Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The effect of this caveat on the C.N. was remarkable. If it was stuck with a passenger business, by Heaven, it would try to make it pay. Fares were slashed—first experimentally and then all over the dominion—as much as fifty per cent. Modern trains began to move on faster schedules; tickets were offered by mail and on credit; a Car-Go-Rail plan enabled passengers to take their automobiles and find them, freshly washed, at their destination. The public flocked aboard the C.N. trains, especially the Rapido, which runs from Montreal to Toronto.

 

The Rapido went into service in October, 1965, and at once became the fastest intercity train in North America, running the 335 miles in five hours, which was eighty-five minutes faster than the train it had replaced. A first-class ticket, which included an excellent dinner, was fifteen dollars; a coach seat cost eight dollars; the combination of comfort, service, and dependability proved so popular that it soon became necessary to reserve space a week in advance. (By contrast, the New York Central’s Chicagoan takes six hours to run the same distance from Cleveland to Chicago; first-class costs $25.74; coach is $16.25; all meals are extra; and there is no rush to clamber aboard the train.)

The C.N. has now announced that the Rapido will in turn be replaced by five turbine-powered trains, built of aluminum and specially designed to ride smoothly at speeds up to one hundred and sixty miles an hour, further reducing the time of the TorontoMontreal run to four hours. Moreover, the railroad is confident that these turbo-trains will make the C.N.’s passenger service profitable by 1970.

Was there here a lesson for American railroad executives? Or could they learn anything from the resounding success of the Japanese Tokaido line, which shoots a handsome train called the Bullet 320 miles between Tokyo and Osaka in three hours? Possibly; but the chief executive officers of the great American railroad companies have on their minds more exigent matters than the performance of passenger trains in foreign countries. They delegated the task of drafting the report for President Johnson to their general counsels and the Association of American Railroads.

In due course the report (“On the Intercity Rail Passenger Train Situation, and Certain Other Railroad Problems”) was approved, neatly typed, and, on January 5, 1966, delivered to the White House. It was a pedestrian document; a rambling recapitulation of all the industry’s fancied grievances against regulators, tax assessors, tax legislators, competitors, and the architects of the so-called federal transportation policy; and yet, as the months passed and their report provoked no official reaction, the railroad men bridled. They believed they had proffered substantial pledges and had also suggested, discreetly, that their posture on fundamental issues was radically altered. Why then were their tenders ignored?

In the face of a frosty silence at the White House, the railroad men themselves made public their revolutionary about-face. It was that they no longer insisted on the absurd estimate of the mythical passenger deficit computed by the commission’s formula (which in 1965 amounted to $421,000,000); they now admitted that their actual out-of-pocket losses amounted to only $44,000,000. (Even this estimate is probably exaggerated.) The broad implication was that any administration which wished to preserve the passenger service in its status quo, and which at the same time was paying out zillions of dollars of federal funds to build highways and to subsidize airlines, could easily afford to pick up the tab for such a trivial deficit.

 

But the White House declined to jump at the bait. Obviously the report was not the “imaginative solution” to the rail passenger service problem that President Johnson had sought.

Stalemate.

On October 3, 1966, one year after the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act had been signed, Senator Pell was pleased to invite the attention of his colleagues to a report of what had been done to improve the rail passenger service in the Northeast Corridor. Some brave first steps had been taken.

A program of research and development had been launched, with emphasis on railroad technology but geared to explore some fairly unconventional highspeed systems as well. Experimental cars were to be built, crammed with hundreds of electronic sensors and other delicate instrumentation, and set to testing every imaginable aspect of high-speed rail transportation, from the depth of ballast in the roadbed to the interaction of pantograph and catenary in the overhead grid of electric cables; this time nothing was to be left to chance or guesswork.

The lessons of all this belated research were to be embodied in three demonstration projects. One is designed to explore the feasibility of hauling passengers and their automobiles, in specially designed double-decked railroad cars, from Alexandria to Jacksonville over the tracks of the Seaboard Coast Line. Once on board the train, passengers will be able to get out of their automobiles, stroll about, leave their children to romp in supervised play areas, relax in a lounge car, watch television, and eat in a cafeteria car. The trip will take about twelve hours. The demonstration is to begin sometime this year.

The other two demonstration projects were, of course, designed to speed and otherwise improve rail travel in the Northeast Corridor; and in these Senator Pell could take an almost paternal pride. Both projects are scheduled to be in experimental operation early this year.