29 October 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 1 – History

Though many people are not old enough to know this by having lived through it, Amtrak did not invent the passenger train in the United States.  Amtrak was created by the federal government in 1971 to preserve what was left of passenger rail service operated by private railroad companies after decades of decline.

A note about the photos you see enlivening this post.  The picture above was taken by Steve Schmollinger near Colfax, Calif. in July 1973.  The other photos you'll see from here on are courtesy of Larry Mack, and snapped in the Midwest during the same time period of the early 1970s, which is known as Amtrak's "rainbow era".  You'll read why it's called that later.  Thank you, Steve and Larry!

Branch-line passenger service had begun to drop in the 1920s as automobile ownership increased and the reach of paved roads grew.  That drop in ridership coupled with the Depression resulted in many short-distance passenger trains being discontinued prior to WWII.  During the war, passenger traffic exploded on all lines, in part due to wartime rationing of gasoline and tires, though service was ragged due to unprecedented demand.

Although after the war railroads invested heavily in new, streamlined passenger railroad equipment for longer distance travel, by the mid-1950s it was clear that more and more of the public was leaving the rails for the sky or for their own cars operated over the ever expanding interstate highway network.

This decline in ridership was not identical from railroad to railroad.  Some fought to retain passengers through enhanced service, but others lost interest altogether and claimed, sometimes dubiously, about the deep losses they suffered operating passenger service.  Two western railroads were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant carrier within California and along the Pacific Coast, became notorious by the 1960s for its bad service and zeal for discontinuing trains.  (Railroads could not unilaterally discontinue trains as they were heavily regulated by the government.  Discontinuance petitions had to be made to the Interstate Commerce Commission which by no means was a rubber stamp for the railroads.)

On the other hand, the Santa Fe Railway maintained impeccable service standards aboard its trains up until the end.  While it did discontinue a number of secondary trains and shorter distance trains, the trains it continued to operate (such as the famous Super Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles) were consistently top-notch.

One of the last things that kept many passenger trains in the black – carriage of the U.S. Mail in baggage cars on passengers trains – was largely eliminated in 1967.  By the late 1960s it was clear to the public and to policy makers that passenger trains were endangered and the railroads were clamoring for some kind of relief: government subsidies, a government takeover of passenger trains, or blanket permission to discontinue any trains they wished.

By 1970 a discussion was well underway in Congress, and between the Nixon Administration and Congress, which ultimately resulted in the bill that created Amtrak.  (This is politically ironic, because in general it has been Republicans over the years who have used Amtrak has a punching bag, even though Amtrak was created under a Republican president.)

In brief, the plan offered railroads the opportunity to lose their financial responsibility for operating passenger trains by buying into Amtrak with their passenger railroad equipment and cash.  All of the major railroads except three (Rock Island, Southern, and Denver Rio Grande & Western) chose to participate from its inception.

As the countdown to Amtrak’s takeover of passenger rail service on 1 May 1971 began, many people began taking their last rides on trains that would not survive the transition to Amtrak.  The route network authorized by the bill that created Amtrak was skeletal compared to what the railroads had chosen to operate (or were required to operate) even with all of the train-off notices of the postwar years.

Below are maps of the U.S. intercity rail service at the end of the private railroad era (30 April 1971) and at the beginning of the Amtrak era (1 May 1971).  (Maps are scanned from "Journey To Amtrak", recommended at the end of this post for further reading.)

Because so many trains had already been discontinued in California prior to Amtrak, the cuts were probably less severe than elsewhere.  Trains in northern California that made their last runs on 30 April 1971 included Southern Pacific’s Del Monte (San Francisco-Monterey), the San Joaquin Daylight (Oakland-Los Angeles) and the Redwood (Willits-Eureka), as well as the Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief (Chicago-Richmond, Calif).  (Western Pacific’s California Zephyr did not live to see Amtrak; it was discontinued in March 1970, although the name would be resurrected a number of years later by Amtrak for a train that only partly used the same route as the original Zephyr.)

Southern Pacific’s Daylight (San Francisco-Los Angeles) and Cascade (overnight between Oakland and Portland) would be amalgamated into Amtrak’s Coast Starlight running from Seattle to Los Angeles.  Other than commuter service to San Jose, San Francisco has been without mainline intercity passenger rail service since 1971, except by way of the Amtrak bus connection to trains in Oakland and Emeryville.

The history of Amtrak itself is not the subject of this series as it would easily fill many posts.  A few key points are worth noting.

Initially most of the employees operating and staffing the trains remained on the payrolls of the railroads, although reimbursed by Amtrak.  This gradually changed, but since the late 1980s all of the employees – whether operating employees (engineers, conductors, etc.), on-board staff (dining car, sleeping car, etc.), station agents, call-center agents, maintenance, and so on, have been Amtrak employees.  Most non-management Amtrak employees are unionized, and represented by the same unions that employees of the now freight-only railroads are.  Amtrak employees, like their freight railroad brethren, are covered by Railroad Retirement, a separate system very much like Social Security.

It was a number of years before Amtrak ordered its own equipment (locomotives and passenger cars) so the initial years (roughly 1971-1974) are known as the "Rainbow Era", because the passenger cars that the railroads had to contribute in order to join Amtrak ended up being used all around the country.  A silver and red Southern Pacific car might be next to a green Burlington Northern car which was next to a golden yellow Union Pacific car.  Eventually all of this equipment would be painted in Amtrak’s own livery and look more or less the same.  Most - but not all - of this railroad hand-me-down equipment has been replaced by locomotives and cars ordered by Amtrak.

Amtrak has a president appointed by the Board of Directors; the Board is appointed by the president subject to confirmation by the Senate.  The Secretary of Transportation is an ex-oficio member of the Board.  While Amtrak runs its own affairs on a day-to-day basis and is technically a separate entity, it is highly subject to political interference both by friends and by enemies.  The federal government provides (some years) capital investment funds and annually supplies an operating allowance to make up the difference between revenue and expense.

Decisions about adding or cutting routes, have invariably involved input from Congress.  Historically the Democratic Party has been more inclined to support Amtrak, and the Republican Party to disdain it, but exceptions to that rule render it only a rough guide.  Under President Jimmy Carter several Amtrak routes were axed and Republican stalwarts former Senator Trent Lott and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have been two of Amtrak’s best friends.  Though invisible to the traveling public, Amtrak’s headquarters is in the upper floors of one of the nation’s busiest and prettiest train stations: Washington Union Station.   And coincidentally or not, the U.S. Capitol is just a few blocks walk in distance.

Amtrak is not the name of the corporation.  In fact, the official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but it has always done business publicly as Amtrak.

That’s enough history.

For further reading:

If you would like to read more about passenger trains before Amtrak, and the path that eventually led to Amtrak, here are three recommendations:

Wikipedia (this is a very detailed and useful Wikipedia entry)


Journey to Amtrak, edited by Harold Edmonson (1972)
This is about the decline of railroad operated passenger trains and the formation of Amtrak, and about the last months of private passenger service leading up to Amtrak day (1 May 1971) with lots of pictures of trains making their last runs.  (Used copies of this are a bargain at Amazon.)

Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred Frailey (1998)
Frailey examines eleven different railroads and their attitudes and policies concerning passenger service in the postwar years until they joined Amtrak.  Frailey writes exceptionally well, and presents the information in such a way that even readers who aren’t enthralled by trains will find this interesting from a business or historical perspective.  Excellent pictures and diagrams, too. (Available both new and used at Amazon.)

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Introduction
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South

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