Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ebb & Flow

No, the title of this blog is not a new country duo--nor is it the name of my legal team.  It is what happens with Passenger Rail in the U.S. with Amtrak and Congress, that singularly mismatched duo, running things.

During the first decade of my life, Passenger Rail was full flow.  Post WWII streamliners came on line faster than Sbarro on Manhattan Island.  No matter what the railroad was running things, a serious effort to please the traveling public and make Passenger Rail competitive with air travel and highways created the grand days of 20th century rail travel.  The big ones come to mind.  The Super Chief, The Broadway, The 20th Century Limited, The City streamliners, The North Coast Limited, The Empire Builder.  There are lots more, but my childhood was centered on the midwest, so forgive my omissions.

Move on to the 1960s.  Don't get me wrong.  Passenger Rail was already on the skids in the late 50s.  By the early 60s, no skids were left underneath and it was almost free fall.  The airlines and the Interstate Highway System took big public money and made mincemeat of the Passenger Rail system.  The ICC paid lip service to competition and public necessity, but nobody thought of rail as a "modern" form of transportation, least of all Congress.  Regulation threatened to end railroading completely.

The onset of Amtrak . . . yes, it had an onset just like a disease . . . brought relief to the rail systems vis a vis removal of a nasty red line from the ledger, but it wasn't a panacea, and Congress was as stingy as it could get.  A subsidiary disease is something I would call Turn-a-Profit-Itis.  Or make that last part -oma.  It's a cancer that has to be cut out of our thinking about transportation policy before it kills the patient.

Ebb and flow continued as Congress and Administrations would alternately fund and defund things, install new Amtrak administrators, and boards, and decide arbitrarily how bad the "-oma" would be.  Ebb and flow.

Now we have a national system that needs a lot of work.  Congress under the current administration -- it's more of a custodian -- gave Amtrak enough money for some new equipment, but not enough for new routes.  The rebuild of the Northeast Corridor needs a rebuild.  Somewhere along the line, Congress had the brilliant idea that the individual states would have to kick in for service, and this regulation has been administered so arbitrarily that there are some state legislatures that will eventually either want to opt out or have to as the state goes belly up.  Others have embraced this bugaboo wholeheartedly and have succeeded at it for the most part.  California, Illinois, Michigan, Washington come to mind.  Note they are also highly liberal states.

So in a way, we also have the ebb and flow of a once private network of passenger railroads turning into a smaller public entity, now being spun off to become something less of a single entity and more of a network again, with the very real possibility that some states will find private operators, and maybe even private owners, willing to run Passenger Rail again.  (Florida, perhaps California, Oklahoma?)

Ebb and Flow.

©2014 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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