Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?

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During these same five years the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, and the Baltimore & Ohio engaged Robert Heller Associates, consultants on problems of management, to inquire into the habits and preferences of passengers on every train east of the Mississippi and the Missouri, north from the Gulf of Mexico into the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Here was the most comprehensive and thoroughgoing study ever undertaken for any mode of transportation in the history of the Republic. It cost about five million dollars. Motivation of travellers, operation of trains, costs and marketing of the passenger service—all this and much more was painstakingly investigated. The purpose of the study was to enable the directors of the three railroads to determine the feasibility of consolidating their passenger services. (Think what might have conic to pass: a rational integration of terminals and depots, a saving of millions of dollars by elimination of unnecessary competition, a more frequent and more convenient schedule of trains, cheaper fares, swifter, more comfortable rides; in short, a paradise for those who prefer to travel by train in the overcrowded eastern region.) Nothing happened. The study itself, an invaluable research, was discarded, scattered, or destroyed; not maliciously, not with evil intent, but (as f have been told by one of those familiar with the research) only stupidly, only because the executives who had it in charge knew no better.

 

Much interest attached to a few of the cars built at this time, for these few, which cost less than ten million dollars, were genuine innovations in passenger equipment, proudly hailed as “the trains of the future"—streamlined, built of lightweight aluminum or stainless steel, and manufactured to run in fixed sets of six or eight or a doxen cars. They bore flamboyant names like Aerotrain and X-Plorer and RDC Hot Rod. They were hurried into service early in 1956 and almost immediately proved to be »resounding Hop. They trembled and shook at high speed; they were noisy; they broke down easily and often, but their sets could not be readily parted to detach an intermediate car for repair or maintenance; they could not be interchanged with cars of traditional design; they were too light to trip the devices that activated signal systems. By K)Oo they had all been scrapped or relegated to service on suburban runs, and the whole episode had perfectly demonstrated what the venerable dodoes of the industry had known all along, to wit: “Never monkey around with damnfool experiments.” … “The old way is the best way.” … “Whatever is old has been tested by time.”

The masters of the railroads now reformed their ranks in a sullen phalanx. What they had never properly understood they now condemned. Even before the new lightweight equipment had proved to be a costly mistake, the Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference was urged to seek a steep increase in passenger fares and especially in Pullman fares. This plan was proposed by the New York Central and heartily endorsed by the Pennsylvania. (The other eastern carriers at first declined to support it.) The plan was revealed on July 25, 1956, by a knowledgeable reporter of railroad affairs, Robert Bedingfield, in an article published on the front page of the New York Times . The headline put it neatly: 2 R AILWAYS P LAN F ARE R ISE TO D ETER P ULLMAN T RAVEL . Just in case some reader might have missed the import of the headline, the president of a smaller railroad was quoted in unmistakable terms: “What they are trying to do is to dry up the Pullman service and switch the passengers over to the coach and the airplane.” Jn fine, the big railroads hoped to use the fare—the rate for passengers—as an instrument of policy to club their ratepayers into doing as they wished.

There were other ways, in 1956, to enervate the passenger service. Advertising budgets, already minuscule, could be reduced still further. In 1946 the industry had submitted to a little self-criticism on this score from its creature, the Association of American R.ailroads. “Railroads,” the A.A.R. said in a report on passenger traffic, “spend insignificant sums for advertising in comparison with the amount of business done,” and the report went on to point out that even in 1943, when travel by the domestic airlines was constantly jeopardized by military priorities, the airlines had spent twenty-five times as much (in relation to revenues) as had the railroads, in trying to drum up their passenger business. But after 1950, instead of beefing up their advertising of passenger services, most railroad companies cut it to the bone and deeper, into the marrow. They even rejected a successful experimental method of increasing revenues by paying sales commissions to ticket agents.

Every idea for attracting passengers back to the railroads or for making it easier to travel by rail was somehow flawed—it was too expensive, too impractical, too likely to be fought by the unions.

In the 1950’s one figure glared from every railroad company’s balance sheet: the alleged deficits accruing from the passenger service. These deficits were frightful. They were also exceedingly well publicized, for every railroad company had discovered that the surepop way to get its weaker trains discontinued was to agitate the public generally and Congress particularly by pleading imminent bankruptcy unless these deficits were wiped out.