Is Train Travel History?

The precarious status of Amtrak may lead to a privatized rail system


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The train station offers some of the most colorful stories of life in the moment. From Harry Potter waiting for a fantasy train on the way to new experiences in the Hogworts School to mom and kids going to grandma's house, the train brings tales of people meeting and greeting under a canopy of sights and sounds that air or automobile travel can't match.

The whistle blowing, the conductors in their spiffy suits, the smooth motion of cars on the track all are a part of a way of travel that is in danger of being eliminated. The financial state of Amtrak, the national inter-city rail service in the Untied States, is so dire that a special Congressional committee has been created to do the dirty work of dismantling it. But will it? Can it? And haven't we heard this before?

The rail issue, as complex as it is, will affect what happens to long distance train travel in the United States, the routes that a broke Amtrak run. It may, in our fossil fuel economy, seem like no one cares about the long distance trains that make trips from coast to coast. And while train travel is a good thing both economically and environmentally, it's been a dismal failure outside the Northeast corridor of the United States.

The sounds, sights and atmosphere of a train and inter-city stations offer travelers a unique experience, that far exceeds the seedy reputation that bus travel has. Even though the diesel inter-city Amtrak trains that exist in the United States aren't all that energy efficient, they are a bit more comfortable, scenic, and memorable. There's nothing like gazing out a picture window to see parts of the country where few have been and where roads are absent.

Amtrak should have connected most cities in the United States decades ago with modern stations and on-time trains. But it hasn't. Neither have the high-speed electric inter-city trains that are common in Europe and Japan caught on in the U.S. This is due not only to the oil companies' manipulation of the American transportation system, but also to the regional political quagmires that have prevented capital from reaching those lowly rail stations in cities and towns all across America. Most are desolate places, lonely stops surrounded by scenic vistas and battered by the elements.

There are many political and logistical problems involved in installing rail lines and just as many to upgrade and/or change existing lines. 'We (the government) don't own the rail or tracks. They are private and mostly utilized for freight and goods,' said Will Kleindienst, chairman of the board of a Southern California transit company at a recent meeting of young community leaders.

Funds for railroads are reserved for the elite who use them, the lawmakers. Rail is effective in and around places where they live. Congress controls the billions in railroad funds and procuring them is basically a contest between senators from the Northeastern 'corridor' states and individual large states. 'We have not been successful in bringing rail money here [in California],' explained Kleindienst. Some or all of the money is in jeopardy of being cut and they'll cut [routes] in the West, not the East.'

Much of the federal money goes to the maintenance of the sophisticated existing inner-city rail network that runs from Washington D.C. to Boston. After a struggle in which many small-state senators lobby for most of the money, the large states like Texas and California must make due with less than what is necessary to not only build new tracks, stations and cars, but to upgrade existing ones.

The young leaders in this Southern California boardroom heard the warning that derailments are caused by fatigue in the tracks, as they pondered the question of why more remote smaller towns and cities need rail at all.

Has the United States Missed the Train?

Rail history teaches us where the United States has failed and where most other parts of the world have excelled in rail construction, maintenance, and dependability. It also teaches us that train systems almost never make money. Should they?

It's been a long time since 1830 and the Best Friend of Charleston, the first regular passenger service steam engine, made its maiden journey. And while technology has led us from diesel to electric rail, many countries today maintain regular routes with steam engine trains. Think of a time line that begins with steam locomotives, then progresses to coal, and finally ends with electric. All three still operate if maintained properly. From the steam engines that roar the length of Cuba to the high-speed electric lines of Japan and France, rail is not dead.

The first steam engine train line began in Europe and the United States at about the same time, in the early 1800s. Until the early part of the 20th century the United States and most other parts of the world were in synch in their use of rail, not only to carry goods, but also to transport people.

Railroads spread rapidly in the eastern and southern states in the early 1800s. By the 1850s, track linked the Atlantic seaboard to the Midwest. In 1869, the first transcontinental route connected the East and West Coast. By the end of the 19th century, rail in the United States grew 11 miles per day. At that time, innovations in tracks and rail cars made the United States a leader in rail development. In the 1930s the first electric line in the world was built in Baltimore.

So what happened?

Essentially, the railroads became hostage to free markets in which little room exists for cooperation among various interestsin a rail environment where working together is a golden rule. Railroads demand a work force that can maintain a meticulous infrastructure consistently throughout vast regions.

Bad timing apparently was one of the reasons that the United States didn't build an inter-city electric rail service. Steam locomotives were replaced by diesel in America earlier than in Europe. Americans replaced steam with diesel locomotives during World War II while Europe was being devastated by the bombings and barely held on to their steam infrastructure. Once the war was over, the new electric technology was available, too late for the United States' newly built railroad, but just in time for rebuilding in Europe.

Diesel-powered electric engines came to be used in the United States in a locomotive developed by General Motors. Since then, inter-city trains haven't changed much in this country, and the diesel system is used to carry freight and passengers from city to city.

Inter-city electric rail does exist in this country, however, and in the Northeast is being expanded. Recently, the commuter lines of the Northeast were electrified as part of government-funded extension of the Washington D.C.-to-Boston line where electric rail was installed from New Haven, Connecticut to Boston.

But in the U.S. electrification was based on economic considerations. If electrification occurred, interest rates for financing it would go up because the railroads would show a lower profit margin. In Europe, and most notably in the Soviet Union, electrification and other modernization occurred at a rapid pace if for no other reason than to show the opposing side of the Cold War that a communist government could be modern and prosperous.

What About Privatization?

Amtrak is broke. 'It's heavily subsidized and not sustainable,' said Kleindienst. 'Some or all of its funds are in jeopardy.'

According to the Congressional Research Service, during the last 10 years Amtrak's revenue from inter-city passenger service, after adjustment for inflation, was flat, and Amtrak ridership declined about 10 percent, from 5.9 billion passenger-miles to 5.3 billion passenger-miles.

Congress has appropriated funds to pay for a group, the Amtrak Reform Council, to discuss the future of the rail system. And if the Republican-dominated council has its way, trains and rail lines in America would be up for grabs. But the AFL-CIO has already sought an injunction against the group.

There are serious questions about routes outside the Northeast, said Michael Buckley, communications coordinator for AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, 'But Amtrak is politically popular. Every member of Congress has train station in his or her district. The quandary is the financial challenges. Congress does not support passenger rail, but they don't want any cuts in service because they use it.'

Still, if the nation's rail service was to be completely privatized, the task of coordinating several train companies running on a limited number of privately owned tracks would ultimately bring chaos to the rails.

Great Britain, which has undergone much privatization, has the highest train fares in Europe and the least developed networks of electric rail. Railtrack is the company that owns and operates Britain's railway infrastructure-the tracks, signals, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, level crossings and stations. About 20 different companies run on the tracks, the biggest being Virgin (yes the same company that runs the airline) Railtrack recently went the way of the American energy company, Enron, in that the stock became almost worthless, while the British train system has been barely creaking along.

Meanwhile, high-speed trains made by French, British, German, Swiss, Italian, Swedish and Canadian companies currently link major cities on 12,000 km of track. Most of these government-run railroads have lost billions of dollars, but at least they have something to show for it-a sophisticated web of state-of-art electric rail networks. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Desert Post Weekly, an alternative weekly based in Cathedral City, California (www.desertpostweekly.com).