Thursday, November 6, 2008

In Good Times and Bad, I Love Trains

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with passenger trains and train travel. Or, perhaps, an obsession. (My wife calls trains "the other woman.")

It began as a child. Each night I’d get in the car with my mother to pick up my father at the railroad station. It was a very exciting for a three-year old. We’d get there a few minutes early and sit quietly. Suddenly, the crossing gates would come alive with lights flashing, bells ringing and the gates automatically lowering to block traffic. “Ding-ding sticks,” I called them back then.

A few seconds later, an air whistle would sound four blasts. Then the train, itself, would rush into the station. Finally, the best part: all the Daddies, including mine, would come from behind the train, cross the tracks and walk to the waiting cars to be reunited with wives and families after a long day at work.

Much has transpired in the half century since my early childhood. The 1950s marked the beginning to a steep decline in passenger train travel in the United States that would not abate until the formation of Amtrak in 1971. Though most of the casualties were crack intercity passenger trains like the Phoebe Snow, Twentieth Century Limited and California Zephyr, commuter services took hits, as well. Service ended on New York Central’s West Shore and Putnam commuter lines in metropolitan New York, the New Haven’s Old Colony lines out of Boston and Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric lines, the “red cars” of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame. One of the worst blows was the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, replaced by two sterile office towers and a new Madison Square Garden.

Passenger rail fortunes have waxed and waned with the whims of government policy. Beginning in the 1960s, it was government intervention that saved the American passenger train from extinction. In 1966, New York State purchased the Long Island Rail Road from the Pennsylvania Railroad. The following year, the federally funded Aldene Plan enabled the Central Railroad of New Jersey to relocate its remaining passenger trains from an aging, isolated terminal in Jersey City to Penn Station Newark, where passengers could connect with trains to Manhattan.

But, those early initiatives amounted to little more than keeping the remaining passenger trains on life support.
Rolling stock and infrastructure were aging and in need of replacement or massive investments. Many of the freight railroads these trains ran over, including the Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Reading, Boston & Maine and Rock Island would declare bankruptcy.

In the mid 1970s, things would begin to improve, a bit.
Amtrak was able to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars. In 1976, the government formed Conrail to acquire the assets of six bankrupt Northeast railroads and operate a slimmed down system. In the process, most of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington was conveyed to Amtrak, which received $2 billion to upgrade the New YorkWashington segment.

However, Conrail had no interest in operating commuter trains, and service continued to worsen.
Finally, in the 1980s, state governments stepped up in a major way forming new entities, notably Metro North, NJ Transit and SEPTA, to take over services run by Conrail.

Since the 1980s, commuter rail, also known as regional rail, has undergone a renaissance.
In Boston, the MBTA restored service on the aforementioned Old Colony lines and increased frequencies on other routes. SEPTA built a tunnel under Center City Philadelphia to link the former Reading and Pennsylvania routes and facilitate through service. New commuter lines started up around the country in northern Virginia, South Florida, Nashville, Dallas-Fort Worth, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and Seattle. Others are in development.

A new mode – light rail, basically a trolley car on steroids – has been successfully introduced to Buffalo, San Diego, Jersey City, Camden, Baltimore, Charlotte, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle and other large cities.
In addition, new heavy rail rapid transit lines were built in Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. According to the American Public Transportation Association, light rail ridership in the United States doubled between 1997 and 2007.

Despite continual threats from the Reagan Administration to eliminate its funding, Amtrak operated a fairly stable system through the 1980s under the leadership of CEO W. Graham Claytor Jr., while improving its operating ratio.
However, after Claytor’s retirement in the early 1990s, the railroad’s financial performance worsened, and in 1994 a report by Mercer Management Consulting called for the elimination of several money-losing runs, among them the Montrealer, Gulf Breeze, Atlantic City Express, Desert Wind, Pioneer and Broadway Limited, the former flagship of the once-omnipotent Pennsylvania Railroad.

Adding fuel to the fire, Congress, which was now controlled by conservative Republicans, enacted legislation requiring Amtrak to achieve “operational self sufficiency” by 2002 or face liquidation.
The railroad’s new CEO, George Warrington, carried out several strategies intended to achieve that objective, including extending electrification from New Haven to Boston, introducing a new high-speed train, the Acela Express to replace the aging Metroliners, and expanding mail and express traffic.

These initiatives fell short, and Amtrak began mortgaging assets, including its Penn Station real estate in midtown Manhattan, to raise cash in order to avoid liquidation.
Shortly after the extent of its financial condition became known in 2002, Warrington resigned to become executive director of NJ Transit.

His successor, David Gunn, fixed problems with the Acela and exited the mail and express business.
He also stood up to the Bush administration and other Amtrak critics, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate for President. But, in 2005 Amtrak’s Board of Directors fired Gunn for his refusal to prepare the railroad for privatization, in line with Bush administration wishes.

Gunn’s successor, Alexander Kummant, has taken a more conciliatory tone toward Congress.
His tenure has benefited from a Democratic Congress elected in 2006. Earlier this year, Congress reauthorized Amtrak at $13 million over five years; about double current funding levels. President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has commuted to Washington from Delaware on Amtrak for over 30 years, are expected to be more supportive of Amtrak, as well.

For 2007-08, Amtrak achieved record ridership of 28.7 million.
A major factor was higher gas prices, which drove riders out of cars and onto trains. Much of its ridership growth has come from routes operated in partnership with the states, including the Downeaster (Maine), Lincoln Corridor (Illinois), Cascades (Washington and Oregon, and Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol corridors (California).

The political environment and energy concerns bode well for the growth of intercity and regional passenger rail in the United States.
However, the economic environment is a clear threat since it will be difficult to fund major projects in a weak economy. Nevertheless, an encouraging development this week was the passage of California Proposition 1A, which authorizes a $10 billion bond issue to finance a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, roughly the equivalent distance of the Northeast Corridor.

This blog will offer news, analysis and commentary on all aspects of passenger rail service and train travel in the United States - intercity, regional, heavy rail, light rail and tourist - although the emphasis will be on the first two. I hope you will come along for the ride.
If the next 50 years are anything like the last 50, it’s going to be fun.


  1. Sure, the MBTA did add the Old Colony commuter rail extension, but they would have been better off trying to expand he commuter rail system to underserved parts of Massachusetts. Commuters who can use the Old Colony line also are in driving distance to subway stations and commuter boat service. The commuter boat servic has seen a drop in passengers, since the Old Colony comuter rail basically bastardized passengers.

    Massacusetts residents who live in either MetroWest, Central Mass, Western Mass or the Seacoast area have limited options. Instead of making sure that these residents have mass transit options, the T just touts the "new" Old Colony line.

  2. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.
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