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Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?

April 2024
34min read

You bet it is, say the railway moguls, who in fifty years almost managed to get rid of the “passenger element.” Then a freshman senator derailed them with a plan to keep the clay coaches rolling

America’s railway tycoons had decided that it was much more profitable to move freight than people long before the Great Xorlhern’s president, James J. Hill, scornfully compared a passenger train to “the male teat—neither useful nor ornamental.” This selfdefeating attitude, explored by Peter Lyon in our essay on pages 2-3, persists today, in the face of a growing urban transportation morass that threatens to make our cities uninhabitable and often unreachable. Traffic clogs the proliferating freeways and parking lots faster than they can be built. Fumes pollute our air, and noise makes day and niglit hideous around our overcrowded airports. In the following excerpt from his current booh, To Hell in a Day Coach: An Exasperated Look at American Railroads , Mr. Lyon issues a polemic in bettalf of the bedevilled railway passenger. Against a backdrop of historic managerial greed and stupidity, he probes the callous deceit and disregard for the public interest that still characterize the approach of most of our railroads toward the passenger train at the very moment in our history when it seems needed the most.

—The Editors

In the face of the stubborn contrariety of the railroad managers, the notion has begun to take hold that the best way of travelling between cities a few hundred miles apart—the most efficient, cheapest, most convenient, surest, safest, and potentially the most comfortable—is the way that has been available for a hundred years or more: the railway.

Proponents of this notion are not, of course, plumping for railroad passenger service as we know it today —the slow, dirty, noisy, unpunctual, inconvenient jouncing about that is contemptuously provided in dilapidated equipment. What they have in mind is a smooth, comfortable ride at speeds up to 150 miles an hour, regularly available in pleasant, modern coaches and parlor cars—no more than could and should have been provided since 1946 or thereabouts, if the officers of the railroad companies had been alert to the public interest and aggressive in competing for the public custom; no more than what has in fact been provided in Canada, in Japan, and in Europe, which means by railroads that have been nationalized.

Until quite recently, such a notion lias been poison to the directors of American railroads, and most of them still regard it as a threat to all they hold dear. For at least a generation all of them have, for sundry reasons, persistently sought to scuttle most of their passenger service, and some of them have contrived to slaughter their passenger business entirely. There has been nothing sly or underhanded about this policy; on the contrary, it has been plugged diligently by the presidents of the biggest and most influential railroad companies. As long ago as July, 1956, Donald J. Russell, then the president of the Southern Pacific, in an interview with a reporter of the San Francisco Chronicle , cheerfully predicted the demise of the Pullman car and the virtual extinction of long-distance travel on rails; he acknowledged that most railroads would like to get out of the passenger business completely. A month later, James M. Symes, then the president of the Pennsylvania, told a reporter of the New York Times: “I’ve just about given up hope as to the future of long-haul passenger travel.” These gentlemen were not so much advocating as describing a process that had been in full swing since 1929 (when Class I railroads boasted 47,797 passenger cars rolling over 266,703 miles of track) and would proceed even more swiftly after they had spoken (until by 1966 a mere 10,687 passenger cars would operate on 72,796 miles of. passenger-service tracks).

Precise figures for intercity passenger trains, as distinct from commuter trains, are difficult to come by, but in 1929 there were at least twenty thousand of them. In September, 1965, Wayne Huffman, the executive vice president of the New York Central, estimated that their number had dwindled from eleven thousand in 1946 to thirteen hundred in 1964. As of August, 1967, there were less than nine hundred. At least two states and several sixable cities had no railroad passenger service whatsoever. There was no through service between Washington and Cleveland, Cleveland and Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Detroit and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Louisville, Atlanta and Jacksonville, or Dallas and San Antonio. Efforts to discontinue service between New York and Boston and to reduce service between San Francisco and Los Angeles have been, at least for a time, rejected.

To the directors of most railroad companies, this was a very satisfactory state of affairs. They were content. One could almost hear them purr as, through the 1960’s, the Dow-Jones average of railroad stocks maintained a jagged ascent. These men had only to dose their eyes and count to ten; when they opened their eyes again—presto! chango!—the passenger business would have vanished; or so they hoped. But instead they began to hear talk of a rejuvenated passenger service. Their exasperation can be imagined.

The talk was started by a few dreamy, meddlesome scholars—professors of urban planning or of transportation who should have known better. They were ignored; after all, their voices could not carry very far.

But then an imaginative politician spoke up, one who actually preferred the railroad for travel back and forth between Washington and his constituency and so was vividly aware of all the railroad’s short-comings and all its wasted potentials. Claiborne Pell, the junior senator from Rhode Island, alter pondering these shortcomings, went so far as to draft a set of simple specific proposals for the resuscitation of railroad passenger service, at least in the northeastern states. Pell was new to the Senate (he was first elected in 1960), but he was no stranger to men of considerable influence. He took his plan to an old friend, Arthur Krock, the Washington commentator for the New York Times , who at once appreciated the right of the matter: the Pell plan was reported on the Iront page of the newspaper on May 21, 1962.

In the executive offices of several railroad companies, that Monday morning was a “leak one. All along the Atlantic seaboard, railroad directors were recalling the words of the poet Burns about the bestlaid schemes of mice and men. The president of one great eastern railroad system picked up his telephone and spoke forcefully to Pell for a half hour, seeking to dissuade him from his foolish notion of an improved rail passenger service. Too late. Within ten days the editors of ten big newspapers published in the northeastern states had jumped, witli glad cries, aboard the Pell bandwagon; and before long the editors of hall a dozen railway labor weeklies were whooping their approval. A public debate on intercity railroad passenger service had been assured.

For years before it was moved into the arena of public policy, the debate had been conducted in the pages of such trade magazines as Trains, Railway Age, and Modern Railroads; and it had boiled over, too, at nearly every public hearing called (by the Interstate Commerce Commission or by one of the slate regulatory agencies) to judge whether specific passenger trains might be discontinued. A salient aspect ol the debate was the attempt to fix responsibility for the calamitous decline of the service in the face of a growing population and an expanding travel market.


The lords of the railroads have had no difficulty in identifying those responsible for the loss of their passengers, and they seem honestly bewildered that anyone else could hesitate to do so. They point, in summary fashion, to the automobile and the airplane, and to the distressful manner in which those competitors have been pampered and cosseted by politicians at every level from the county courthouse to the White House, all to the ruinous detriment of the railroads. Moreover, evidence abounds to back up their lamentations. In the 1950’s the federal, state, and local governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year to build highways and airports and in other ways to promote and subsidize travel by airplane or automobile. In the igOo’s more than one billion dollars a year have gone to beef up air transport and more than ten billion a year to build still more highways. Some part of these monstrous sums—perhaps as much as two thirds of them—has been recovered by excise taxes on gasoline, tires, and the like, or by tolls and other imposts levied on those who choose to use the highways or the airways; but the vast remainder has been extracted from the general taxpayer, including, ol course, the railroad company.


To the railroad operators it seemed quite clear that their passengers were quitting them i’or the swifter airplane and the more convenient private automobile, and that the Interstate Commerce Commission and the various state regulatory agencies were nevertheless forcing them to maintain an unpopular, archaic, and hideously expensive service. There could be no question that the costs of the service were climbing dizzily. In the early postwar years, the cost of labor rose from almost $200,000,000 lor 42,850 passenger service employees in 1947, to $179,000,000 for 16,767 employees in 1966.

This pay is based upon work rules that have been in force since 1919. For engine crews, the rule reads: “One hundred miles or less (straightaway or turnaround) … shall constitute a day’s work; miles in excess of one hundred will be paid for at the mileage rate provided.” For conductors and trainmen a clay’s work is one hundred and fifty miles or less (straightaway or turnaround). Engine crew and train crew alike are paid overtime “on a speed basis of twenty miles per hour computed continuously from the time required to report for duty until released at the end of the last run.” Since 1919 the average speed of passenger trains has somewhat increased, so that “a day’s work” has diminished from about five hours to about three hours and twenty minutes.

Translated into operational examples, this means that the New York Central must employ eight engine crews, whose members divide about nine and one-halt basic days’ pay, to move its Twentieth Century nine hundred and sixty miles between New York and Chicago, or that the Burlington must employ eight engine crews, whose members divide ten and one-third basic days’ pay, to move its Denver Zephyr about one thousand miles between Denver and Chicago.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, using an antique statistical formula of its own contrivance, concluded in 1957 that the passenger service had for the previous seven years saddled the railroads with an annual deficit of more than five hundred million dollars. Since many of the biggest railroad companies were suffused with reel ink at the time, their officers indicted the traffic in passengers as an intolerable burden. On cue, spokesmen for the shippers likewise began to yowl that the passenger-train deficits were crippling the railroads and preventing them from the efficient discharge of their divine duty: to wit, the carriage of freight.

Responsive to these protests, the commission undertook to investigate the passenger-train deficit. The healings ambled along, like an accommodation local, from June 18, 1957, to June 23, 1958 (while the deficit itself, by the commission’s intricate formula of accounting, mounted in 1957 to an all-time record of $724,000,000); they served to convince at least the hearings examiner, Howard Hosmer, who predicted, “the parlor and sleeping-car service will have disappeared by 1965, and the coach service by 1970.”

That was precisely what most (but by no means all) lords of the railroads had hoped would be predicted. They had already besought Congress for relief, and in August, 1958, they had got it. An amendment (Section 13a) to the Interstate Commerce Act put a gratifying zip into the process by which passenger trains, whether interstate or intrastate, could be forever curtailed, cancelled, and discontinued. The extermination picked up speed and proceeded merrily apace—until all at once Senator Pell’s consarned plan burst into the public prints. Since then, the extermination has proceeded, but cautiously, more slowly, with greater difficulty, for now the other side of the debate has been given a hearing and respectful attention.

The opposition holds that the lords of the railroads are solely responsible for the deterioration of the passenger service, just as they have always been responsible for the uncivil and contemptuous treatment that has been the passenger’s traditional lot on most railloads. This argument has never been articulated or documented with as much skill as has the railroads’ argument, but at no time in the history of American railroads have passengers failed to remark the singular reluctance of railroad presidents to afford comfortable, even minimally decent accommodations. Whatever provides ease or convenience may subtract from financial profit, and the railroad president has ever been spurred by his natural greed for profit.

The first truly radical change in the manufacture of railroad cars, when wood was replaced by steel, was made in 1894; it began, logically enough from the standpoint of the railroads, with freight cars. Not until fourteen years later, in 1908, did the PullmanStandard Car Manufacturing Company begin production of all-steel passenger cars. The company was obliged to make this extraordinary decision because of the very real hazard that steam locomotives, puffing up clouds of glowing sparks, might set afire the old wooden coaches if they were hauled through the tunnel the Pennsylvania was then building (to be opened in 1910) under the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City.

The all-steel sleeping car came later, making a modest appearance in igio and no considerable splash until the mid-1920’s, when passenger revenues from Pullman cars were at their xenith. This was the car now considered high camp, the car that evokes memories of the romantic Nights of the Green Curtains. Only those of us who are in our forties or older can recall those sleepers, characterized so aptly as “rolling tenements.” They were ugly, uncomfortable dormitories, as lacking in privacy as a jailhouse. Each passenger rocked longitudinally in a berth cloaked only by a swaying curtain of a heavy dark-green fabric that might better have been used as an upholstery for the furniture in the lobbies of commercial hotels. At one end of each sleeper was the men’s room—one toilet, a pseudo-leathern couch, and a meager triad of communal washbasins, inadequately equipped with mirrors, in front of which a gaggle of salesmen customarily postured and prattled, exchanging jokes of an unexampled vulgarity; at the other end was the women’s room—similarly fitted, and littered witli someone elsc’s fare powder and someone elsc’s hair combings.

Spurred by concern for the comfort of their passengers, the railroad executives required that three improvements be made in these hideous sleeping cars: In 1924 receptacles for used razor blades were installed in the men’s rooms. In 1926 containers of fresh facial tissues were placed in some, but not all, of the women’s rooms. In iyay the water coolers were adjusted so that they would no longer overflow on the strip of carpeting in the corridors.

There was also the matter of air conditioning. One would think that the lords of the railroads would have snatched at air conditioning when it first became practical; would, even more likely, have themselves been first to conceive of it; for surely there are few surroundings in which the human being can more gratefully welcome a constant supply of cooled, clean air than a railroad coach drawn by a steam locomotive on a hot day. With windows closed, the passengers baked; with windows opened (presuming, of course, that someone had the Herculean strength required to open a coach window), the passengers were aspersed with soot and grime and coal dust, and their lungs filled with a noxious stench.

Yet long after the feasibility of air-conditioned passenger trains had been demonstrated, the railroad operators hung back. Jn concert, they declined to install the necessary devices; all their available funds were bespoken by their investment bankers, who were advising them in ilicir financially calamitous ventures in the stock market. Not until their passenger revenues fell off sharply, after 1929, did they turn to air conditioning, and then they could ill afford it; not until late into the 1930’s were most trains routinely equipped with air-conditioned passenger cars; and a few of the smaller roads waited until 1950 to begin granting their customers this minimal comfort.

The conclusion is inescapable that the general public, badly used by the railroads from the first day a flanged wheel rolled along an iron rail, could not wait for the opportunity to use another mode of travel. They had been fighting bitterly for nearly a century; now they wanted only to switch.

Belatedly a few railroads, especially those in the West, set out to recapture their passengers. In iy34 the Union Pacific put on a lightweight train that cut the time between Chicago and Los Angeles from sixty to less than forty hours; the Burlington began operating its swift, handsome Zephyrs; and in lygß the Santa Fe was obliged to schedule lightweight trains of its own. Industrial designers were retained who made the first changes in the design of sleeping cars and lounge cars since the time, back in the 1870’s, when those elegant creatures had first been built. For the New York Central, Henry Dreyfuss redesigned the Twentieth Century, Raymond Loewy did the same for the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited, and curious crowds gathered in the big New York depots of both roads to examine sleeping cars which, for a wonder, afforded privacy: drawing rooms, sections, bedrooms, compartments that gave each traveller a washbasin and a toilet of his own and a door that he could lock. Was it possible? It was possible, but it had come too late. Of the rich and fastidious, fewer would patronixe these expensive cars each year; and the masters of the railroads had ignored, in their calculations, the scores of millions of other travelling Americans who had turned to the bus.

The bus, the noisome bus. It was typical of the footling way the railroads had operated their passenger service that an inelegant carrier like the bus should have emerged as a rival able to cut deep into the revenues of the noble railroad; able to ring up half as many passenger-miles as the railroads by 1940.

With the connivance of the railroads, who for many years invested heavily in bus company stocks, the passengers left the trains for the bus. Their departure gave the railroads in turn another excuse to drop their brandi lines. More passengers left for the automobile and, slowly at first, for the airplane. Yet more railroad executives persisted in proceeding as though the railroad still enjoyed a monopoly, if there has emerged a glaring coniradiciion, the explanation is that we are here dealing with the railroad industry.

A revolution was in full cycle, but the railroad managers, hidebound as ever, failed to measure its sweep. In retrospect, one can understand why they were so blinded, even while losing patience with them lor their refusal to open their eyes to what was going on around them. The depression of the 1930’s threatened to engulf almost every railroad company in ultimate disaster; the war of the early 1940’s buried every railroad under an avalanche of traffic. During those fifteen years the managers of the railroads were so absorbed by their immediate concerns that they never paused to learn from the lessons of yesterday or to consider the possible exigencies of tomorrow.

Incredible as it may seem, when in 1946 the railroad managers began to struggle with the postwar problems of their passenger service, they knew almost nothing about their market or about the How and pattern of traffic.

Into this dark abysm of assumption and conjecture the railroad men bravely plunged. They were certain of only one fact: their passenger cars were old, shabby, and in dreadful disrepair; so, they spent with a free hand. More than $500,000,000 in the five years from 1946 to 1950 went to buy more than 4,000 new passenger-train cars—handsome, expensive, air-conditioned, and built according to the traditional heavyweight design to last for at least a generation. Yet in each year the number of their passengers dwindled.

In the next five years they spent their money more cautiously. Less than $250,000,000 went to purchase new equipment, and of that sum a larger share was paid to buy cars for the so-called head-end traffic- that is, cars built to haul mail and baggage and express freight. Yet in each year the number of passengers diminished. Could it be that they had somehow overlooked some aspect of their passenger service?

During these same five years the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, and the Baltimore & Ohio engaged Robert Heller Associates, consultants on problems of management, to inquire into the habits and preferences of passengers on every train east of the Mississippi and the Missouri, north from the Gulf of Mexico into the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Here was the most comprehensive and thoroughgoing study ever undertaken for any mode of transportation in the history of the Republic. It cost about five million dollars. Motivation of travellers, operation of trains, costs and marketing of the passenger service—all this and much more was painstakingly investigated. The purpose of the study was to enable the directors of the three railroads to determine the feasibility of consolidating their passenger services. (Think what might have conic to pass: a rational integration of terminals and depots, a saving of millions of dollars by elimination of unnecessary competition, a more frequent and more convenient schedule of trains, cheaper fares, swifter, more comfortable rides; in short, a paradise for those who prefer to travel by train in the overcrowded eastern region.) Nothing happened. The study itself, an invaluable research, was discarded, scattered, or destroyed; not maliciously, not with evil intent, but (as f have been told by one of those familiar with the research) only stupidly, only because the executives who had it in charge knew no better.


Much interest attached to a few of the cars built at this time, for these few, which cost less than ten million dollars, were genuine innovations in passenger equipment, proudly hailed as “the trains of the future"—streamlined, built of lightweight aluminum or stainless steel, and manufactured to run in fixed sets of six or eight or a doxen cars. They bore flamboyant names like Aerotrain and X-Plorer and RDC Hot Rod. They were hurried into service early in 1956 and almost immediately proved to be »resounding Hop. They trembled and shook at high speed; they were noisy; they broke down easily and often, but their sets could not be readily parted to detach an intermediate car for repair or maintenance; they could not be interchanged with cars of traditional design; they were too light to trip the devices that activated signal systems. By K)Oo they had all been scrapped or relegated to service on suburban runs, and the whole episode had perfectly demonstrated what the venerable dodoes of the industry had known all along, to wit: “Never monkey around with damnfool experiments.” … “The old way is the best way.” … “Whatever is old has been tested by time.”

The masters of the railroads now reformed their ranks in a sullen phalanx. What they had never properly understood they now condemned. Even before the new lightweight equipment had proved to be a costly mistake, the Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference was urged to seek a steep increase in passenger fares and especially in Pullman fares. This plan was proposed by the New York Central and heartily endorsed by the Pennsylvania. (The other eastern carriers at first declined to support it.) The plan was revealed on July 25, 1956, by a knowledgeable reporter of railroad affairs, Robert Bedingfield, in an article published on the front page of the New York Times . The headline put it neatly: 2 R AILWAYS P LAN F ARE R ISE TO D ETER P ULLMAN T RAVEL . Just in case some reader might have missed the import of the headline, the president of a smaller railroad was quoted in unmistakable terms: “What they are trying to do is to dry up the Pullman service and switch the passengers over to the coach and the airplane.” Jn fine, the big railroads hoped to use the fare—the rate for passengers—as an instrument of policy to club their ratepayers into doing as they wished.

There were other ways, in 1956, to enervate the passenger service. Advertising budgets, already minuscule, could be reduced still further. In 1946 the industry had submitted to a little self-criticism on this score from its creature, the Association of American R.ailroads. “Railroads,” the A.A.R. said in a report on passenger traffic, “spend insignificant sums for advertising in comparison with the amount of business done,” and the report went on to point out that even in 1943, when travel by the domestic airlines was constantly jeopardized by military priorities, the airlines had spent twenty-five times as much (in relation to revenues) as had the railroads, in trying to drum up their passenger business. But after 1950, instead of beefing up their advertising of passenger services, most railroad companies cut it to the bone and deeper, into the marrow. They even rejected a successful experimental method of increasing revenues by paying sales commissions to ticket agents.

Every idea for attracting passengers back to the railroads or for making it easier to travel by rail was somehow flawed—it was too expensive, too impractical, too likely to be fought by the unions.

In the 1950’s one figure glared from every railroad company’s balance sheet: the alleged deficits accruing from the passenger service. These deficits were frightful. They were also exceedingly well publicized, for every railroad company had discovered that the surepop way to get its weaker trains discontinued was to agitate the public generally and Congress particularly by pleading imminent bankruptcy unless these deficits were wiped out.

In the aggregate, these deficits for the years 195057 amounted to over five and one quarter billion dollars. Good grief! How could any industry survive under such a staggering burden? Obviously, none could. The passenger-service deficit, so-called, is and always has been a statistical mirage, a fraud, a phony; most useful, perhaps, as a means of singling out those railroad executives who lie to the public (even, occasionally, to their own shareholders) and betray the public interest with the greatest effrontery.

Over the years their distortions have been designed to convince us all that the carriage of passengers by the railroads is ever and everywhere unprofitable and can be maintained thanks only to the profitable carriage of freight. Their flimflam has been, and still is, based on a venerable formula, prescribed by the Interstate Commerce Commission, by which the railroads are required to separate a set of imprecise costs that are imperfectly understood even by their own officers.


The formula is called “Rules Governing the Separation of Operating Expenses, Railway Taxes, Equipment Rents and Joint Facility Rents Between Freight Service and Passenger Service on Class I LineHaul Railroads,” and as Stanley Berge, professor of transportation at Northwestern University, has pointed out, even the title has a Victorian ring.

The formula was concocted in 1887, when the chief concern was to keep freight rates and passenger fares within reasonable bounds. Cost accounting was both unknown and unnecessary in that time of monopoly, and so the commission required only that the railroads file a schedule separating expenses “chargeable to passenger traffic” from those “chargeable to freight traffic.” Expenses chargeable to both services were to be divided in proportion to the train-miles of each service.

Almost at once the formula was assailed by the Association of American Railway Accounting Officers as “an arbitrary rule” that “will furnish misinformation if used … for any practical purpose.” Soon afterward the formula was savaged by the state railway commissioners as “grossly erroneous, not to say preposterous.” Taking the hint, the commission itself retired the formula in 1894, but twenty years later it was revived and elaborated, and it still stands today, more bewildering than ever. In brief, the formula now requires that the railroad companies charge their passenger service with millions of dollars of maintenance and other overhead costs, all of which would still have to be paid if every passenger train vanished tomorrow.

This phantom deficit continued to bother a lot of people, in and out of the industry. A prominent I.C.C. official confessed publicly in 1954 that the commission’s estimate was “overstated” by two or three hundred million dollars. Two years later, the governors of the New York Stock Exchange felt sufficiently concerned on behalf of the shareholders to ask for an investigation of the railroads’ accounting practices.

The spate of criticism led the I.C.C. to hold hearings in 1957 on the separation rules that had created this bugaboo. More objections were at once voiced, including one from the Post Office Department.

Then something most curious happened. The Association of American Railroads submitted a statement urging, in effect, that the rules be left unchanged. It was a complete turnabout from the association’s position two years earlier, when the formula had been derided for producing data “of questionable value.” How came this astonishing switch by the association? Easily, quickly, once it had been determined by the lords of the railroads that the phantom deficit was a most useful hobgoblin with which to alarm impressionable congressmen. In 1957 and 1958 they were exerting pressure on Congress to amend the Interstate Commerce Act so that unwanted passenger trains might be more easily lopped off; the bigger the deficit could be made to seem, the sooner Congress would act. The amendment was duly enacted. The butchery of the passenger service proceeded briskly. Between two and three hundred intercity trains vanished each year.

Now, when a passenger train that moves back and forth between two cities is discontinued, in all likelihood the old-time way of hauling the mail between those two cities has been jeopardized. When several thousand such intercity trains are cancelled, the disruption of mail service is almost complete. Back in 1935 the railroads had operated some ten thousand mail-carrying passenger trains, but by 1959 there were fewer than two thousand passenger trains available to carry the mails, and not all of these were running on schedules that made them useful or attractive to the Post Office Department.

Meanwhile the load of mail had enormously increased and the Post Office was rapidly becoming everybody’s favorite whipping boy. With increasing frequency, the Post Office decided to cancel its contracts with the railroads for the handling of bulk mail and to award the contracts instead to truckers and, even for ordinary first-class mail, to the airlines.

Predictably, the railroad executives yelped. On the face of it, their anguish was puzzling: from 1958 through 1964 their mail revenues consistently hovered around $330,000,000 a year; higher than ever before, more than half as much as the revenues for carrying people; more, it would seem, than the railroads deserved to be paid, after so thoroughly discombobulating the mail service. Why then should railroad officials gripe about an occasional cancelled contract? An answer can be found in one of the earliest plaints, by the Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference, in February, 1958: At recent hearings in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s Passenger Deficit Investigation [said a statement by the conference] it was brought out that frequently the railroads have been forced to discontinue passenger trains because the Post Office Department has taken the mail away.

The unmistakable implication here was that the railroad presidents had been nobly struggling to save the passenger service but that the wicked Post Office had “forced” the defeat of their efforts. This was not true. The commission knew it was not true and said so. The railroad presidents also knew it was not true; one must ruefully conclude that here is another example of their fibbing. Their statement went further: On top of this, the Post Office Department has been diverting the more profitable mail to airlines and truckers wherever it feels that it will be to its advantage. … The diversion of the more profitable mail traffic away from the railroads will eventually weaken the railroads’ ability to provide a national system of mail service and [has] already caused or helped to cause the discontinuance of many passenger trains.

Here was a superb example of a multiple untruth, one that contains in a small compass so much distortion, irrelevance, unwarranted assumption, and flat inaccuracy that it can be properly corrected only by rewriting it entirely and quite changing its meaning and thrust. Yet in the years that have followed, the railroad executives have nurtured this untruth to a luxurious growth, for it perfectly serves their purpose.

At length, the officials at the Post Office came to weary of their role as the bad guys in the steady slaughter of the rail passenger service. They dug back into their files and presently were able to show that, from February 1, 1953, to December 31, 1966, a total of 2,528 mail-carrying passenger trains had been discontinued, of which 1,730 were discontinued after their mail traffic had been removed at the request of the railroads, and 798 were discontinued after their mail traffic had been removed on the initiative of the Post Office.

So all the propaganda from the railroads about the wicked Post Office assays at a little better than thirty per cent accurate—which is, to be sure, a phenomenal batting average for truth in the railroad business.

At all events, it seems clear that the mail revenues provide very inadequate support for a healthy passenger service. On January 1, 1967, only 876 passenger trains carried the mail.

During the early 1960’s the industry did little to refurbish or to replace its deteriorating passengerservice equipment, or to make any effort on behalf of its passengers. To be sure, there were still a few companies that welcomed their passengers and afforded them courteous and comfortable service; still a few companies to remind the world that, at their best, American trains are unrivalled; and of these few, one must mention the Seaboard Coast Line for its trains to and from Florida, the Illinois Central for its trains between Chicago and New Orleans, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific for their limiteds through the northwest, the Burlington and the Union Pacific for their superior limiteds, and the Santa Fe for its fine limiteds through the southwest.


Despite these scattered examples, the millions of Americans who still prefer to travel considerable distances by rail are convinced that the industry has downgraded the passenger service steadily, swiftly, and deliberately. They would agree with the analysis of yet another committee that has examined American railroads in detail. In January, 1961, a special study group appointed by the Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce concluded, after gloomily inspecting the rail passenger service: The very age of the railroad coach is one of its worst handicaps. The coach and the people who operate it seem to have forgotten how to change their habits and to have forgotten that innovation and intelligent improvement have been a hallmark of American business since well before the coach’s birth.

So matters stood when, in 1962, Senator Pell published his plan, deplored by most railroad executives but hailed with gratitude by despondent rail passengers all over the country. The Pell plan was less important for what it provided than for the discussion it aroused. (The plan envisioned an eight-state public authority, one that was to have owned and operated a high-speed railroad passenger service within Megalopolis—that is, the densely populated region from Boston to Washington; the system was to have been financed by long-term, tax-exempt bonds guaranteed by the government.) No sooner had news of it been published in the New York Times than Senator Pell sensed that he had struck a vein of purest political gold. Congratulatory letters poured into his office, and his proposal received extraordinarily friendly editorial comment in newspapers all over the country. Pell was encouraged; he was also persistent, and kept pressing the White House for executive action. He nagged, he pestered, and he could marshal battalions of disconcerting facts.

At first nothing much happened, for the Highway Users Conference (which boasts a lobby second only to the Pentagon’s in its influence on Capitol Hill) and the airlines were both suspicious, and the railroad industry was conspicuously indifferent. In the last year of the Kennedy administration, $1,000,000 was asked and $625,000 was actually authorized to study the assumptions underlying the Pell plan, now officially known as the Northeast Corridor Project; in the first year of the Johnson administration, after much prodding by Pell, the Secretary of Commerce announced an ambitious research and development program for high-speed passenger transportation.

In January, 1965, in his report to Congress on the state of the Union, President Johnson said, “I will ask for funds to study high-speed rail transportation between urban centers. We will begin with test projects between Boston and Washington. On high-speed trains, passengers could travel this distance in less than four hours.” Four hours? Those unhappy people who still travelled by rail between Boston and Washington were used to the fact that if all went well- which it seldom did—the trip took eight hours and forty minutes. Yet the President reckoned it should take less than four hours? When that came to pass, his would not be merely a Great Society, it would be a Naked Miracle.

The administration’s bill, which authorized ninety million dollars for new passenger equipment and further research, slid easily through Congress, assisted now by the Railway Progress Institute (the association of railway equipment manufacturers, each of whom was eager for a contract), by the steel industry, by the railway labor unions, and, mirabile dictu , by the railroads. Stuart Saunders of the Pennsylvania urged passage of the bill and said he knew of no railroad official who implacably opposed it. After all, the only railroads directly involved in the Northeast Corridor Project were the Pennsylvania and the bankrupt New Haven.

On September 30, 1965, before a throng of congressmen, railroad presidents, and other dignitaries assembled in the East Room of the White House, President Johnson ceremoniously signed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act. A big moment; a speech. Ritual pens handed out, hands shaken, smiles exchanged, a buzz of happy talk. The congressmen took their leave, among them Senator Pell, who had glittered briefly in the presidential spotlight; but the railroad presidents lingered, awaiting their cue.

At the President’s chummy invitation, the railroad men then moved to another room of the White House, where he talked with them for a time in the persuasive manner for which he is celebrated. The performance was private, but some of those who were present later sketched, with some awe, its main features. The President praised them warmly for bringing their companies through a time of lean pickings, expressed concern over the problems posed by their competition, wagged his head over the difficulties of regulation, mentioned the profits flooding in on the wave of current prosperity, and commented that the railroads were unexcelled at carrying large numbers of people from here to there. Then, in a marked manner, came the presidential request: any further reductions in the passenger service must at all costs be avoided. Did they not agree that it was essential to keep the passenger service at its current level? Perhaps even to restore some of the trains that had already been discontinued?


At this point, some of his guests seemed rather uncomfortable. The President suggested that he would like to see a report on the whole question of the passenger service, its future, how it could be made to work—and who better to prepare such a report than the leaders of the industry?

Before they left, the railroad men had agreed to reconsider the problem of the passenger service and report back in three months—by January, 1966.

However inopportune, here was another of those magic occasions when the railroad men had the chance to obliterate the errors and stupidities of the past; no questions asked, no blames assessed, no guilts imputed. If they had treated their passengers shabbily, the public, through its elected representatives, had agreed to forget all the old animosities and had whipped up a good deal of excitement over the brave new trains promised for the future. If the government in Washington had treated the railroads unfairly, if federal funds had been inequitably sluiced to their competitors, now the seasons had wheeled through an equinox, and at last the railroads were once again sharing in these federal bounties.

Moreover, if they chose so to construe the President’s request, the railroad men had just to the north of them a spectacular example of how they might revive the passenger service, modernize it, and make it both popular and profitable: the example of the Canadian National.

The C.N. is the world’s biggest railroad, operating more than 32,000 miles of track through all ten Canadian provinces and into some of the northern United States as well. Unlike its chief competitor, the Canadian Pacific, the C.N. has been nationalized since 1919, but it is still highly competitive. During the 1950*5, in the best tradition of orthodox railroad management, the C.N. discontinued one quarter of its passenger service, and would have dropped more had not the Canadian Board of Transport Commissioners in 1961 blown the whistle on such practices.

The effect of this caveat on the C.N. was remarkable. If it was stuck with a passenger business, by Heaven, it would try to make it pay. Fares were slashed—first experimentally and then all over the dominion—as much as fifty per cent. Modern trains began to move on faster schedules; tickets were offered by mail and on credit; a Car-Go-Rail plan enabled passengers to take their automobiles and find them, freshly washed, at their destination. The public flocked aboard the C.N. trains, especially the Rapido, which runs from Montreal to Toronto.


The Rapido went into service in October, 1965, and at once became the fastest intercity train in North America, running the 335 miles in five hours, which was eighty-five minutes faster than the train it had replaced. A first-class ticket, which included an excellent dinner, was fifteen dollars; a coach seat cost eight dollars; the combination of comfort, service, and dependability proved so popular that it soon became necessary to reserve space a week in advance. (By contrast, the New York Central’s Chicagoan takes six hours to run the same distance from Cleveland to Chicago; first-class costs $25.74; coach is $16.25; all meals are extra; and there is no rush to clamber aboard the train.)

The C.N. has now announced that the Rapido will in turn be replaced by five turbine-powered trains, built of aluminum and specially designed to ride smoothly at speeds up to one hundred and sixty miles an hour, further reducing the time of the TorontoMontreal run to four hours. Moreover, the railroad is confident that these turbo-trains will make the C.N.’s passenger service profitable by 1970.

Was there here a lesson for American railroad executives? Or could they learn anything from the resounding success of the Japanese Tokaido line, which shoots a handsome train called the Bullet 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka in three hours? Possibly; but the chief executive officers of the great American railroad companies have on their minds more exigent matters than the performance of passenger trains in foreign countries. They delegated the task of drafting the report for President Johnson to their general counsels and the Association of American Railroads.

In due course the report (“On the Intercity Rail Passenger Train Situation, and Certain Other Railroad Problems”) was approved, neatly typed, and, on January 5, 1966, delivered to the White House. It was a pedestrian document; a rambling recapitulation of all the industry’s fancied grievances against regulators, tax assessors, tax legislators, competitors, and the architects of the so-called federal transportation policy; and yet, as the months passed and their report provoked no official reaction, the railroad men bridled. They believed they had proffered substantial pledges and had also suggested, discreetly, that their posture on fundamental issues was radically altered. Why then were their tenders ignored?

In the face of a frosty silence at the White House, the railroad men themselves made public their revolutionary about-face. It was that they no longer insisted on the absurd estimate of the mythical passenger deficit computed by the commission’s formula (which in 1965 amounted to $421,000,000); they now admitted that their actual out-of-pocket losses amounted to only $44,000,000. (Even this estimate is probably exaggerated.) The broad implication was that any administration which wished to preserve the passenger service in its status quo, and which at the same time was paying out zillions of dollars of federal funds to build highways and to subsidize airlines, could easily afford to pick up the tab for such a trivial deficit.


But the White House declined to jump at the bait. Obviously the report was not the “imaginative solution” to the rail passenger service problem that President Johnson had sought.


On October 3, 1966, one year after the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act had been signed, Senator Pell was pleased to invite the attention of his colleagues to a report of what had been done to improve the rail passenger service in the Northeast Corridor. Some brave first steps had been taken.

A program of research and development had been launched, with emphasis on railroad technology but geared to explore some fairly unconventional highspeed systems as well. Experimental cars were to be built, crammed with hundreds of electronic sensors and other delicate instrumentation, and set to testing every imaginable aspect of high-speed rail transportation, from the depth of ballast in the roadbed to the interaction of pantograph and catenary in the overhead grid of electric cables; this time nothing was to be left to chance or guesswork.

The lessons of all this belated research were to be embodied in three demonstration projects. One is designed to explore the feasibility of hauling passengers and their automobiles, in specially designed double-decked railroad cars, from Alexandria to Jacksonville over the tracks of the Seaboard Coast Line. Once on board the train, passengers will be able to get out of their automobiles, stroll about, leave their children to romp in supervised play areas, relax in a lounge car, watch television, and eat in a cafeteria car. The trip will take about twelve hours. The demonstration is to begin sometime this year.

The other two demonstration projects were, of course, designed to speed and otherwise improve rail travel in the Northeast Corridor; and in these Senator Pell could take an almost paternal pride. Both projects are scheduled to be in experimental operation early this year.

Because of the deplorable financial condition of the New Haven, the demonstration project between Boston and New York is necessarily limited in scope. Moreover, the tracks of the New Haven curve and wind along the shore line, meandering over 129 grade crossings and 179 bridges which are from fifty to seventy-five years old. The road itself is in wretched condition. How could anyone imagine that trains could be moved over it fast enough to clip an hour from the time the trip has always taken? The challenge was accepted by the United Aircraft Corporation Systems Center. The company has designed and built two small, very light train sets of three cars each, powered by aircraft turbine engines that weigh only 250 pounds apiece, and has suspended the trains so that they swing inward as they bank around curves. Thus they are able to negotiate curves thirty per cent faster than trains of conventional design. (Here is another instance of the engineering ingenuity so conspicuously lacking in the railroad industry for so many decades.) The United Aircraft train sets can zip along at 150 m.p.h. over the New Haven’s existing tracks, but they will be held to about no m.p.h. The state of Connecticut, through its Transportation Authority, has paid out $500,000 to make structural improvements in the roadbed. The federal government, through the new Department of Transportation, has made contracts with the New Haven, specifying standards of on-time performance, cleanliness, and those other considerations necessary for a proper test of public reaction to the experimental service.

It is, however, the demonstration project between New York and Washington, over the tracks of the Pennsylvania, that affords the richest promise for a better rail passenger service not only in the Northeast Corridor but all over the country. This is because the officers of the Pennsylvania are sharply aware that everybody in the railroad business, indeed everybody in the transportation business, in this country and abroad, is taking a lively interest in just what kind of a passenger service the Pennsylvania will offer after so many years of slovenliness and neglect. And anyone who thinks that in these circumstances the Pennsylvania Railroad Company will not try its damnedest to do its best simply does not know the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

The outward and visible signs of this inward and corporate grace are an improved catenary system, two hundred thousand tons of ballast for a stronger roadbed, hundreds of miles of continuous welded rail, four reinforced bridges, and raised platforms in the depots at Washington, Baltimore, and Wilmington—a list of items that cost the Pennsylvania more than twenty-five million dollars. Other visible signs are the fifty cars—ten parlor cars and forty coaches, twenty of them equipped with quick-service food counters—carpeted, quiet, and comfortable. They are self-propelled, able to cruise at 150 m.p.h., coupled in pairs, operating in trains of four, six, eight, or more, and capable of slicing about an hour off the old time. They cost the railroad more than eleven million dollars.

The demonstration is to run for two years, during which the railroad has agreed (by contract with the Department of Transportation) to experiment with the price of fares, the schedule of stops at intermediate depots, the kind of meals to be served, methods of selling tickets and making reservations, and the possibilities offered by on-board entertainments of various kinds. Those railroad employees who deal with passengers will have been schooled in such old-fashioned virtues as courtesy. Thirty of the cars have telephones; the system permits passengers to receive calls as well as make them. The trains may run on even swifter schedules during the last phase of the demonstration, perhaps fast enough to speed between Washington and New York in two hours and twenty minutes, every hour on the hour.

The aggressive co-operation of the Pennsylvania with the Office of High-Speed Ground Transportation does not mean that Stuart Saunders, the Pennsylvania’s chief executive officer, has suddenly moved to the Amen corner and will now whoop it up for the passenger service; he is still inimical to the longdistance passenger train, and he regards the commuter train with considerable loathing; but he deplores our irrational, wasteful devotion to the automobile. (“We are blacktopping ourselves to death,” he has said. “The cloverleaf has become our national flower.”) Thus he perceived an economic justification for expanding rail passenger service in a densely populated, 226-mile strip of urban sprawl.

The pressure on other carriers is already mounting. In January, 1967, a group of civic and state organizations held a Midwest High-Speed Rail Transit Conference in Chicago; a paper was read by Robert A. Nelson, the able and imaginative director of the Northeast Corridor Project; another paper, by W. W. Hay, professor of railway civil engineering at the University of Illinois, argued that in the relatively flat Midwest, after a few technical improvements, the time of trips between St. Louis and Chicago could be reduced from five and one half to three hours; the Twin Cities and Chicago, from six and one half to four and one half hours; Detroit and Chicago, from five and one half to three hours; and Cleveland and Chicago, from six to three and one half hours. “These improved times,” Hay said, “would all be competitive with modern jet air schedules.”


It is worth noting that the railroads have long been technologically capable of operating trains at high speeds. Thirty years ago trains of the Chicago & North Western, the Burlington, and the Milwaukee Roac all regularly hit 100 m.p.h. on the run between Chicago and the Twin Cities; fifty years ago speeds of more than 100 m.p.h. were routine for passenger trains on straight, level stretches of track; in 1905 a train of the Pennsylvania Railroad attained 127 m.p.h. over three miles of track in western Ohio. Trains are slower today only because the companies that operate them have deliberately downgraded the service.

Not that the debate about public transportation will ever be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In terms of efficiency, of safety and dependability in all weathers, and of financial economy, the railroads are first and their competitors nowhere in sight; but in an affluent, spendthrift society, such arguments as efficiency and economy carry little weight.

What counts in this debate are incontrovertible facts like the steady deterioration of the fleet of passenger cars and the appalling cost of replacing that fleet. If a determination of public policy is not made very soon, there will be no more rail passenger service simply because the cars to carry passengers will be too decrepit for the demands made upon them. To tempt the large sums of capital (public as well as private) needed to build and buy a fleet of new, comfortable, clean, quiet passenger cars, there must be unmistakable evidence of a public demand for an improved rail passenger service, and the demonstration project in the Northeast Corridor, it is hoped, will supply such evidence in abundance.

It may be doubted that the railroad companies will undertake any such service unless the federal government makes it quite clear that they will be allowed to cancel no more intercity trains, that they are in the passenger business to stay. But even if the industry succeeds in uneducating the public, even if new equipment is put into service, tracks and roadbeds are improved, and schedules speeded up, everything in our past experience shows that the passenger service nationally will have to be supervised or at least sharply scrutinized by an appropriate federal agency, just as the conduct of the demonstration projects in the Northeast Corridor is now being supervised by the Office of High-Speed Ground Transportation.

Surveillance is mandatory, for the business of railroading is in truth two quite different businesses—the hauling of freight and the carriage of people—with quite different managerial functions. The hauling of freight is a wholesale, industrial function. It has been well described as a factory that produces transportation in trainload lots for a relatively few customers, the shippers; this factory also functions for the same few customers as a mobile warehouse. The carriage of people, however, is a retail function, more like a specialty shop that sells custom-made goods to an exacting clientele. To ask one man to manage both enterprises is rather like asking the same actor to perform roles written for, say, John Wayne and Doris Day. Moreover, since the revenues from the passenger service in 1961-65 were only about thirteen per cent of the revenues from the freight service, it is not hard to guess how the one manager of both services will spend his time and his energy and his capital funds—unless an unwinking eye is ou him, watchful lest he give less than his wholehearted and zestful best on behalf of his passenger service.

And if the masters of the railroads resist such supervision, if they complain of further intolerable regulation, they must be reminded of what they have studiously ignored and hoped everybody else has forgotten, that the railways are public highways, laid down for the convenience of the general public, required to respond equably and equitably to the public necessity, and administered—at least theoretically—in the public interest. Eighty years ago, in the full wrath of our sovereign majesty, we decreed that the railroads must be regulated by a public authority, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and ever since, the masters of the railroads have attempted to squirm out from under this authority, to subvert it, or to overthrow it. Now that we have built other highways on the ground and invented still others to fill the air, we have grown careless of our dominion and permitted, without rebuff, an insolence from those who administer the railed public highways. In this way, through their contumacy on the one hand and a reckless squandering of our sovereign power on the other, we have reached a crisis in the business and the pleasure of travelling from here to there and back again.

In this crisis, time is a factor that can no longer be controlled. The equipment to operate a national passenger service has been allowed to deteriorate beyond patchwork: it is no longer obsolescent or even obsolete: it is all but extinct. No longer do we have a choice. We must once again exert our sovereign power. We must bid our government rule that the railed highways shall remain open for passengers. Once the masters of the railroads have been given orders in unmistakable terms, they must find ways to revive the passenger service. If they cannot, they must be relieved of the responsibility, and the passenger service must be nationalized.


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