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Amtrak in the Heartland

Amtrak in the Heartland

by Craig Sanders


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"Craig Sanders has done an excellent job of research . . . his treatment is as comprehensive as anyone could reasonably wish for, and solidly based. In addition, he succeeds in making it all clear as well as any human can. He also manages to inject enough humor and human interest to keep the reader moving." —Herbert H. Harwood, author of The Lake Shore Electric Railway Story and Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland's Van Sweringen Brothers

A complete history of Amtrak operations in the heartland, this volume describes conditions that led to the passage of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, the formation and implementation of Amtrak in 1970–71, and the major factors that have influenced Amtrak operations since its inception. More than 140 photographs and 3 maps bring to life the story as told by Sanders. This book will become indispensable to train enthusiasts through its examination of Americans' long-standing fascination with passenger trains. When it began in 1971, many expected Amtrak to last about three years before going out of existence for lack of business, but the public's continuing support of funding for Amtrak has enabled it and the passenger train to survive despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253347053
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/11/2006
Series: Railroads Past and Present
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 626,612
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Craig Sanders teaches journalism and mass media communications at Cleveland State University. A lifelong railroad enthusiast, Sanders has published articles in Trains magazine, The Observation Car, and the Amtrak Historical Society magazine. His books include Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838–1971 (IUP, 2003). He lives in University Heights, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Amtrak in the Heartland

By Craig Snaders

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2006 Craig Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02793-1



Like the steady drumbeat of a funeral procession, they marched into eternity. The Phoebe Snow ... November 28, 1967. The Twentieth Century Limited ... December 3, 1967. The Golden State ... February 21, 1968. The Chief ... May 15, 1968. The California Zephyr ... March 22, 1970. Many surviving trains were pallid shadows of their former selves, often shorn of sleepers, diners, and lounges. When Missouri Pacific's Texas Eagle quit serving Dallas on May 31, 1969, it left one of the nation's 10 largest metropolitan areas without rail passenger service. South Dakota had no passenger trains after September 1969. Such railroads as Frisco, Kansas City Southern, Katy, and Monon carried only freight.

Once the ultimate in travel and the personification of their company's image, passenger trains were dropping like flies. They lost money. Few rode them because buses, planes, and automobiles were faster or more convenient. Their time simply had passed. Or so the railroads said. When Santa Fe, one of the nation's most pro-passenger railroads, said October 4, 1967, it would discontinue nearly half of its passenger trains, president John S. Reed recited the industry mantra: "Santa Fe did not abandon the traveling public; travelers show an increasing preference to fly or drive."

How could an institution so ingrained in the public consciousness and celebrated in popular culture be on the verge of extinction? Passenger trains once symbolized progress. Now they seemed to symbolize futility. "Who shot the passenger train?" asked Trains magazine in April 1959. Many had helped to pull the trigger, but if there was no shortage of villains, where was the white knight riding to the rescue?

The Railpax Plan

The door to government involvement in rail passenger service began opening in 1965 with passage of the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act, which spawned two 1969 demonstration projects. Metroliner service began January 16 between New York and Washington, and the United Aircraft Turbo Train began April 8 between New York and Boston.

Although the concept of government funding of rail passenger service for social benefit or to provide a balanced transportation network had yet to take root, the seeds that would germinate into Amtrak had been planted. In a speech in Phoenix on October 16, 1968, Richard J. Barber, deputy assistant to the secretary of transportation, suggested creation of a quasi-public corporation patterned after COMSAT. Barber said railroads did not necessarily need government subsidy, but they did need direction and guidance in raising capital for development of high-speed rail systems in congested urban corridors.

Anthony Haswell, a founder of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, called for a national passenger equipment pool maintained by a government-funded independent corporation. In a retreat from the industry's long-held stance that railroads be allowed to promptly discontinue money-losing trains, the Association of American Railroads board of directors in January 1969 voted to seek federal funding of passenger service and a government-owned equipment pool. Twenty-eight senators signed a resolution in June 1969 calling for a study of federal government intervention to save passenger service through subsidies or a government-industry public corporation. A month later, the Interstate Commerce Commission recommended government funding of passenger trains that railroads were forced to continue operating.

The federal government already financed aviation and highway development, but many policymakers were loath to help railroads, seeing direct assistance as benefiting large corporations. Public funding of airports helped airlines, and highway funding helped bus and trucking companies, but policymakers reasoned that all motorists benefited from highway projects and that general aviation benefited from airport development. Some government officials believed rail freight service generated noncompetitive revenue that made it possible for railroads to provide passenger service on a marginal cost-pricing basis.

Congressman Brock Adams of Washington introduced legislation in August 1969 to provide federal funding to rehabilitate and purchase new passenger equipment and to allow the ICC to set passenger service standards. Vance Hartke of Indiana, the new chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, introduced legislation providing federal funding of passenger trains. Among the three rail passenger plans the Federal Railroad Administration studied was creation of a quasi-public corporation called Rail pax (the telegraphic symbol for railroad passenger) that would operate a basic network of passenger trains. At a November hearing of Hartke's committee, FRA manager Reginald Whitman said railroads would finance Railpax in exchange for being excused from their obligation to provide passenger service.

The Railpax concept was not new. The 1961 Doyle Report had called for an entity similar to the Pullman Company to operate passenger trains. William Howes Jr., later director of passenger service for Baltimore & Ohio/Chesapeake & Ohio, had outlined an entity in 1965 named Trans East Railways that would eliminate duplicate service, attract new management, and rent trackage rights from the railroads. The Railpax plan initially received a lukewarm response. Some viewed it as a stalking horse for railroad nationalization. The Department of Transportation said government funding would perpetuate inadequate rail service. Hartke delayed action on his bill in return for a DOT promise to submit a Railpax proposal. DOT released its Railpax plan on January 18, 1970, but the next day White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler described Railpax as the least likely proposal to be approved by the Nixon administration. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe reaffirmed support for Railpax on January 28 and predicted White House approval. However, the Bureau of the Budget said that Railpax was one of several proposals under consideration and that it was uncertain when the administration would submit a plan to Congress.

Richard M. Nixon had grown up in California listening to train whistles and dreaming of becoming a Santa Fe locomotive engineer. But Nixon and his top aides distrusted railroad management. Volpe was a former highway contractor who had supported public funding of Boston commuter train service when he was governor of Massachusetts. But instead of using state funds to improve service, the New Haven and the Boston & Maine had allowed costs to rise, prompting Volpe to complain that the state was being taken for a ride. Nonetheless, Volpe believed rail passenger service was a viable alternative to congested highways and airways.

The Nixon administration wanted to do nothing, fearing that the cost of funding rail passenger service would spiral out of control over the long term. But events and the stubborn determination of some in Congress to save rail passenger service forced Nixon's hand. On March 5, 1970, Penn Central announced plans to discontinue 34 intercity trains, ending nearly all service west of Harrisburg, Pa., and Buffalo, N.Y. A week later, the Senate Commerce Committee approved Hartke's bill to appropriate $35 million to subsidize 80 percent of the losses of trains the government deemed essential.

The Senate's action had the impact of a fire bell in the night. Federal funding was anathema to the administration, which saw it as a giveaway to the railroads. DOT received a green light to begin negotiating with the Senate to replace Hartke's direct funding proposal with a Railpax plan. Senate Commerce Committee attorney Daniel O'Neal later said no one was happy with the direct funding plan, but no one was willing to push an alternative either. Railpax had bipartisan backing and the support of the railroads, NARP, and DOT, and was similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Congress had created in 1967. The Senate Commerce Committee agreed to replace Hartke's direct funding bill with legislation sponsored by committee chairman Warren Magnuson of Washington that incorporated the Railpax plan.

The Senate approved the Railpax plan 78–3 on May 6, but it became sidetracked in the House, where attention was focused on helping Penn Central, which declared bankruptcy on June 21. The ICC launched a clandestine campaign to torpedo Railpax, sending the Bureau of the Budget a 16-page report that described Railpax as "confusing, unfair, and possibly unconstitutional." Worried that Congress might strip the ICC of authority over passenger service, the ICC warned that "the public would have no recourse against fares which are excessively high, discriminatory, or prejudicial to particular localities." The effort to undercut Railpax lost steam after the ICC report was leaked to the press and triggered a public outcry. A few railroads also wanted the House to delay or kill Railpax. These roads were down to a handful of passenger trains and hoped to win regulatory approval to abolish them and avoid further government meddling. But most railroads viewed Railpax as more palatable than continued and possibly protracted battles before the ICC or the courts.

The House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce reported a Railpax bill on October 7. The House and Senate bills authorized creation of a semipublic corporation that would receive a $40 million grant. The House increased the loan guarantees for capital to $100 million and required railroads to pay a $200 million buy-in fee. The Senate figures had been $60 million and $70 million, respectively. The House also changed the startup date from March 1 to May 1, 1971, and required the basic network to remain intact through January 1973 instead of January 1975 as in the Senate version.

The House approved the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 on a voice vote on October 14, 1970. That afternoon, the Senate agreed to the House version without change. DOT supported Railpax, but the Office of Management and Budget (which had superseded the Bureau of the Budget), the Council of Economic Advisors, and several top White House aides urged a veto, calling Railpax a waste of money on a hopeless enterprise. DOT and the railroad industry lobbied in favor of Railpax, and DOT staff and White House aides convened an October 29 conference to discuss Railpax.

Nixon signed the bill without ceremony on October 30. Some said Nixon signed the bill because he was at heart a rail fan and had commented favorably about the Metroliner after riding it from Washington to Philadelphia in 1970. But Nixon probably had more pragmatic reasons for approving Railpax. With a midterm election looming and the country mired in the unpopular Vietnam War, Nixon did not want to be blamed for the death of the passenger train. He may have concluded that a veto might revive congressional support of the direct subsidy bill.

The Rail Passenger Service Act ended discontinuance proceedings by the Interstate Commerce Commission, and dozens of trains posted for discontinuance received new leases on life, if only for a few months. The newly created National Railroad Passenger Corporation enjoyed extraordinary regulatory freedom, exempted from most ICC and state regulation. By making Railpax a private rather than a public corporation, Congress dodged the potentially disputatious issue of Railpax being exempt from state and local taxes. The law specified that Railpax was not an agency of the federal government.

Overseeing Railpax was a 15-member financial advisory committee and an 8-member board of incorporators. None of the incorporators named by Nixon on December 18 was an experienced railroad executive, although most had transportation experience. They included David W Kendall, former vice president of legal affairs for Chrysler Corporation; Frank S. Besson Jr., a retired army general who once headed the Pentagon's Joint Logistics Review Board; John J. Gilhooley, former New York City transit commissioner; Arthur D. Lewis, an investment banker and former president of Eastern Airlines; John P. Olsson, deputy undersecretary of transportation; David E. Bradshaw, a Chicago attorney; Catherine May Bedell, a former congresswoman from Washington; and Charles Luna, president of the United Transportation Union.

Railpax received $4 million in startup funding of which $2.2 million was earmarked for technical and management consultants. More than 20 lawyers spent 8,500 hours between January 1 and May 1, 1971, working on Railpax. The Cleveland law firm of Jones, Day, Cockley & Reavis negotiated operating contracts with the railroads, and the Chicago management firm of McKinsey & Company developed a management structure. The Philadelphia engineering firm of Louis T. Klauder & Associates guided capital investments. None of the consultants had extensive railroad management experience. The cost of getting Railpax started was slightly below budget at $3.3 million.

Route Selection Politics

The secretary of transportation was to announce a preliminary Railpax network by November 30, 1970, followed by 30 days of public comment. The White House demanded that OMB approve the route network. On November 25, OMB director George P. Schultz ordered Volpe to draw a skeletal network concentrated along the Atlantic Seaboard and omitting such routes as Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington. Volpe resisted and threatened to resign in protest. He rebutted OMB's bare-bones structure, and intense negotiations followed between OMB and DOT. Many interpreted repeated references in the Rail Passenger Service Act to a "basic national rail passenger system" as a directive for long-distance routes. Undersecretary of Transportation James M. Beggs told the New York Times, "We expect [Railpax] to be a truly national network, with some long-distance trains, as well as service in the high density corridors."

On November 30, Volpe released a preliminary route structure that was a mix of short-distance and long-distance routes. Six routes radiated from New York to Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington. Nine routes stretched from Chicago to Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Seattle. The only route not serving Chicago or New York was St. Louis–Washington. DOT had warned that many cities would lose service, but the gravity of the impending losses did not begin sinking in until the release of the preliminary route structure. Railpax expected to operate 150 of the nation's 366 intercity passenger trains. Volpe wanted a larger and more encompassing route structure, but defended his plan as a "rational reduction in the existing and unintegrated passenger train service" created "with a view toward organizing it into a cohesive system and making it a financial success."

The National Association of Railroad Passengers called for adding numerous routes including Chicago–Milwaukee, Chicago–Washington, Denver–Los Angeles, San Francisco–Portland, New York–Montreal, Boston–Bangor, and several feeder routes connecting with Railpax main arteries. The Interstate Commerce Commission described the Railpax network as inadequate. ICC chairman George Stafford said the route selection process needed to take into account more than prospective profits. These included highway congestion, automobile air pollution, and the unique beauty of some routes. The ICC presented a laundry list of additions including San Diego–Seattle, Los Angeles–New Orleans, service to the Florida west coast from Chicago and New York, St. Louis–Detroit, Detroit–New York (via Canada), New York–Montreal, Salt Lake City–Butte, and St. Louis–Kansas City. The ICC also wanted service to Toronto, Vancouver, Laredo, Tex., and Norfolk, Va.

Trains magazine editor David P. Morgan welcomed the Railpax concept, but sought more short-haul corridors including such routes as Cleveland–Pittsburgh that were no longer served by rail. The Association of American Railroads was silent on the Railpax route structure, but some railroads fought to stay out of Railpax. Southern Pacific president Benjamin F Biaggini appealed for exclusion of Los Angeles–New Orleans and Los Angeles–Seattle routes. DOT received thousands of letters, many pleading for service to their community or suggesting specific routes between endpoints. Unions called the plan "appallingly inadequate" and sought to keep virtually every existing passenger train. The final Railpax route network, announced January 28, 1971, kept the preliminary network while adding five routes: Seattle–San Diego, Los Angeles–New Orleans, New York– Kansas City, Newport News/Norfolk–Cincinnati, and Washington–Chicago. Miami trains would have Tampa/St. Petersburg sections. Railpax expected to operate 165 trains. DOT listed more than 100 possible routes, but left to the Railpax incorporators the decision on specific routes and intermediate stations.


Excerpted from Amtrak in the Heartland by Craig Snaders. Copyright © 2006 Craig Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1. The All-Time Transportation Comeback
2. In the Shadows of Titans
3. A Tale of Two Trains
4. When Tradition and Politics Intervened
5. The Hard Luck Floridian
6. No Mo' Disappearing Railroad Blues
7. The Eagle Has Survived
8. The Epitome of Western Travel
9. The Everywhere West Train
10. Scenery and Social Responsibility
11. The Almost Forgotten Corridor
12. Michigan's Bootstrap Campaign
13. An Uneasy Home in Indiana
14. Agony and Ecstasy in the "Can't Lose" Corridors
15. Prairie State Populists
16. Front Doors and Back Shops

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