After 20 Years, Amtrak Continues to Defy Predictions of its Critics

May 05, 1991|By FRED RASMUSSEN

Optimists were in short supply in 1971. When Presiden Richard M. Nixon signed the legislation creating Amtrak, many critics viewed this last desperate attempt to save the intercity passenger train as nothing more than a visit by the undertaker to a terminally ill patient. Passenger trains, critics thought, would be consigned within a few short years to the American technological attic, next to the Conestoga wagon and the overnight packet boat.

It didn't happen.

On Wednesday, Amtrak was able to light twenty candles on its birthday cake and found itself wallowing not only in public acceptance but congressional acceptance. And it was actually beginning to pay a goodly share -- 72 percent -- of the cost of its operation from revenues.

Amtrak, a semipublic corporation created by the Rail Passenger Act of 1970, was designed to be self-supporting eventually. Private railroads were able to turn over their intercity passenger service to Amtrak, paying it in money, equipment or services. In return they received Amtrak stock. The Department of Transportation is also issued stock based on the amount of federal support.

Today Amtrak operates 252 trains daily over 24,000 route miles and serves 574 cities and communities. In fiscal 1990, 22.2 million passengers traveled 6.1 billion passenger miles in and generated $1.3 billion in revenues, an increase of more than 100 percent in the last decade.

These figures are all well above those for Amtrak's first full year of operation, when it ran 200 trains over 23,000 route miles and served 380 communities. Passengers hauled amounted to 16.6 million and revenues were $162.6 million.

The high water mark of the American passenger train was in 1918 when the trains carried 1.08 billion passengers over a steel network that added up to 254,000 miles.

The slow decline of the passenger train began in the 1920s, with the rise of commercial aviation and the automobile. Planes were faster, even if somewhat terrifying, and the auto allowed a greater sense of flexibility in traveling that a railroad schedule didn't.

The World War II years saw the American passenger train taxed to capacity between moving the civilian populace as well as the armed forces across the country.

The postwar years, in spite of the introduction of new, stylish, stainless steel streamliners, trains failed to capture the imagination of the American traveling public, which still remembered the horrors of train travel during wartime.

Thus began the long march toward liquidation in the 1950s, when service cutbacks and protracted battles with the Interstate Commerce Commission became the norm. Railroads sought to eliminate passenger service, reducing red ink and restructuring operations around their more profitable freight traffic.

The Interstate Highway Act, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, hastened the decline of the long distance passenger train. The traveling public in ever-increasing numbers turned toward the heavens and the highways to get here from there.

The great trains, so long a fixture in the American psyche, had become by the late 1950s and 1960s dirty, late and operated by disgruntled crews. It was like, to quote the American humorist Robert Benchley, "traveling third-class in Bulgaria."

There were those, however, who envisioned the long term effects of air and ground gridlock as well as environmental damage caused by a lopsided national transportation policy that excluded the passenger train as a means for moving people.

Amtrak became the last hope for the Federal government to work with private enterprise in saving what remained of the intercity network. It wasn't to be an easy task.

At Amtrak's birth in 1971, most of the equipment received from the participating railroads was in bad shape, 20 years old on average.

The turn-around began with orders for new cars and locomotives. Stations were spruced up and in some cases; Baltimore's Penn Station, for example, was eventually restored to its 1911 grandeur. Trains were made to run on time. The new corporation, attempting to woo riders back to the rails, created such slogans as "Tracks are back" and "We're making the trains worth riding again."

But Amtrak's great strides accomplished in the last decade very much belong to its president W. Graham Claytor Jr.

Mr. Claytor, a native Virginian and Harvard-educated lawyer, joined the Southern Railway Co. after World War II. In 1982, at the age of 71, he was appointed president of Amtrak and immediately brought to his new employer his vast expertise in railroading.

Very much a hands-on executive, he actually rides his railroad, not in some plush private office car, but rather as a regular coach or first-class passenger seeing and feeling what the regular traveler experiences.

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