Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


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.