Trainmaster

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I wrenched myself back to trains. How did Claytor get into his hobby?

 

“When I was nine or ten years old,” said Claytor, “about 1921 or 1922, my father got me for Christmas a Lionel standard-gauge passenger train, and for my next younger brother, who subsequently died, a slightly smaller standard-gauge freight train. We had it in the attic at home, in Roanoke, Virginia, and it was our pride and joy. Then we moved to Philadelphia, where my father’s boss’s son had a whole batch of Lionel trains from the great 1915-20 period. He was going off to Princeton. I suppose he felt too grown-up for toy trains, and he gave them all to me, everything, including some rare old items. They were in a big chest when we moved to New York, and while I was off at school my mother gave them all away.”

Terrible things like this have befallen more than one boy. This “away” period in young Claytor’s life included the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School (summa cum laude) in 1936, followed by clerking for eminent judges, a mark of distinction for graduates. Graham Claytor worked a year each for the famous federal judge Learned Hand and for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. From this he went on to Covington and Burling, the top law firm in Washington. After the war he returned and was soon a partner. No time for trains, probably, and I asked how he got back into them.

Railroading runs in the Claytor blood; Graham’s brother was president of the Norfolk & Western.

“I was courting Frances [Murray Hammond, his wife] in 1947 and 1948 and found out that she had one of the same standard-gauge Lionel trains that I had lost, given by her father when she was six.” Frances was a lady of rank—the same rank, lieutenant commander (in the Waves), as he was. This new and unquestionably electric discovery must have helped bring about their wedding in 1948. Over the phone on another occasion, Mrs. Claytor told me, “That train was my dowry.”

“That’s how I started up the collection again,” her husband said. “It was Frances who introduced me to Carlisle & Finch; I had never heard of them. Then I began to get into the collector literature and magazines and go to the big shows. The biggest now is at York, Pennsylvania, every year. I’m only after toy trains, antiques, the early stuff like the push-pulls, the floor trains, clockwork, live steam. I have foreign things too, like the fine Märklin, Bing, and other German ones. But I stop about 1940—no scale-model or HO stuff or plastic. Of course, many people love all that, but it’s come in since my period, and you need watchmaker skills to fool with HO gauge.

“Well, Ives went bust in 1929 or 1930 and Lionel bought them out. American Flyer had difficulties and was sold to A. C. Gilbert of Connecticut, the Erector Set people, but they went out of business. Lionel kept on into the 1960s, but then the boss, J. Lionel Cowen, died and a couple of highfliers got in and bankrupted the company. It was resold to General Mills and later moved to Mexico to get the costs down and meet cheaper foreign competition. Now I hear that a railroad fan named Kughn, who has made millions in constructing shopping centers, has bought it and is going to make the traditional Lionel trains, in O gauge, the way they used to be. There are other small manufacturers in standard gauge, but Lionel’s the last of the basics.”

Amtrak is a “last” also, the last and only intercity railroad in the country. When the remaining private railroad passenger services were gathered into it in 1971 by a far-from-enthusiastic Nixon administration, many critics thought it certain, if not indeed designed, to fail. Claytor, who by then was president of the Southern Railway, was still running the famous de luxe Washington-New Orleans train, the Southern Crescent, with fine sleeping and dining cars. Why was he one of the few holdouts from Amtrak?

“I thought Amtrak was going to be a disaster, and for several years it was. I said that the underlying railroads that Amtrak used would get the blame, and so I wanted to run the best passenger service in the country under our own name.”

And he did. Eventually, however, the Crescent did join Amtrak, and in 1982 Claytor himself did, as president.. Since then everything has been moving in one direction—service, equipment, routes, stations, technology, ridership—all up. By 1987 Amtrak was recovering for the first time all its “short-term avoidable costs” above the rails, as they put it. It means the costs of operating, or not operating, a train. Revenues last year were up 13 percent, to almost a billion dollars. The only thing that’s down is the subsidy, which shrinks each year and has been reduced by 35 percent since 1981. The big problem is capital, which Congress deals out like a Yankee paring cheese. For example, Amtrak could fill many more than its present 1,644 cars, far fewer than any single big private company had at its peak. But the days when Amtrak had to fight Congress for its life every year are over. Folks know a good thing when they see it.