Historical Overview Of How We Got Here: Identifying Trends-Errors, Mistakes, Bad Decisions, Inappropriate Leadership
The First Decade-1970s
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
In this introduction to a multi-part series analyzing each decade in a vivid reflection of missed opportunities and questionable decisions. Those decisions made by many politically-appointed apparatchiks either not committed to Amtrak, or, attempting to fake it as best as they could, realizing they lacked the requisite experience to competently lead Amtrak. Upon reflection, Amtrak enjoyed only two periods of stabilization, initially between 1982-1993 under the professional railroad experience and political savvy of W. Graham Claytor. As well, under David L. Gunn between 2002-2005, who was forced out by Amtrak’s political Board; thus, creating the vacuum in leadership that continued to evolve up to the present time.
In essence, as we reflect back upon how the decision-process developed and its impact upon strategic opportunities; how those decisions stymied and prevented the acceptance and growth of Amtrak as our national passenger train carrier can be defined in summary as: “Amtrak was flying at night, in the rain and fog; on instruments; but the instruments were not turned on.” Reflecting upon Amtrak’s past, it was inevitable it would lead to today’s train wreck that it has become. To know what must be undertaken to fix Amtrak today, requires that we must delve into and learn from its past. Each decade highlights events that continued to aggregate as trends that impeded Amtrak.
1970s: “Setting the Table” for Failure; Penn Central Complex; Inferior Product Design
What “set the table” initially for Amtrak was how political decisions handicapped operations from the beginning, by inserting an impossible “for profit” status in its mission; political inhibitions towards any financial investment to properly re-build a dilapidated system and dismissal of any ability to eagerly identify and address needs of new markets. As well, political tributes were foisted upon Amtrak, including those of multiple, duplicitous services to West Virginia from Chicago and Washington, the inappropriate use of rare TurboTrain equipment over mountainous terrain in West Virginia, and a second Montana service.
It was also as if the emphasis was just on bailing out the already failed Penn Central, including:
1) Selection of Penn Central commissary and maintenance base in Chicago, when both the Burlington and Santa Fe offered far superior facilities.
2) Selection of Penn Central Beech Grove car shops outside of Indianapolis for maintenance and repair, when more modern operations were available in Chicago.
3) Designation of NYC-Philadelphia Penn Central route of hourly “Clocker” service as non-commuter; however, identifying the same distance and similar metro markets of Chicago – Milwaukee as a commuter route; thereby, stripping out service until Wisconsin and Illinois paid-up.
When designing Superliners, why was the standard Pullman berth, faithful over so many decades, eliminated? What was the design advantage of pushing two seats together and throwing over a thin army-type bedroll and paper-thin pillows; with the passenger’s head on the lower in a well and far below the window; or, the upper so tightly close to the ceiling with a plastic mattress? For what (practical) purpose did Amtrak’s product design discard the entire concept of comfort-and watching the world go by a night?
Why did Amtrak fail to patent the design of the F40PH diesel that replaced the SDP40F, which would have generated additional funds, given this model’s popularity with commuter lines and VIA Rail Canada?
Bold management initially recruited to Amtrak correctly envisioned the feasibility of marketing an operation in 1971 of run thru trains at Chicago between Milwaukee-St. Louis. Not just any train, this dual round trip consisted of dome parlor, diner/lounge, and dome coaches. The same non-political management created four car “Metroliners” to run on an easy to remember hourly schedule between Washington-NYC.
Just in time for the first oil embargo of 1973-1974, French Turbos were purchased for Midwest runs. Beyond the higher fuel cost that engulfed these trains, their fixed consist did not allow for adjustment in consist for traffic changes, or, ease of maintenance. Later, American-built Rohr Turbos for the Empire Corridor were abandoned by Amtrak, after NY state had spent approximately $8 Million to rehabilitate the sets.
Despite arrival of Budd-built Amfleet equipment in mid to late 1970s, decisions were quickly made to strip-out first class and food cars from the Midwest in favor of building-up the NEC service. Thus, the beginning of the overt favoritism of the NEC over other regions and their own corridor needs.
Early on, Amtrak’s one size fits all cookie cutter approach to the market greatly impacted any thought of a rebound in first class overnight travel. Despite the ability of the ACL/SCL to operate an opulent “Florida Special” for winter seasons between NYC-Miami, Amtrak could only attempt to operate such a train just for its first winter season, 1971-1972. Amtrak did attempt to accommodate the winter season traffic surge from 1972-1976 by operating “The Vacationer” between NYC-Miami.
Without doubt, the most irate reaction to Amtrak’s indifference to first class services was in 1973 by the CEO of the Santa Fe Railway, John Reed, who was opposed to Amtrak’s elimination of the first class diner and lounge on the “Super Chief” and the lower standards on the “Texas Chief.” Although the Penn Central did not seek to protect vintage names and trademarks, the Santa Fe certainly did, and moved to withdraw its permission for Amtrak to use any train nomenclature denoting “Chief” or Santa Fe. A bold move by a railroad that cared and took pride all the way up to Amtrak Day–1 May 1971.
Although Amtrak attempted to operate a 1972 summer seasonal “Chief” between Chicago-Los Angeles, it was deemed a failure. A post mortem analysis determined that a significant contributing factor was Amtrak’s lack of timely advertising and marketing for this second west coast schedule well in advance of starting the service.
Although both Southern and Rock Island threw in the towel in 1979, with Amtrak taking on the “Southern Crescent,” Midwest corridor opportunities suffered due to the extent of the Rock Island’s demise from the early 1960s extending throughout the 1970s to its end. Tasked with planning optimal routes for Amtrak, Jim McClellan was stymied from suggesting the Rock Island’s more populated and abundance of colleges located on the Rock’s route between Chicago-Omaha, as Amtrak lacked the funds to re-build any such route at the time. Even the C&NW’s route would have been preferable to the Burlington, as the former Overland Route served DeKalb, IL and Cedar Rapids, IA.
A bright star in this decade that has only further developed well beyond New York, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin, is how California quickly grasped the importance of investing in rail corridors. Now providing a vast inter-regional corridor approach through three JPAs, this all started in 1976 by funding the expansion of the “San Diegan” scheduled frequency.
The oil embargoes of 1973-74 and 1979-80 were a gift towards extending Amtrak’s tenuous life, encouraging Congress to fund new motive power and motors; Amfleet order from Budd; Superliner order from Pullman. Despite inheriting a vast empire of deferred maintenance on equipment, depots, maintenance bases, and downgraded track quality with lower speeds on Class 1s, Amtrak endeavored to combine commissaries and maintenance bases; eliminate duplicate depots, and create a computer reservation system.
However, churning its senior management three times in this decade, lacking a close and credible position with Congress, void of any cohesive marketing program, and internally having no idea of the difference between cost and price, let alone how to build revenues, the Carter Administration successfully imposed a ”haircut” on Amtrak in 1979 by cutting six of its long distance trains: The Hilltopper, The Floridian, National Limited, Lone Star, The Champion, and North Coast Hiawatha.
Sadly, this story would be played out several more times, as neither Amtrak nor the political forces in Congress understood that cutting these long distance trains did not really meaningfully cut costs, but rather, only further reduced revenues; thus, putting Amtrak on a perpetual cycle (remember“flying at night on instruments without the instruments on..”) of cutting long distance routes with the intent of cutting costs, but only exacerbating the carve-out of more sorely needed revenues.
Personal Reflections on the 1970s:
In 1971, I introduced myself to Steve Kabala, Amtrak’s Regional Director of Marketing-Midwest, who offered me a position under him in Chicago. Regrettably, I declined and took a position in hospital management.
Traveled Los Angeles-Chicago and back in 1972 on what would be the last full year of how the Santa Fe approved operation of the “Super Chief”-still great, freshly prepared meals; well made cocktails in Pleasure Dome; a waiter going through consist with dining car chimes announcing the various calls for that meal. Nothing better than a bedroom in the remodeled 11 DBR Indian series cars.
In 1974, journeyed on the “Coast Starlight” between LA-Oakland; very crowded train; insufficient lounge space; however, diner was always able to accommodate the crowd (so, what’s changed these days..?)
When attending a master’s program at Yale University, 1974-1975, I cut the excruciatingly boring Biostatistics classes and went down to the New Haven depot to photograph arrival/departure of trains from Washington, Boston, Springfield; changing power between motors and diesels, the busy engine house, as well as the heavy commuter traffic. (The reason I purchased my first real camera, a Canon F1bn 35mm).
One Fall afternoon, traveled to Boston to ride TurboTrain back; taking a one car “Pilgrim” from New Haven; rode in forward dome of TurboTrain back. Serious issue of thugs attacking train over almost every viaduct with rocks and stones; what a site to see engineers “ducking” concrete missiles aimed at them. A while later, a passenger was killed in the dome by a boulder thrown at the train. Interesting to see Cedar Hill and coaling tower still standing.
Also, traveled almost every weekend from New Haven-NYC, leaving Friday afternoons on the TurboTrain (seated in forward dome with terrific views traversing Hell Gate) and returning on Sundays, either in parlor of run thru “Metroliner” or parlor of “Merchants Limited” located behind GG1 to hear bellow of horn; still individual swivel seats.
Took opportunity to ride new French Turbo in summer, 1975 between Chicago-Springfield, IL. Unusually small dining/lounge section; very uncomfortable seating-all coach. (And CEO Anderson envisions this style for his DMUs to replace long distance trains..?)
Last trip on “Super Chief” in February, 1973, LA-Chicago. Already menu changes, inside of 10-6 sleeper looked like a brothel in purple and red. Made same day connections to “Broadway Limited” to Washington, with consist split ting in Harrisburg to Washington. Moved to an ex-SP 12 DBR as my 10-6 was bad ordered.Although first re-modeled consist with ex-B&O observation on Washington section, roadbed was absolutely worst ever between Indiana-Ohio-Pennsylvania. Arrival in Washington only 4 hours off timecard.
Same trip, traveled parlor on “Metroliner” to NYC, to make quick connection to “TurboTrain to New Haven. Late “Metroliner” caused me to miss connection and wait for slower, all stop “Southern Crescent/Patriot” connection.
In 1975, traveled Chicago-Glacier Park, Montana in Slumbercoach on “Empire Builder” with consist still including Ranch Car, Full dome, diner, and NP dome lounge with filthy tables and dirty, lexan windows. Food just ok; Slumbercoach berth not like a Pullman.
January, 1978 beckoned me aboard “Empire Builder” overnight to Minneapolis in Bedroom. bused out to yards as switches were frozen ran hours late. Returning that night, train due out about 11:30pm; did not arrive until 5:30 AM, due to frigid weather. Fires out in diner before Milwaukee (against rules) and only chickens said sandwiches offered.
Well planned trip in August, 1979 to ride last round trip of “Southern Crescent” between Washington-Atlanta in Master Room. Unfortunately, train-off delayed until February, 1979. Still a first class train re food, bar, accommodations.