Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

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Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby lattasnipe9 » Tue Apr 21, 2009 10:13 am

In Alfred B. Runte's book, Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation he argues that not only the public, but the railroads also, were at fault for the demise of the passenger train in the U.S. in the 50's and 60's. Is it true that their original status as utilities and not completely private corporations should have been kept, as well as their status as common carriers? Should they have kept their passenger service? Were the railroads being selfish? Or were they being realistic that passenger rail was completely impractical and should be abandoned?


and please stay on topic.
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A Question Not Easily Examined

Postby 2nd trick op » Tue Apr 21, 2009 7:22 pm

There have been literally thousands of posts on the passenger issue at the Amtrak forum over the years. As was recently noted, it was 50 years ago that Trains, the foremost rail hobbyist magazine, noted the growing un-sustainability of passenger service, caught between the speed advantage of the airlines and the growing affordability of the personal auto. An ICC official named Howard Hosmer predicted the end of the private passenger service by 1970.

Economic forces came close to proving Mr. Hosmer right. The Post Office cancelled a large number of the remaining contracts for hauling mail in 1967, and express business, which was never handled by the long-distance streamliners that are too often identified as typical "passenger trains" in the public mindset, continued to desert the Railway Express Agency in favor of United Parcel Service. The only exceptions were commuter service and densely-populated "corridors" where short distances and traffic congestion worked in the railroads' favor.

But by 1970, it was becoming apparent that a lot of people, mostly carless and/or elderly, would not reconcile themselves to a air-centered system, so Amtrak was created to fill the gap. But with the "head-end" mail and express business no longer there and the new service modeled after a "loss leader" public-relations effort, the system never had a hope of turning an accounting profit.

In the intervening years, increasing congestion has made rail service a suitable option in a growing number of markets, but the costs don't reflect the burden of an indirect susbsidy provided by the host freight railroads in many cases. If economic pressures, particularly a rising cost of fuel, favor putting more freight back on the rails, and for shorter distances, the pressure is going to intensify, Speaking as someone who minored in Transport Economics, it's going to take a lot of ink and air time to explain this to the public.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby walt » Tue Apr 21, 2009 9:23 pm

A crucial point here in the previous post is the fact that the "typical" passenger train was not the stainless steel car equipped express or limited long distance streamliners that we now celebrate when we talk about the old privately operated passenger trains. The "typical" passenger train ( and the trains that carried the mail and express merchandise) was a much slower local, or almost local train, whose terminal cities were "intermediate " points, rather than being the terminal cities of the "crack varnish". ( ie the Phildephia- NYC Clockers of the PRR, or any number of trains which originated in Philly and terminated in DC)--- and whose equipment was old--- PRR's P-70 coaches come to mind in this regard.

These trains were not very comfortable ( I made a trip from Grand Central to Boston's South Station on one of these kind of trains back in the 1960's-- a "Red Eye" which seemed to spend more time sitting in numerous stations than actually moving) and are not lamented by most of us when we harken back to the "golden years" of privately operated passenger service.-- Yet-- these were the trains which made whatever money was being made by railroad passenger service, and these were the trains which had the greatest difficulty competing with the airplane, the private automobile, and even the intercity bus. So I would agree-- its not whether the private railroads should have retained their passenger operations. In the world of the late 1960's, they couldn't keep operating these services if they wanted to survive.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby Typewriters » Wed Apr 22, 2009 4:08 pm

You wrote: Is it true that their original status as utilities and not completely private corporations should have been kept, as well as their status as common carriers?

Well, by the time frame in question the railroads were all for-profit, private corporations competing against government-funded highways (through taxes) and government-funded airports (through taxes) all the while paying taxes on their own property and equipment. No corporation would have continued profitless business lines simply for the sake of the traveling public who was abandoning the rails in droves for the aforementioned highways and airways. The federal government was making the entire country pay for new superhighways; why should the railroads have spent their own money on new trains and services? What they were spending on new infrastructure at the time was spent on intermodal, which we used to call 'piggyback' which went hand in hand with the highway construction.

Should they have kept their passenger service?

No. It was losing money. Railroads were petitioning to drop all passenger service within a few years after the end of the Second World War.

Were the railroads being selfish?

Selfish? No, the responsibility of the boards of directors were to the shareholders, not the federal government or the traveling public. Remember- the federal government had decided already what the transportation scheme of the future was, and was taxing everyone and spending incredible amounts of money to get it built. It wasn't passenger trains; it was airports, and superhighways.

Or were they being realistic that passenger rail was completely impractical and should be abandoned?

It's not completely impractical. It's over-rated, misunderstood and every so often propped up as another way to get nasty smoggy cars off the road -- roads that were all built with our tax dollars twenty to fifty years ago when the government had different ideas.

Your post is hinting very strongly that the American railroads should have been, or should be, federalized (like they are in much of Europe.) It's right there -- "not completely private." Is that the thrust of the book from which you quote?

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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby lattasnipe9 » Wed Apr 22, 2009 7:40 pm

[quote] Is that the thrust of the book from which you quote? [/quote]

No, it is only one chapter from the book. The majority of the book is focused on the fact that America, in its car and airplane addiction, has fallen out of love with the beautiful landscape of the country. The solution that Runte conveys is that we need passenger trains to help us 1) to fall in love with the landscape again, and 2) to be effective stewards of of our ever decreasing landscape and limited natural resources.
The exact quote:
"Is it socialism to force railroads to acknowledge their obligation? No, it is civilization. Such labeling is a dodge meant to evade the responsibility. The label is there to arouse everyone's emotions in the hopes they will not think. Whether you are a socialist, capitalist, or communist, the fact is that railroads are utilities. All countries need utilities, regardless of what they call their governments.
"In the United States, when utilities are government regulated, the public does not call it socialism, but likely the utilities do. It is the utilities that prefer no regulation. It is the corporations that equate regulation with inefficiency, hoping to escape it. Regulation does not hold a utility hostage; rather, it holds it accountable. We know this and yet continue to be fooled" (155).

So maybe instead of keeping the RR's not completely private, I meant we should hold them accountable.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby walt » Wed Apr 22, 2009 8:59 pm

From the passages quoted here, it appears that Mr. Runte is charging the railroads with a responsibility they never had, and never could have. The only responsibility that the railroads ever had, and the reason they were developed was to move people and goods from point A to point B. It is not the railroads' responsibility to make us fall in love with our landscapes, this can only fall on each of us as individuals. And there are some who would argue that the "beauty of the landscape" is not well preserved when there is a six track railroad ROW running through it, especially if it is electrified with catenary and towers and substations, etc. Private passenger railroad service failed because it became impossible for the railroads to move people from point A to Point B and make money doing so, and their much more profitable freight operations ( the only thing they do today) could not continue to subsidize the losses sustained in operating passenger service.

Defining railroads as utilities does not make them responsible for anything more than moving goods ( or people if they decide to resume this activity.) Electric Power Companies---- utilities----- exist for one purpose--- to generate and distribute electric power. They are not responsible for anything else. When they are regulated it is to keep the prices they charge all of us for this essential service at affordable levels, not to make them responsible for making us love the landscape ( or even love the companies themselves). The same is true for railroads-- whether or not we define them as utilities.
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Don't Shoot From the Hip

Postby 2nd trick op » Thu Apr 23, 2009 1:45 pm

So maybe instead of keeping the RR's not completely private, I meant we should hold them accountable.


The problem here is "Accountable to whom? and for what?"

Mr. Runte seemes to me to be just one more voice in the cacaphony of special interests who hve descended upon the Nation's capital since January 20, each thinking that they know what's best for everybody on a particular issue, and determined to have it at the expense of everybody else.

While some in the Administration are quick to praise the supposed refinement and esthetics of European rail travel, they neglect to recognize that:

(1) the subsisdy required is politically acceptable because the private auto has always been taxed and penalized as a luxury in Socialist Europe

(2) Despite the "showpiece" trains highlighted by public relations gestures, Europe also relies heavily on what in America used to be called "accomodation" trains -- gritty local services geared to an economy-conscious market, as Mr. Walt described above.

(3) The few long-distance trains Amtrak can support are not suited for local service to many of the areas of low population density through which they pass, more often than not once every 24 hours, in the dead of night.

(4) The resurgence in the railroads' market share of freight traffic since the work rules were refomed in 1985 has strained the capacity of a system which has been almost completely re-built, centralized, and made much more efficient, with no taxpayer expense other than the tremporary custody of Conrail, which was then broken up, sold back to the private sector, and today operates at a tax-contributing profit.

In addition, it should be noted that two generations ago, the daily operation of American railroads was much more closely knit into the fabric of daily life. Every community of consequence had a passenger station, a freight house and "team tracks" where smaller localized shipments were handled, and usually, a train order office or tower where local operations were monitored. The concentration of our industry in larger facilities has diminished the size and scope of this interface, while an increasingly diverse, urbanized and feminized society and media have narrowed the channels of communication as compared to the days when most American males grew up with somewhat more familiarity with everyday rail operations.

Nothing would please this writer more than to see more attention drawn to the dilemnae facing the entire American transportation system in the wake of the ongoing shift in the single greatest governing market factor -- energy. But a critique drawn largely upon the esthetics of a small group who are not familiar with both the underlying economic and engineering constraints which govern a very concentrated, capital-intensive industry, which in turn cannot respond to superficial political pressure whith anything close to the speed and/or detail imagined by the general public, will only intensify the current polarization and paralysis.

Again, the issue need not necessarily be a battleground, but the supporting facts mandate very careful study before major changes are initiated.

And we'd all welcome regular participation by new members at the Amtrak forum, where most of the really stimulating discusssions originate.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby Gilbert B Norman » Sun May 03, 2009 12:18 pm

First, here is a Google excerpt from Mr. Runte's work:

http://books.google.com/books?id=7LqvHC ... 1#PPR16,M1

Now to continue, and from one who has been following railroad industry affairs for close to sixty years (including eleven "on the inside'), there is no way in a world with numerous alternate freight and passenger resources that continuation of a regulated public utility could be justified. The industry should have been deregulated long before 1980; had it been so, the 1970's 'Dark Ages", during which I was employed within, could have been avoided.

But now to turn to the micrcosim of passenger service (and how else could a line of business contributing maybe 10% of the revenue fifty years ago and maybe 2% today be viewed - Amtrak and all commuter agencies each about 1%). Again the only position the industry held from llikely 1960 onward was OUT. By the mid-50's, the North Eastern and North Central roads had "had it', by 1965, the Western roads had also "had it'.

I'm not certain if the initiative that resulted in RPSA '70 and, pursuant to such, Amtrak arose from the "can't drive/won't fly' or any of the constituencies noted by Mr. Runte in his work, but rail passenger service was regulated and as such, the industry was not free to do as GM did to the Pontiac brand last week. Quite simply, the total discontinuance of all service would have been too much of a "cold water shower'.

While most of the roads operating passenger trains signed up (those that did not did so because the terms were unfavorable account individual reasons relating only to their property), had the offer been 'you have the choice to sign up and enjoy some benefits from doing so or you can get out NOW, I guarantee you Amtrak would have been stillborn" (possible "benefits - dubious indeed; cash flow as Amtrak pays up front, cash flow from overrides arising from assumption of liability- same as an insurance company enjoys - as well as management fees, minimization of employee protection payments under the Act (Appendix C-1), employee transportation, and a means to move Offive Cars -"PV"'s- about their systems).

However, to the extent the water cooler in my office proved to be a reliable source about anything, the industry was given assurances that "live with it for five years and at that time it will at least be going, going'. It could be held that the Carter Cuts, coming some eight years into the Amtrak era, represented the first step towards that understanding. Only problem, that understanding shall we say died after the 1996 Mercer Cuts - and those cuts only addressed services that had been added, largely by political fiat, subsequent to A-Day.

All told, I'm certain contemporary railroad management considers signing up with Amtrak to be a "bad deal' and just one more case of "if you let government in, how do you get rid of 'em?" (I'm fearful of what the auto and banking industries are about to find out). Had the railroads simply stayed out, I'm certain there would be Northeast Corridor service operating over 'ward of the State" Penn Central (instead of RRR '73 providing "no passenger service' , the legislation would simply said "and passenger' - how else do things work in the Potomac Wonderland?). REgarding other services, I'm certain many would have been gone during 1976 when the five year moratorium under RPSA '70 expired - and ALL would have been gone when Staggers (dereg) was implemented.

In view of being 'duped' by RPSA '70 into joining Amtrak, it is simply no wonder that when two US roads, the KCS and the UP, made substantial inverstment in the State owned Mexican railway system, they simply laid down the condition precedent of NO passenger trains. Those existing, would be gone - and "don't even THINK of a Mextrak'.

Finally, even though I find little if any justification for continuing passenger trains outside of regions with sufficient population to support commuter and intercity Corridors operating over publicly owned rights of way, I do enjoy an occasional Long Distance ride; in fact, when it appeared, that during 2008, I was not going to use Auto Train for my (almost) annual Florida journey, I took a joyride.
Last edited by Gilbert B Norman on Mon May 04, 2009 7:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby John_Perkowski » Sun May 03, 2009 6:03 pm

The simple fact is this:

President Johnson, in creating the US Postal Service and eliminating the US Post Office Department (it WAS a Cabinet agency), signed off on eliminating the Railway Mail Service. That was done so the nascent corporation would have seed money for big sorting centers (the kind that exist today).

As bad as passenger losses were, the Railway Mail Service contracts kept an awful lot of railroad Passenger Traffic Departments afloat. When that subsidy ended in the fall of 1967, it was Katy Bar the Door: The train-off petitions arrived at the ICC daily.

I have a picture of UP Train 17, the Portland Rose, at Manhattan KS. One shot was August 1967: Several working RPOs, a bunch of sealed mail and express, several coaches, a Pullman, and an old HW diner serving as a cafe-lounge. The second shot is one year later: 1 baggage, two coaches, that's it. What happened in the interim? RPO service ended.

No, the economic reality is the railroads got the short end of that decision. Thank you, Mr Great Society Liberal LBJ.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby george matthews » Mon May 04, 2009 12:25 pm

Gilbert B Norman wrote:In view of being 'duped' by RPSA '70 into joining Amtrak, it is simply no wonder that when two US roads, the KCS and the UP, made substantial inverstment in the State owned Mexican railway system, they simply laid down the condition precedent of NO passenger trains. Those existing, would be gone - and "don't even THINK of a Mextrak'.

You know what I think of that.
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Culture Clash

Postby 2nd trick op » Wed May 06, 2009 5:10 pm

Mr. Matthews, as a student of international politics, you certainly are aware that Mexico has, since the coming of stable, but (until recently) one-party democracy, maintained a policy of resistance to outside interference in its affairs, snubbing even the Vatican, has until recently had a history of working-class solidarity and mild mistrust of intellectuals, and has an age distribution within its population skewed toward the young. (source: Enrique Krause, Mexico; Biography of Power)

None of those trends augured well for the preservation of the traditional long-distance service eliminated in Mexico by bureaucratic fiat; the scenario of political insiders agreeing beforehand to shelve a service of limitied potential is believable, but that of the Yanqui imperialistas stomping on the dreams of the downtrodden is a bit far-fetched.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby Gilbert B Norman » Thu May 07, 2009 7:09 am

Messrs. 2nd trick and Matthews, my statement was made here on reasonably sound authority that the two US roads, KCS and UP, simply said that getting rid of the existing passenger trains and not to have any thoughts about a MEXTRAK was condition precedent for us to sit down at the table. The Mexican government wanted to get out of the railroad business, the US roads foresaw traffic opportunities both from liberalized trade under NAFTA as well as development of maritime ports to relieve LA/LB congestion; ergo, the key element of any successful negotiation was on the table - benefits for both parties.

In the environment of one-party rule, "don't even THINK of a MEXTRAK", was easily attainable.

Now the demographics noted by Mr. 2nd Trick are of interest likely because I was unaware of such; they appear to echo those of the emerging Asian economies of China and India, where the youth "flush' (well at least until the current economic climate) with Yuan and Rupees have shown that they prefer personal transportation to the mass variety. But had there been a continuation of the relatively well patronized trains I noted traveling about Mexico as late as 1975, with all Pullman trains on the Mexico-Monterrey and Mexico-Guadalajara routes, I'm certain the transformation of "the Interior" into the present lawless state, would quickly have rendered any existing intercity passenger rail system a useless appendage.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby george matthews » Thu May 07, 2009 9:15 am

I'm certain the transformation of "the Interior" into the present lawless state, would quickly have rendered any existing intercity passenger rail system a useless

Or kept the interior still law abiding and not feeling abandoned.

But my point is that transport policy should be made in the public interest by governments, not by unaccountable "private" corporations.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby scharnhorst » Sun May 17, 2009 4:03 pm

I rember reading that the Canadian Pacific got out of passenger service because it was getting expensive and rider ship slowed by half but they did say that they never got out of the business all together they just handed the service to the Canadian Government when VIA Rail was formed.
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Re: Should the railroads have kept their passenger service?

Postby wjstix » Fri Oct 22, 2010 4:52 pm

[quote="John_Perkowski"]

I have a picture of UP Train 17, the Portland Rose, at Manhattan KS. One shot was August 1967: Several working RPOs, a bunch of sealed mail and express, several coaches, a Pullman, and an old HW diner serving as a cafe-lounge. The second shot is one year later: 1 baggage, two coaches, that's it. What happened in the interim? RPO service ended.

quote]

I've seen similar pics of NP's Mainstreeter in that time, it went from 12-14 cars to about 6 in the last years.

As far as "Liberal LBJ" it's interesting that he'd be criticized for ending a government subsidy and telling private businesses they have to sink or swim on their own...I thought that's what Conservatives wanted?? :wink:

p.s. USPS actually came into existence in 1971 under Nixon.
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