Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


Yet long after the feasibility of air-conditioned passenger trains had been demonstrated, the railroad operators hung back. Jn concert, they declined to install the necessary devices; all their available funds were bespoken by their investment bankers, who were advising them in ilicir financially calamitous ventures in the stock market. Not until their passenger revenues fell off sharply, after 1929, did they turn to air conditioning, and then they could ill afford it; not until late into the 1930’s were most trains routinely equipped with air-conditioned passenger cars; and a few of the smaller roads waited until 1950 to begin granting their customers this minimal comfort.

The conclusion is inescapable that the general public, badly used by the railroads from the first day a flanged wheel rolled along an iron rail, could not wait for the opportunity to use another mode of travel. They had been fighting bitterly for nearly a century; now they wanted only to switch.

Belatedly a few railroads, especially those in the West, set out to recapture their passengers. In iy34 the Union Pacific put on a lightweight train that cut the time between Chicago and Los Angeles from sixty to less than forty hours; the Burlington began operating its swift, handsome Zephyrs; and in lygß the Santa Fe was obliged to schedule lightweight trains of its own. Industrial designers were retained who made the first changes in the design of sleeping cars and lounge cars since the time, back in the 1870’s, when those elegant creatures had first been built. For the New York Central, Henry Dreyfuss redesigned the Twentieth Century, Raymond Loewy did the same for the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited, and curious crowds gathered in the big New York depots of both roads to examine sleeping cars which, for a wonder, afforded privacy: drawing rooms, sections, bedrooms, compartments that gave each traveller a washbasin and a toilet of his own and a door that he could lock. Was it possible? It was possible, but it had come too late. Of the rich and fastidious, fewer would patronixe these expensive cars each year; and the masters of the railroads had ignored, in their calculations, the scores of millions of other travelling Americans who had turned to the bus.

The bus, the noisome bus. It was typical of the footling way the railroads had operated their passenger service that an inelegant carrier like the bus should have emerged as a rival able to cut deep into the revenues of the noble railroad; able to ring up half as many passenger-miles as the railroads by 1940.

With the connivance of the railroads, who for many years invested heavily in bus company stocks, the passengers left the trains for the bus. Their departure gave the railroads in turn another excuse to drop their brandi lines. More passengers left for the automobile and, slowly at first, for the airplane. Yet more railroad executives persisted in proceeding as though the railroad still enjoyed a monopoly, if there has emerged a glaring coniradiciion, the explanation is that we are here dealing with the railroad industry.

A revolution was in full cycle, but the railroad managers, hidebound as ever, failed to measure its sweep. In retrospect, one can understand why they were so blinded, even while losing patience with them lor their refusal to open their eyes to what was going on around them. The depression of the 1930’s threatened to engulf almost every railroad company in ultimate disaster; the war of the early 1940’s buried every railroad under an avalanche of traffic. During those fifteen years the managers of the railroads were so absorbed by their immediate concerns that they never paused to learn from the lessons of yesterday or to consider the possible exigencies of tomorrow.

Incredible as it may seem, when in 1946 the railroad managers began to struggle with the postwar problems of their passenger service, they knew almost nothing about their market or about the How and pattern of traffic.

Into this dark abysm of assumption and conjecture the railroad men bravely plunged. They were certain of only one fact: their passenger cars were old, shabby, and in dreadful disrepair; so, they spent with a free hand. More than $500,000,000 in the five years from 1946 to 1950 went to buy more than 4,000 new passenger-train cars—handsome, expensive, air-conditioned, and built according to the traditional heavyweight design to last for at least a generation. Yet in each year the number of their passengers dwindled.

In the next five years they spent their money more cautiously. Less than $250,000,000 went to purchase new equipment, and of that sum a larger share was paid to buy cars for the so-called head-end traffic- that is, cars built to haul mail and baggage and express freight. Yet in each year the number of passengers diminished. Could it be that they had somehow overlooked some aspect of their passenger service?