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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 (
The political environment and energy concerns bode well for the growth of intercity and regional passenger rail in the
This blog will offer news, analysis and commentary on all aspects of passenger rail service and train travel in the