Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?

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At first nothing much happened, for the Highway Users Conference (which boasts a lobby second only to the Pentagon’s in its influence on Capitol Hill) and the airlines were both suspicious, and the railroad industry was conspicuously indifferent. In the last year of the Kennedy administration, $1,000,000 was asked and $625,000 was actually authorized to study the assumptions underlying the Pell plan, now officially known as the Northeast Corridor Project; in the first year of the Johnson administration, after much prodding by Pell, the Secretary of Commerce announced an ambitious research and development program for high-speed passenger transportation.

In January, 1965, in his report to Congress on the state of the Union, President Johnson said, “I will ask for funds to study high-speed rail transportation between urban centers. We will begin with test projects between Boston and Washington. On high-speed trains, passengers could travel this distance in less than four hours.” Four hours? Those unhappy people who still travelled by rail between Boston and Washington were used to the fact that if all went well- which it seldom did—the trip took eight hours and forty minutes. Yet the President reckoned it should take less than four hours? When that came to pass, his would not be merely a Great Society, it would be a Naked Miracle.

The administration’s bill, which authorized ninety million dollars for new passenger equipment and further research, slid easily through Congress, assisted now by the Railway Progress Institute (the association of railway equipment manufacturers, each of whom was eager for a contract), by the steel industry, by the railway labor unions, and, mirabile dictu , by the railroads. Stuart Saunders of the Pennsylvania urged passage of the bill and said he knew of no railroad official who implacably opposed it. After all, the only railroads directly involved in the Northeast Corridor Project were the Pennsylvania and the bankrupt New Haven.

On September 30, 1965, before a throng of congressmen, railroad presidents, and other dignitaries assembled in the East Room of the White House, President Johnson ceremoniously signed the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act. A big moment; a speech. Ritual pens handed out, hands shaken, smiles exchanged, a buzz of happy talk. The congressmen took their leave, among them Senator Pell, who had glittered briefly in the presidential spotlight; but the railroad presidents lingered, awaiting their cue.

At the President’s chummy invitation, the railroad men then moved to another room of the White House, where he talked with them for a time in the persuasive manner for which he is celebrated. The performance was private, but some of those who were present later sketched, with some awe, its main features. The President praised them warmly for bringing their companies through a time of lean pickings, expressed concern over the problems posed by their competition, wagged his head over the difficulties of regulation, mentioned the profits flooding in on the wave of current prosperity, and commented that the railroads were unexcelled at carrying large numbers of people from here to there. Then, in a marked manner, came the presidential request: any further reductions in the passenger service must at all costs be avoided. Did they not agree that it was essential to keep the passenger service at its current level? Perhaps even to restore some of the trains that had already been discontinued?

 

At this point, some of his guests seemed rather uncomfortable. The President suggested that he would like to see a report on the whole question of the passenger service, its future, how it could be made to work—and who better to prepare such a report than the leaders of the industry?

Before they left, the railroad men had agreed to reconsider the problem of the passenger service and report back in three months—by January, 1966.

However inopportune, here was another of those magic occasions when the railroad men had the chance to obliterate the errors and stupidities of the past; no questions asked, no blames assessed, no guilts imputed. If they had treated their passengers shabbily, the public, through its elected representatives, had agreed to forget all the old animosities and had whipped up a good deal of excitement over the brave new trains promised for the future. If the government in Washington had treated the railroads unfairly, if federal funds had been inequitably sluiced to their competitors, now the seasons had wheeled through an equinox, and at last the railroads were once again sharing in these federal bounties.

Moreover, if they chose so to construe the President’s request, the railroad men had just to the north of them a spectacular example of how they might revive the passenger service, modernize it, and make it both popular and profitable: the example of the Canadian National.

The C.N. is the world’s biggest railroad, operating more than 32,000 miles of track through all ten Canadian provinces and into some of the northern United States as well. Unlike its chief competitor, the Canadian Pacific, the C.N. has been nationalized since 1919, but it is still highly competitive. During the 1950*5, in the best tradition of orthodox railroad management, the C.N. discontinued one quarter of its passenger service, and would have dropped more had not the Canadian Board of Transport Commissioners in 1961 blown the whistle on such practices.