Amtrak: Off the Tracks

THOMAS V. DIBACCO

September 26, 1993|By THOMAS V. DIBACCO

The terrible tragedy of Amtrak's Sunset Limited last week, in which 43 passengers perished, is the latest bad chapter in a woeful history of an American enterprise. In 1991, 13 people lost their lives on the Silver Star's run from New York to Miami.

Passenger trains in most other developed countries are the pride of their governments and riders, but in America, railroad history illustrates business, government and democracy at their worst.

Twenty-two years ago, for example, Amtrak was created by Congress with the mandate to take over the nation's faltering passenger trains and run them profitably, with decreasing subsidies from Uncle Sam.

After two decades, the most that can be said for Amtrak is that it is still alive, with an increasing ridership that is unlikely in the near future to relish the rides or fully pay its way.

Travelers evaluate trips according to three critical barometers: speed, comfort and price. Except in the Washington-New York corridor, neither speed nor comfort has been a hallmark of Amtrak.

On June 11, 1905, the Pennsylvania Railroad began an 18-hour train from New York to Chicago. Today, that same ride takes just about as long as it did 88 years ago, in coach seats that are not as comfortable or in Pullman accommodations that are run-down versions of their earlier counterparts.

Amtrak's Florida trains take more than a day to arrive at destinations for New York passengers, and the cross-country trains can boast mostly about the occasional glimpses of sometimes interesting -- and occasionally breathtaking -- scenery.

There are many reasons why Amtrak is almost destined not to improve the quality of service. First, some people will ride trains no matter the circumstances. Second, the system was in dire shape when the passenger trains were taken over. Third, no president or Congress since 1971 has been committed to spending the big bucks to use technology that other countries tout, even though billions have been spent on space exploration that has not touched the lives of many Americans.

Finally, the nation's history illustrates that the first big business -- railroads -- nurtured hostile attitudes and ultimately destructive federal regulation. Great Plains farmers after the Civil War are the classic villains in the scenario.

The trains, the farmers complained, were the recipients of too much free land, which should have been reserved for homesteaders. Their rates appeared to rip off farmers (no matter that they declined over the years). For instance, the tariff for hauling goods from point A to point B, a distance of 100 miles, might be 10 cents per unit, whereas the distance from A to point C, a 200-mile haul, might be only 15 cents.

To farmers who had no notion of scientific rate-making -- namely, that fixed costs would bear more heavily on short-haul rates than long ones -- such pricing appeared scandalous.

So distressed farmers got into training by seeking legislation. Other Americans would join them, for there were sufficient economic woes in the late 19th century that railroads (and big business in general) could readily become the objects of popular crusades -- as would anarchism, gold and silver, and territorial expansion.

In such a democratic frenzy, the Interstate Commerce Act was passed in 1887. To be sure, the act's history would illustrate some accomplishments in dealing with real railroad problems and abuses. But the act's identification of trains as bad prevented the Interstate Commerce Commission from rendering the positive guidance that would permit the system to deal with changing times.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1910: "I don't disguise . . . my disbelief that the Interstate Commerce Commission is a body to be entrusted with rate making. . . . I am so skeptical as to our knowledge of the goodness or badness of laws that have no practical criticism except what the crowd wants. Personally, I bet that the crowd, if it knew more, wouldn't want what it wants."

Justice Holmes was ultimately right: the ICC presided over the railroads' demise. Prudent economic medicine would come in recent years for freight trains, but too late to aid the passenger component, which by 1970, not surprisingly, was running up massive deficits for the private companies.

Amtrak is an anomaly -- neither totally private nor adequately government subsidized. It's like the United States Postal Service, also created in 1971. And after two decades, neither is worth riding home on or writing home about.

Thomas DiBacco is a historian at The American University in Washington, and the author of "Made in the U.S.A.: The History of American Business."

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