Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


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.