Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


The Interstate Commerce Commission, using an antique statistical formula of its own contrivance, concluded in 1957 that the passenger service had for the previous seven years saddled the railroads with an annual deficit of more than five hundred million dollars. Since many of the biggest railroad companies were suffused with reel ink at the time, their officers indicted the traffic in passengers as an intolerable burden. On cue, spokesmen for the shippers likewise began to yowl that the passenger-train deficits were crippling the railroads and preventing them from the efficient discharge of their divine duty: to wit, the carriage of freight.

Responsive to these protests, the commission undertook to investigate the passenger-train deficit. The healings ambled along, like an accommodation local, from June 18, 1957, to June 23, 1958 (while the deficit itself, by the commission’s intricate formula of accounting, mounted in 1957 to an all-time record of $724,000,000); they served to convince at least the hearings examiner, Howard Hosmer, who predicted, “the parlor and sleeping-car service will have disappeared by 1965, and the coach service by 1970.”

That was precisely what most (but by no means all) lords of the railroads had hoped would be predicted. They had already besought Congress for relief, and in August, 1958, they had got it. An amendment (Section 13a) to the Interstate Commerce Act put a gratifying zip into the process by which passenger trains, whether interstate or intrastate, could be forever curtailed, cancelled, and discontinued. The extermination picked up speed and proceeded merrily apace—until all at once Senator Pell’s consarned plan burst into the public prints. Since then, the extermination has proceeded, but cautiously, more slowly, with greater difficulty, for now the other side of the debate has been given a hearing and respectful attention.

The opposition holds that the lords of the railroads are solely responsible for the deterioration of the passenger service, just as they have always been responsible for the uncivil and contemptuous treatment that has been the passenger’s traditional lot on most railloads. This argument has never been articulated or documented with as much skill as has the railroads’ argument, but at no time in the history of American railroads have passengers failed to remark the singular reluctance of railroad presidents to afford comfortable, even minimally decent accommodations. Whatever provides ease or convenience may subtract from financial profit, and the railroad president has ever been spurred by his natural greed for profit.

The first truly radical change in the manufacture of railroad cars, when wood was replaced by steel, was made in 1894; it began, logically enough from the standpoint of the railroads, with freight cars. Not until fourteen years later, in 1908, did the PullmanStandard Car Manufacturing Company begin production of all-steel passenger cars. The company was obliged to make this extraordinary decision because of the very real hazard that steam locomotives, puffing up clouds of glowing sparks, might set afire the old wooden coaches if they were hauled through the tunnel the Pennsylvania was then building (to be opened in 1910) under the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City.

The all-steel sleeping car came later, making a modest appearance in igio and no considerable splash until the mid-1920’s, when passenger revenues from Pullman cars were at their xenith. This was the car now considered high camp, the car that evokes memories of the romantic Nights of the Green Curtains. Only those of us who are in our forties or older can recall those sleepers, characterized so aptly as “rolling tenements.” They were ugly, uncomfortable dormitories, as lacking in privacy as a jailhouse. Each passenger rocked longitudinally in a berth cloaked only by a swaying curtain of a heavy dark-green fabric that might better have been used as an upholstery for the furniture in the lobbies of commercial hotels. At one end of each sleeper was the men’s room—one toilet, a pseudo-leathern couch, and a meager triad of communal washbasins, inadequately equipped with mirrors, in front of which a gaggle of salesmen customarily postured and prattled, exchanging jokes of an unexampled vulgarity; at the other end was the women’s room—similarly fitted, and littered witli someone elsc’s fare powder and someone elsc’s hair combings.

Spurred by concern for the comfort of their passengers, the railroad executives required that three improvements be made in these hideous sleeping cars: In 1924 receptacles for used razor blades were installed in the men’s rooms. In 1926 containers of fresh facial tissues were placed in some, but not all, of the women’s rooms. In iyay the water coolers were adjusted so that they would no longer overflow on the strip of carpeting in the corridors.

There was also the matter of air conditioning. One would think that the lords of the railroads would have snatched at air conditioning when it first became practical; would, even more likely, have themselves been first to conceive of it; for surely there are few surroundings in which the human being can more gratefully welcome a constant supply of cooled, clean air than a railroad coach drawn by a steam locomotive on a hot day. With windows closed, the passengers baked; with windows opened (presuming, of course, that someone had the Herculean strength required to open a coach window), the passengers were aspersed with soot and grime and coal dust, and their lungs filled with a noxious stench.