By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; May 19, 2021
Amtrak’s management team on May 1, 1971 was dominated by people who knew little or nothing of trains. They were proud of this.
This seems an odd attitude. Was there any justification?
A merger between two of America’s greatest railroads, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central System turned into one of the greatest management disasters up to that point in recorded history. The Penn Central bankrupted only about a year before Amtrak’s creation.
Several other bankruptcies occurred not long before or not long after the advent of Amtrak. The Erie-Lackawanna had been barely holding on for years and finally went bankrupt when a hurricane hit. The Rock Island also barely held on for years. The Milwaukee Road had struggled for years, first abandoning its entire western line from South Dakota all the way to the Pacific coast, then bankrupting entirely.
Other railroads had lived for years on starvation levels of return on investment. Disinvestment was the inevitable outcome.
Many other railroads experienced any number of financial and operating problems, all of which were blamed – somewhat fairly and somewhat not – on railroad management and railway labor.
In the months preceding actual implementation of Railpax, the working title of Amtrak before that name was chosen, railroads were held in low regard in the U. S. Congress. Very low regard.
It may be suggested that it was the politicians in Washington whose short-sighted and self-serving practices were far more responsible for all of the railroad bankruptcies than anything the railroads or railway labor could have accomplished.
However, members of Congress rarely blame themselves for anything. There may be incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, but Washington’s politicians have the extraordinary ability to look squarely into the face of reality and still deny its existence.
So, railroads were seen as “yesterday” while airlines were seen as “in” and “progressive,” “the future,” and to employ a colloquialism of the era … groovy.
Amtrak’s organizers adopted this perspective and hired a bunch of airline people to run trains despite the fact the aerobird people had little or no concept of day-to-day operation of passenger trains. But, they were proud of that, too.
Amtrak’s aerobird people lived up to their eyebrows in their own hubris. They were believers. There was nearly a cult-like conviction in their own infallibility.
All of the positive thinking books tell us it is important to believe in ourselves. There is also such a thing as overdoing it.
Amtrak leadership was bizarrely proud of not knowing what they were doing. They perceived ignorance of passenger trains not as a liability but rather being freed from old, tired ideas which had no value in the future of modern transportation. Far out, man. Groovy.
The mandate thrust upon them was admittedly difficult. Combined with a lack of working knowledge amongst Amtrak leadership, they were given insufficient time to develop a functioning management structure.
They had only their hubris to rely upon and we all know that in every Greek tragedy, hubris is always followed by nemesis. The outcome was thus predictable. (Oh, and one more thing … I know that in Greek theater, hubris is not always followed by nemesis but the old saying worked well so I used it.)
Everybody could see that things weren’t working – that is everybody except Amtrak management which holed up in their L’Enfant Plaza offices and could not be encountered aboard trains.
I was a college kid at the time and got the dream job of working as a chair car attendant for the Santa Fe – when it was really the Santa Fe. The union representing chair car attendants was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The local chairman in my home terminal, Kansas City, described it best when he told me Amtrak’s management was “like putting a jackass in the Kentucky Derby.”
Things loped along well enough the first year although Amtrak had little to show for itself. On Amtrak’s first anniversary, key Amtrak officials were in Chicago Union Station to present the first all Amtrak train. It was the Broadway Limited, consisting of the same old cars that had run the day before except that exterior paint was in the new Amtrak paint scheme.
Cars selected for exterior repainting were ones where the upholstery inside wasn’t overly worn and most of the mechanical systems were functional. That way they would look new or pretty new, anyway. Most of the Pennsylvania Railroad equipment had been replaced with Union Pacific cars.
Had you boarded the train that day, you might have asked “why is the City of Los Angeles going to New York?”
The dining and lounge cars were thankfully of Pennsylvania Railroad origin. The PRR’s twin unit diners were still running – good cars for a train which usually carried a lot of passengers.
Elsewhere in Amtrak-land, things changed incrementally.
The first casualty on the Texas Chief were the Santa Fe full length dome lounge cars. Amtrak wasn’t willing to pay the cost of cars which were still in excellent condition so Auto-Train outbid them. Santa Fe remained loyal to its former trains and its former passengers, but a big check was too much for the AT&SF to turn down.
Amtrak tried to assign dome cars to the Texas Chief but the replacements kept getting “bad-ordered.” Assigned to the Texas Chief were mostly ex-Chicago, Burlington & Quincy dome coaches but also occasionally a round-end dome with Pullman accommodations. Those cars had never really been designed for operation along a line with Oklahoma and Texas scale summer weather. Even when the cars had been well maintained, which they hadn’t, the domes were not equal to a merciless, blistering sun.
As for lounge cars, Amtrak assigned some older Santa Fe cars, generally in good condition as they had been assigned to the Texas Chief and the Grand Canyon prior to 1968 when the domes came over from the Chief, which had been discontinued in April of that year.
Additionally, Amtrak assigned some dormitory lounge cars rather than full lounges on the Texas Chief. The Concho and the Picuris had been built for the first streamlined version of The Chief in 1937. Those cars, which were ancient by anybody’s standards, were still reliable but very small for a train the size of the Texas Chief. They had been designed for a train which had multiple lounge cars. Santa Fe augmented the regular full lounge with another half car sized lounge so Pullman passengers on its deluxe extra-fare first-class-only The Chief wouldn’t have much more than a car or two to go in order to get a fresh shot of bourbon.
The Hollywood crowd rode The Chief and later The Super Chief. They didn’t want to have to crawl through a bunch of cars in order to get to their rooms after getting plastered in the lounge car.
Santa Fe acceded to the expectations of the Hollywood crowd due in no small measure to the fact that The Chief was spinning a respectable profit during the Great Depression.
Half a lounge car alone was grossly inadequate for a “heavy” train like the Texas Chief in the 1970s, heavy being defined as full of passengers.
While the Concho and the Picuris still had functioning air conditioning and lights that went on and off when they were supposed to, those cars were worn out. They rode hard and revealed the true age of their superannuated suspension and mechanical systems below the floor.
During the summer of 1972, Amtrak also decided that it didn’t want to pay the Santa Fe for use of its locomotives so looked to cheaper options.
The Texas Chief lost its old but still well maintained F-7 locomotives which were then assigned to The Super Chief and El Capitan. The Super/Cap combination lost their new and mega-powerful FP-45s which Santa Fe had built for its transcontinental passenger fleet less than four years prior. The Texas Chief was left with some old E-9 locomotives from the Union Pacific Railroad which Amtrak leased.
The old UP locomotives ran well but car air conditioning didn’t. You may ask, “why?”
For all of Santa Fe’s forward thinking elsewhere, they had a bizarre obsession with a type of air conditioning called “steam ejector.” Somehow they could inject superheated pressurized steam through tubes and make it cooler in a railroad car. It worked somewhat like natural gas air conditioning wherein you light a flame to make it cold.
I have never grasped this concept. I always believed that if you lit a fire, things near the flame would get hot. The same applies to compressed steam. At 80 pounds per square inch, the internet tells me the actual temperature of the steam is several hundred degrees. How then, do you cool a railroad car with steam, especially steam only slightly cooler than that coming from a volcano?
I have no scientific answer though wish offer something with a theological flavor. The name “Santa Fe” means “holy faith” so I suppose this might be categorized as a mystery of the church.
Getting back to the topic of railroad locomotives, railroads continued using steam boilers on diesel locomotives. The steam heated water in cars year around, and provided warmth aboard the train in the cold months.
The aforementioned steam ejector air conditioning used lots of pressurized steam. Lots … and, lots … and lots. The dining car and the Pullmans employed steam ejector air conditioning so they needed lots of steam to remain cool, especially in Oklahoma and Texas – in July. (Thankfully, Santa Fe abandoned its love for that type of air conditioning and went to ultra-modern electrically powered AC on the Hi-Level chair cars and in the full length dome car.)
The Union Pacific locomotives had steam boilers which couldn’t supply enough steam. Insufficient steam – in July – translated to what in the dining car and the Pullmans?
I present this question rhetorically. You can figure it out.
Aside from us, who knew?
Evidently no one at a high decision-making level. Decisions were made by people who didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t know enough to even ask good questions, and never seemed to care whether they did or not.
After a couple of months, the Santa Fe told Amtrak to take the UP locomotives and put them somewhere. Also, the powerful, new FP-45 locomotives re-appeared on the Super/Cap. But not before a lot of passengers described their trip as the last trip they would take on Amtrak.
Moving onward, things as the Santa Fe dining car menus were replaced with some really cheap menus (more on that was in Part 2 of this series).
Then, there was the new Amtrak “decor,” if you could call it that. There was an abundance of purple and orange and other bright colors. John Shedd Reed, president of the Santa Fe, was reported to have described the interiors of his former Pullman cars as looking “like a French whorehouse.”
Whether he actually said that is unknown. It was among the many apocryphal stories that circulated at the time. But, if he didn’t say that, I will.
The new designs looked fine if you happened to be walking through cars on display in a station. They were spiffy! But, they were not restful. They were distracting. Plus, they were clearly not designed by anybody who had ever worked on a train.
Consider this: on Hi-Level chair cars, a short corridor came off the vestibule to serve the downstairs baggage racks, the ladies’ rest rooms, and the stairs to the upper level. Santa Fe employed a rather nondescript design linoleum floor. It was boring. But, it didn’t show dirt or dust which inevitably showed up.
Amtrak replaced that design with a near white flooring which, admittedly spiced up the entranceway. But, Chicago Union Station’s platforms appeared to have not been cleaned since just after WW II. Every time passengers boarded in Chicago, they tracked in grimy, oily dirt. Every trip.
Far too many aspects of the Amtrak redesigns were impractical. Carpet was glued to the wall but didn’t stay. New, modern looking light fixtures rattled incessantly.
This lackadaisical approach to decision-making permeated Amtrak’s management culture of the era, as well as laid the groundwork for many of their subsequent problems.
In Part Two of this series, an example was given of how only five people rode on a typical run of the Texas Chief during one summer month in 1971. Some consultants came up with that bizarre and inexplicable count, despite there being three Pullmans and three Hi-Level chair cars on the train, all full of paying passengers. I illustrated the point by saying there were two Boeing 727-loads of passengers, but the consultants came up with only five people.
Amtrak’s aerobird mentality inferred that if a train was going from Chicago to Houston, lots of people on the train were going from Chicago to Houston, just like an aerobird! Except that never applied to the Texas Chief. The Texas Chief served mostly medium-haul passengers; those traveling five hundred miles or so from any of a large selection of cities to another selection of cities – Chicago to Kansas City, Galesburg to Topeka, Kansas City to Oklahoma City, et al.
The Texas Chief served two state capitols, Topeka and Oklahoma City and even to some extent Austin, Texas by way of Temple (a surprising number of passengers drove all the way from Austin to Temple to catch the Santa Fe train). The Texas Chief also served two major state universities, the University of Kansas at Lawrence and the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Additionally, there were numerous institutions of higher education located along the route. These stations generated a lot of passengers.
Passengers went here, there, and everywhere – except possibly Chicago to Houston.
This truly represented not only the passenger count but the genius of a train like the Texas Chief. Santa Fe ran long haul passenger trains and the Texas Chief was one of them. But, it was the medium-haul passengers who filled the seats, and those passengers appreciated the amenities of a dining car and a dome lounge as much as anybody else. One could never justify full dining car service for Wichita to Oklahoma City passengers unless there were a lot of other passengers going other places – places for which Wichita and Oklahoma City and Fort Worth and Temple were stations along the route, interesting to view from the windows of a train but not necessarily relevant to an individual passenger’s travel plans.
The Texas Chief was not a vacationer’s train going long distances nor was it a medium-haul train serving the Chicago to Kansas City corridor. Nor was it a short-distance train going from Arkansas City, Kansas to Norman, Oklahoma.
The Texas Chief was none of those things because it was all of those things. Perhaps the Texas Chief could be best categorized as an epistemological conundrum.
Of course, having the opportunity to ride an epistemological conundrum might suggest that one could visit really unique places like black holes in deepest outer space. Regrettably, there were no stations along the route of the Texas Chief with the name “Black Hole in Deepest Outer Space” though there are cynics who might nominate a couple of towns along the route for that moniker.
A lot of people bought a lot of tickets for the Pullmans and chair cars of the Texas Chief, regardless of whether it was a train or an existentialist’s worst nightmare (absurdity taken to absurd levels). Amtrak could never change the fact that people bought a lot of tickets, despite their best efforts to do so.
The Texas Chief layered several types of service together. There were Pullmans for longer distance first class passengers. There were comfortable seats for medium haul and short distance passengers.
The Texas Chief was filled with revenue passengers precisely because it offered a variety of options, not despite them. Trains are subject to significant fixed costs even before the wheels begin turning. Adding one more Pullman to a train already running represents a modest incremental cost.
Therein is the secret. One more chair car. One more Pullman. Significant marginal revenue gain relative to a modest increase in cost.
Some people say that long distance passenger trains are there to serve vacationers who are not time sensitive. Those commentators miss the point. Recovery of costs is dependent upon bringing aboard several types of passengers.
The Texas Chief was described as a “workhorse” by now Corridor Rail Development Corporation Executive Chairman Jim Coston, who at one time was a member of the Amtrak Reform Council, a commission which devoted considerable effort to study Amtrak’s problems and to recommend potential solutions. Everyone praised the research and generously thanked the unpaid commission members for their dedicated and thorough efforts. Then, they did whatever they wanted to do.
And, Amtrak did it.
In the late 1970s, the Texas Chief, by then known as the Lone Star, was combined between Chicago and Kansas City with the Chicago to Los Angeles train. That slowed everything down – everything – so that scheme was abandoned.
Think about a station like La Plata, Missouri where you have passengers getting on a car destined for the Pacific while another passengers needs to get on a car going to the Gulf of Mexico. What happens if – I should say when confused passengers try to get on the wrong car given that these two cars may be separated by five or six other cars? A 1½ minute station stop becomes a five or six minute station stop. Then, multiply that by all the stations between Chicago and Kansas City and calculate whether the train is on time or late.
Or, don’t. The more time you spend calculating station stop delays, the more you get frustrated. Just take this as a matter of “holy faith.”
By 1979, Amtrak did what it does best and that was to cancel trains, though in this case it was permanently.
In Part Two of this series, I described the consultants who “justified” this action as being “intellectual prostitutes.” It was a hatchet job and, as hatchet jobs go, done well. They submitted their “report,” were widely ridiculed for poor research methodology, then paid generously. It’s not the sort of thing I would want on my resume but then again, I don’t believe in intellectual prostitution.
So, let us contemplate a few questions starting with “Amtrak. What is it?”
• Is it a transportation company ultimately answerable for how well it resolves transportation problems?
• Is Amtrak a political pork-barrel so politicians can bring a large, shiny train home and say, “look what I’ve done!”
• Was Amtrak merely a “solution” to eastern U.S. railroad issues from the 1960s? Did that structure account for a wide variance in circumstances between the states east of the Mississippi River and the states in the west?
• If so, was that paradigm even valid when Amtrak was created?
• If Amtrak’s structure was the best it could be in 1971, is it still valid a half century later?
Now, let’s move to the next set of questions, those specifically pertaining to serving medium-haul markets. In the west, at least, the Texas Chief solved that fundamental question well and thus had to be eliminated.
A while back, Amtrak management was yapping about the desirability of trains running medium-haul corridor routes just like flying machines do! You might have a train that runs from Chicago to Kansas City. Then another that runs from Kansas City to … say Oklahoma City … and another from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth … and one more from Fort Worth to Houston.
See! Problem solved. Except for passengers going from Fort Madison, Iowa to the University of Oklahoma who would have to change trains in Kansas City and then again in Oklahoma City.
One may presume that departing trains from Kansas City and Oklahoma City have connections scheduled appropriately, and that passengers would not have to sit for eight hours waiting for the next medium-haul train.
You certainly won’t see any Pullman passengers traveling under such an arrangement so you can hand back their ticket money. Passengers seeking to rest on the train won’t like the connections. You can hand back that ticket revenue. Passengers wanting a good dinner won’t consider a snack bar/coach a reasonable substitute. Okay, more ticket sales out the window. All of the changing trains at multiple points would slow the journey. You might as well just drive or fly.
The nation’s airlines have achieved something which few, if any people could foresee in the 1960s: airline service so uncomfortable, so inconvenient, and so difficult to use that no one in his/her right mind would want to use such a contraption unless there was no viable alternative and/or they had the budget to fly first class and even then, only maybe.
Have you stood in one of those airport lines where they check your ID?
It reminds me of the old Kansas City Stockyards. Cows and pigs were lined up and herded to an abattoir, of which there were several in Kansas City. For those of you who do not recognize what I alluding to, Kansas City was at one time home to several major “packing houses” which is to say giant factories where meat was cut and processed. The abattoir was the actual slaughterhouse, the purpose of which need not be described here.
There are three thoughts which I would like to leave you with (Note to English teachers, I know that I am ending a sentence with a preposition. I am doing so and you can’t stop me. So, there.):
• The Texas Chief served a lot of travel corridors which overlapped one another. Some were short distance corridors. There were several medium-haul corridors. And, even a couple of long distance corridors as Chicago to Fort Worth and Kansas City to Houston. Individually, none of these corridors could possibly justify a train, to wit: when five people rode from Chicago to Houston. Collectively, the Texas Chief was a workhorse. Rather than five passengers, there may have been several hundred passengers who got on or off when I worked between Chicago and Kansas City in the Santa Fe/Amtrak transition period.
• The travel market is changing with astonishing speed. Trends which were slowly emerging for years rapidly sped up because of Covid 19.
Business travel is diminishing. Conferences can take place electronically. Business travel will likely occur only when essential so the traveler will need to be properly prepared and rested. That can take place much better on a train than in an airport waiting room.
Population patterns are becoming increasingly fragmented. I now reside in the Lake of the Ozarks region of Missouri where the population had been very small except for the vacation season. Now, the year around population is rising rapidly as business people work increasingly from home then make a five minute commute to the Lake. Aerodromes like the ones in St. Louis and Kansas City are no longer convenient for passengers who would make a trip of three to four hours just to get there. Could trains benefit from this demographic shift?
• No good end was served by terminating the Texas Chief/Lone Star. Train discontinuances served political ends. Market-based rational analysis was ignored. What did that get us?
This brings us to my final question: Can we not do better? Have we learned nothing in the past half century? If we have learned something can we apply this knowledge to imminent transportation and energy issues?
After a half century, I’m not optimistic.