1960’s. Then in 1967 the Federal government pulled its postal contracts from the nation’s railroads and sent almost every passenger train into the red and seemingly on a spiral course with the grave. During the 1960’s era travelers wanted something that the passenger train could not provide. They equated riding the rails with bad memories such as sending loved ones off to their death in foreign wars and the loss of freedom imposed by conscription.
Their new symbol of freedom had become the automobile and the newly completed interstate system. Airports were being constructed or upgraded as airlines built their now mature business and stole passengers from the outdated slow passenger train. Journeys that took days by rail could be completed in hours by plane. The choice was simple. So simple in fact that the railroads themselves had given up on the passenger train.
These factors were setting the stage for what seemed to be the sure death of the passenger train by 1975. A shrinking minority of rail passengers were not willing to give up without a fight and this minority was vocal.
Nixon: An Unlikely Hero
Railpax (its name was later changed to Amtrak) was conceived by the Nixon administration as a way to appease two warring factions: The diminishing public that still believed in the passenger train and the railroads who were demanding to be released from their unprofitable passenger burden.
In retrospect Nixon was not out to protect the traveling public. The passenger train was dying and Nixon felt that there was nothing he could do to save the service for the rail passenger minority. However, he did not want to be accused of inaction by the rail passengers. They carried votes. On the other hand he did not want to force the issue with the nation’s private railroads.
Nixon created Amtrak to finish the argument between the two warring parties. The railroads wanted out of the unprofitable regulated passenger rail business. Rail passengers wanted increased and better service but the service that existed at the time was headed in the opposite direction. Before Amtrak, railroads were required to apply with the Interstate Commerce Commission in order to discontinue any passenger train. Many applications were accepted many were not however the public was angered at each discontinuance even if they did not ride the train, “How dare they allow the corporate giant to refuse the common man service?” The railroads were angered when discontinuances were not accepted as it cut into their bottom line.
Some speculate that Nixon created Amtrak to kill off the nation’s dying passenger rail routes. The solution was simple: Create a corporation that would operate the nation’s passenger routes. In return for signing up with Amtrak, the nation’s railroads would be free of their passenger burden, save for having a few Amtrak trains running on their lines beginning on May 1, 1971. Nixon believed that the corporation would fail. After Amtrak’s failure Nixon could claim that he had done everything possible to save the passenger train. The railroads would be rid of their passenger burden and the voters would see a president who tried to save their beloved passenger trains.
Nixon must have believed that if private enterprise could not make a profit from passenger railroads a pseudo-governmental corporation surely could not. Under the original charter Amtrak was to become fully self sufficient. This has not changed. Nixon probably believed that after it collapsed financially Amtrak could be effectively shut down with a simple cutoff of subsidies.
The American public would surely not stand for excessive taxes to keep this venture afloat forever. Governmental subsidies were required to keep the trains running and still are today. This was Nixon’s grand design for the passenger carrier. History would show that the passenger train was the least of Nixon’s worries. Nixon would have been happy to deal with the bottomless pit known as Amtrak rather than to have been associated with Watergate.
The Rainbow Era
On May 1, 1971 an era ended. All but three railroads still operating passenger trains in the United States turned their passenger rail operations over to Amtrak. The three railroads that did not join were the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific, better known as the Rock Island, the Southern, and the Denver Rio Grande and Western. Many other railroads were already out of the passenger business including the St. Louis and San Francisco (Frisco) and the Western Pacific. The Rock Island did not have the financial resources to join Amtrak. The Southern had an “on again” “off again” love affair with the passenger train. The Denver Rio Grande and Western continued to operate its Rio Grande Zephyr until 1983, probably due to the Rocky Mountain tourist trade. However the stories of these passenger operations are outside the scope of this essay.
Amtrak’s first days were colorful. Its equipment was obtained from the defunct passenger operations of the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, Southern Pacific, and Penn Central. It was an odd mix of yellows, blues, greens oranges, and stainless steel. Logically Amtrak also inherited the passenger train crews from the now freight only railroads who strangely by the way remained employed by the freight railroad for a time as Amtrak contract employees.
Unfortunately the number of trains and route miles were cut dramatically even beyond the skeletal system that existed just prior to Amtrak’s birth. No doubt this was the first attempt to kill the new venture created to “save the passenger train.” It is interesting to note that as a compromise some routes were retained that had been on the chopping block only days prior to the startup. This one compromise may have saved Amtrak in its early years.
Amtrak quickly became the target of jokes by comedians and the public in general. One of the public’s favorite jokes was about Amtrak’s corporate logo, the Pointless Arrow. The corporation was accused of being a poor speller as the public thought that the corporate name stood for a truncated “American Track.” One could hear the laughter; shouldn’t it be spelled “Amtrack?” (Amtrak’s spelling actually is a combination of two letters in each word of the phrase America-Travels-by-Track; Am-Tr-ak.) In later years the public would learn of exploding toilets and the not so funny disgruntled car attendants.
A Survivor’s Story
Amtrak has outlived Nixon’s political career and even the man. Who could have predicted that Amtrak would survive to its silver anniversary in 1996? It has been a difficult struggle with Congress continuously threatening to save the taxpayers money by eliminating subsidies for this pork barrel corporation. Jokes are still retold by the uninformed. Amtrak crashes are still given more press coverage than airline crashes. You can almost hear the press say, “The passengers should have taken the plane.” The occasional customer nightmare such as an exploding toilet is of course unfortunate but the probability of it happening to an individual is probably less than that of being struck by lightning. Amtrak’s biggest problem is the fact that the corporation does not seem able to survive without government assistance.
All of this bad PR has allowed the relentless press to have a field day with the passenger carrier. As is typically the case with the modern press, positive angles are missed in favor of controversy; the exploding toilet, the red line, and the pointless arrow. To understand what is meant by this statement, an American history lesson is in order.
An American History Lesson
In the mid-Nineteenth Century many still traveled by horse and carriage or covered wagon. Supplies were routed to small towns West of the Mississippi River almost exclusively over unpaved trails. The government and the public wished to settle the West and invested in the nation’s future by investing in the railroads hence eliminating these archaic transportation systems. Many incredible engineering feats were required in order to build these railroads that would eventually be responsible for settling and civilizing the American West.
In fact the industrial revolution could not have happened without the railroads. Look at any railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi or Missouri river. Take the many tunnels that were constructed through Mountain ranges. Then there is the eight mile long Moffat Tunnel West of Denver on the former Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad. Take Raton tunnel on the former Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. Even building across the prairie was a feat as in most cases civilization and industry followed the railroad. One-hundred years hence some of these engineering feats are still wonders and they were built by our forefathers who crisscrossed the great ocean of prairie grass with paired rail and oaken ties.
Then there is the architecture. How can one look at Kansas City Union Station without some form of pride in God and country and at the same time with some sadness? This enormous, empty (but soon to be restored) structure symbolizes the massive undertaking of building the Western part of our nation. It also symbolizes the tragedy of our throwaway society. Many railroad stations in our nation have suffered the same fate as Kansas City Union Station which has been empty and condemned for years. It is an architectural masterpiece that has lost its purpose.
It is hard to believe that the hundreds of trains which stopped in Kansas City daily in the 1930s has diminished to just four a day and they don’t even use the station. They use a shack about a block East of the depot. Even if hundreds of trains still stopped here each day one could not justify the construction of such an architectural masterpiece. Kansas City Union Station was built as a monument in a grand era where the railroad was king and CEO’s operated by gut feeling rather than business case greed. If you live in the Western portion of the United States you owe your wealth in part to the railroads who provided the seed to settle the West.
What does an American History lesson on the settling of the West have to do with Amtrak? There are less expensive, more convenient, and faster ways to travel but there is no way to see the United States except by rail. These rail routes tell the story of our great nation. No corporation today would even attempt to build a business case for a rail route through the Rocky Mountains. Remember also that the railroads at the turn of the century built through the West before many communities and industries existed. It was an engineering feat that spoke more of national pride than business sense.
Amtrak suffers from an identity crisis related to the era in which it was created. Realistically in its present form it is a dinosaur. It uses technology that is barely out of the 1940’s. It could very easily be shut down with little effect on our nation’s transportation needs outside of the Northeast where it is necessary to reduce an overly congested transportation infrastructure. Herein lies a portion of the problem. Amtrak is used in some markets as a commuter service to reduce air and road congestion. Elsewhere Amtrak is used almost exclusively as an excursion service transporting vacationers and rail-fans through sparsely populated sections of our nation.
Case in Point
Is there a need for an overnight passenger train between Chicago to Denver when there are flights that will cover the same distance in only a matter of an hour or two? Amtrak is nearly as expensive as flying and if you purchase sleeping accommodations it can be more expensive. It can take two days by train to take Amtrak to the West coast from Chicago. Conversely you can actually fly from Lincoln, Nebraska to Denver arriving prior to your departure due to the time change. Additionally there are relatively few cities between Chicago and Denver with populations sufficient to keep this train in operation. These are hard cold facts which are used by Amtrak’s detractors to argue for the shutdown of its trains.
Everyone who pays federal taxes supports Amtrak. If Amtrak’s transcontinental routes are eliminated, regional support for Amtrak would be diminished to the point where Congress would be forced to shut down the carrier. Constituents in the West would rightly ask why they are required to pay for the rail transportation needs of the East. Therefore Amtrak is a very politically charged issue and Congress has played the middle of the fence for decades seeing fit to starve but not kill the carrier.
Amtrak a National Treasure
There is no doubt that Amtrak is necessary in some markets to alleviate transportation congestion. However, justification in the sparsely populated portions of the nation is debatable. Amtrak’s leadership has struggled with its dual personality since its creation: Transportation alternative on the East Coast; Excursion operator elsewhere. Politically, Amtrak can not claim that its transcontinental routes are simple daily excursions. There has to be a destination at the other end of the route otherwise Amtrak would become simply a government subsidized excursion train for railfans.
Amtrak has a purpose West of the Mississippi. Take an trip from Chicago to California on Amtrak. I have ridden on two of Amtrak’s all-American-advertising-poster-board routes through the Western portion of this great nation. One was the California Zephyr/ Pioneer and the Southwest Chief from Newton, Kansas to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The California Zephyr
My new wife and I took a trip from Lincoln, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon in 1991 which unfortunately can not be repeated today as the train has been discontinued from Denver to Portland. The route does however still exist through the Rockies on the way to California. Discontinuance of the remaining portion of this passenger train route would be a tragedy.
Forget about the operational costs for a moment. In 1999 West of Denver you can still ride over and through the rock shield which separates the coasts. Much of this route follows the Colorado River as the railroad was built along the path of least resistance; a financial brainchild, an operational headache, an engineering nightmare, and promotional genius. Some portions of the route run through the most desolate yet beautiful territory in our nation. It would be a shame to take for granted the blood and sweat that it took to build this line by simply removing the passenger train from this route.
You can board in Lincoln while the sane sleep. West of Lincoln’s city limits the train picks up speed and you are gently swayed to sleep. Occasionally you are awakened by station stops in towns like Hastings or McCook. Upon arrival in these towns you can look out of the window and see a scene that has been repeated uncounted times for decades. A small brick depot, a dimly lit platform, sleepy passengers ready to board, busy baggage handlers who paint a picture of the hard labor in the American West. You are a visitor in a town which is asleep. From your own bed you can watch as the crossing gates flash, stopping maybe one car through the entire seemingly abandoned town. Crossing main street you gaze at the haunts Norman Rockwell used as inspiration for his paintings of Americana. This is not a television screen. It is real life portrayed through your window. Your detachment can not be understated. You are at best a five minute visitor in this town traveling in an antique vehicle which haunts the town but twice a night.
One awakes East of Denver in time to view the desolate hills of eastern Colorado. Slowly metropolitan Denver appears as you gaze upon the backyards, businesses, industries, and expansive rail yards of this progressive metropolitan city. As the train pulls into the depot you are greeted by the many now unused crumbling concrete platforms of this grand, ghostly, tired depot. While grand your wait is just short of sending your into a depressive state seeing what has become of this wondrous method of transport. It has been abandoned in favor of the airport. The train ascends the eastern foothills of the Rockies immediately after leaving Denver’s Union Depot and your attitude will soon change to amazement.
As you reach the Rockies you pass through a maze of railroad tunnels carved with primitive turn of the century tools that someone’s great-grandfather may have used. These tunnels increase in length until you reach the Continental Divide at the Moffat Tunnel. This tunnel is eight miles long. As the train approaches the tunnel, an entry door opens. After the last car is clear of the door it closes. You are actually locked in the tunnel at this point traveling at about 30 miles per hour. Next as the train approaches the end of the tunnel the opposite door opens and closes after the last car clears. When your eyes adjust to the outside light again you are on the West side of the continental divide. You see a rocky and arid landscape in stark contrast to the wet green East side territory.
Now, one can experience some of this by taking I-70. However, the experience is different. You do not have to avoid the maniacs on the road when riding on the train. You can walk through the train so there is no need to stop at each rest stop to stretch. There is no need to stop to get a bite to eat. There is no need to pull over to sleep. The fact there are fewer distractions allows you to look over God’s grand creation without care for time or space. It is a visual painting of our nation.
The point here is that there is no better way to experience the United States than by train. Amtrak moves at just the right speed so that you can experience the ever-changing contrasting landscapes which make our nation great. From night blackened farmland at 90 miles per hour, through towns deserted and fast asleep, to major U.S. Cities, over and through major geological wonders such as the Rocky Mountains and the New Mexico desert you can enjoy more of the United States on Amtrak than you can in a week in your comparatively cramped Aerostar Minivan. Imagine eating a short stack of blueberry pancakes with the view of the approaching Rockies or an eight mile long tunnel.
The Southwest Chief
Imagine falling asleep while watching the sun set behind Spanish peaks near Trinidad, Colorado. This is one of the last places in the United States where you can experience the clickety clack of jointed rail. How about eating a steak while passing under the short New Mexico Rockies at Raton Tunnel? Almost all Amtrak routes run over welded rail but there are some segments of the Santa Fe from Newton Kansas to New Mexico which have changed little since the 1930’s. How about taking a shower in your own hotel room on wheels as you pass through Garden City, Kansas? You pass by several Indian Pueblos through New Mexico. Experience what it was like to ride Santa Fe All-The-Way. Ride the route of the Super Chief, Train of the Stars, named such due to the fact that Hollywood stars relaxed on this line during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Names such as Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin still echo throughout the cars.
Diner in the Diner
Amtrak does not serve airline food. It actually has a quite appealing menu. You can get everything from steak to fish. In fact one of the best prime rib steaks that I have eaten was served on an Amtrak train. The company is not bad either. That is one of the best things about Amtrak. Prior to their first Amtrak meal, introverted persons might find the thought of dining with other passengers frightening. Unless there are four in your party you will be seated across from strangers at meal time. However, introverts will find that the meal and the scenery are enough to melt even any fear. Here you have the opportunity to share some time with people from all over the nation. Maybe it is the fact that everyone is out of their element on these journeys that stirs up entertaining conversation. I think that it is just the scenery. Whatever the reason, you might find the dining car attendants asking you to leave your table so they can serve others or clean up the diner. They’ll only ask after about an hour of just conversing after finishing your meal.
Amtrak Versus Weekend Excursion Trains
Many claim that occasional excursions over freight only railroads can replace Amtrak. I have ridden many excursion trains. They are very different from Amtrak. They run between two points with no stops. They are slow and run on bad track. They do not offer sleeping accommodations. You might have to hurry to finish your box meal. There is no diner. They just are not the same.
Amtrak, on the other hand, closely approximates the experience of riding the rails in the glory days before the nation lost interest in traveling by rail. That was a time when the passenger train was the only way to get from point A to point B. Amtrak allows one to recall a day when you could drive a few blocks to your community depot and ride the train literally anywhere in the nation. There was even a way to travel by train from McCook, Nebraska to Lawton, Oklahoma.
Maybe the Western routes should belong to the National Parks Service. This might sound far fetched, but what better way is there to see our great contrasts of our nation but from a passenger train? If you want to get up close to the nature you are viewing from your window, get off at one of the many stations online, spend a couple of days, and get back on when you are ready. Amtrak is a National Treasure and it would be a shame to shut it down.
Amtrak is not perfect. It can run extremely late. The service folk might not be the most helpful or even polite. The ride might be bumpy in places. However, Amtrak is an adventure and if you treat it as such you will enjoy your experience. Take delays as an opportunity to spend some more time on the train. Do not be in a hurry to get to you destination or to the diner. Lose yourself in time and space. Think about what it took to build the rails on which you are flowing. Listen to the rails sing and explore the train with childlike curiosity. Take the opportunity to mingle with your fellow passengers in the lounge car.
Amtrak can be improved. There need to be more routes. Oklahoma has not had Amtrak service since 1978. There are no North-South routes West of Arkansas or East of California. Hopefully this will change this Spring when Oklahoma is scheduled to get a portion of its service back. Existing routes should increase service. It is not very enjoyable to board a train at 1:00am. If Amtrak were to run multiple trains carted as “morning” and “evening” twelve hours removed, everyone could experience the joy of this getaway. For example, Amtrak could run a second train through Lincoln where a 1:00am train arrival could become a 1:00pm equivalent. Amtrak should work on more high speed rail projects to further justify its Western routes to fill a niche market.
Most of all Amtrak should scrap the almost laughable effort to become self-sufficient. While Amtrak’s express shipping business is making a slight uptick in the bottom line, this service will more than likely be too little too late. Amtrak would be better served to continue its lazy asset evaluations while at the same time lobbying Congress as to the benefits of Amtrak to our nation. We need transportation alternatives to the airplane and the automobile. Not every community is served by air and we cannot continue to pay for expensive road expansion projects which in most cases funds are exhausted before one foot yard of road is drawn.
Amtrak is a shadow of what it should be. Its skeletal route structure does not allow equal access by all United States citizens and visitors. Therefore, it is not used to its fullest extent. Congress have constricted its growth by refusing to provide the capital required to give the carrier a fighting chance in the monopolistic transportation community. The capital provided today is only enough to replace its aging locomotives and rolling stock. Operational funding is just enough to keep the shaky operation from falling. One is left to ask, what could Amtrak be if provided with an infusion of capital sufficient to really become a national transportation force?
The problem is that we, as a society, argue about the fate of what exists today on a micro scale which seems insignificant and we refuse to examine what could exist tomorrow with a little effort. Amtrak today is still exactly what it was when it was created: A small hush puppy for a misunderstood minority who prefer to take the train. Tomorrow’s Amtrak could be a major force in our transportation infrastructure and a history viewscope. Or it could be a heap of rusting metal formed out of dashed hopes and political incompetence.