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The Amtrak Story.

Here is a well written, readable, but comprehensive and fully documented history of Amtrak preceded by an account of the perilous state of the railroad passenger service prior to its inauguration. Substantial investment by the major railroads in the 1950s for the modernization of their principal passenger services failed, in the longer term, to arrest the erosion of long-haul patronage. Wilner places much blame on the subsidization of highways, airports, and airways, but the progress of technology, particularly in the air, should bear a good part of that blame. The burden of passenger losses grew in the sixties to proportions no longer sustainable in the face of declining freight margins. This story is detailed in Chapter 1, titled "Who Shot The Passenger Train."

The beginnings of federal involvement with long-haul passenger service are chronicled in Chapter 2, which notes the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 and the establishment of Metroliner service in the Northeast Corridor. The support of President Johnson is said to have been secured when he was shown a map of the corridor and all the electoral votes along it. The book is larded with other political notes. With the Penn Central collapse in 1970, concern broadened in Congress and the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 was issued. There followed the creation of Amtrak, which is treated at some length along with the politics of route selection.

With the freight railroads running the trains, a miscellaneous aggregation of overage cars and locomotives, early service was often uncomfortable and unreliable. Indifferent and deteriorating service was hardly an asset when major capital funding by Congress was required if an acceptable service was to be built. Wilner attributes many of the early troubles to the lack of experienced railroad men in the upper management of Amtrak. Roger Lewis, its first president, seemed neither convinced of its potential worth nor interested in promoting it and, in fact, refused to support additional funding.

An experienced railroader, Paul Reistrup, became president in 1975. The new equipment program moved into high gear with new locomotive and car designs. In 1976, too, Amtrak acquired the Northeast Corridor with funding provided by Congress, followed by $2.8 billion to overcome deferred maintenance and improve the corridor's physical plant. Amtrak now enjoys a 43 percent share of all commercial air-rail travelers between Washington and New York. Wilner notes, however, that in the face of stubborn resistance by the Nixon administration the corridor purchase was accomplished only after a stern warning from the Senate that a bitter public controversy would arise in the event of impounding.

Wilner believes, and most observers of the railroad industry would agree, that the very survival as well as the further development of Amtrak is attributable to the unsparing efforts of Graham Claytor, who, experienced both in railroading and in government, served as its fourth president. In his preface Wilner delivers a eulogy as follows: "The most popular President of the United States since F D R - Ronald Reagan - hurled every political and economic weapon at his disposal against Amtrak. But Graham Claytor absorbed the blows, and in so doing rallied, persuaded, guided and inspired the team onward.

"Only after Amtrak survival was assured did Graham Claytor, his own body nearly consumed with an unforgiving and deadly disease, relinquish command."

Early in Claytor's tenure the first major agreement was reached to reform work rules in the Northeast Corridor. Employees elsewhere in the system followed this lead and accepted a 40-hour pay standard in lieu of the long-standing mileage basis. As Wilner puts it, "As artillery of the Reagan Administration and Amtrak management trained on Amtrak's labor unions - cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, volleyed and thundered - labor leaders recognized: reform the work rules or face termination of Amtrak, along with jobs, employee benefits and employee pensions." For Congress had demanded that Amtrak recover from the fare box at least 50 percent of its costs.

Chapter 7 records developments in the Northeast Corridor, Chapter 8 summarizes the state of Amtrak today, and Chapter 9 covers the "realities" of a shared operation, i.e., the problem of operating passenger trains over freight railroads which, at least in some instances, involve lines that are beginning to face congestion in the face of growing freight business. The growth of Amtrak, in the face of sharp air-line competition and expansion of the interstate system, has surely been noteworthy. Revenue in 1993 was roughly nine times the level of Amtrak's first full year. Yet on-time performance over the freight railroads is slipping and must be regarded as much less than satisfactory. And the agreements with the freight railroads must be renegotiated in 1996.

Chapter 10, "Amtrak's Future," indicates optimism on Wilner's part. He said a number of times earlier in these pages that the public supports intercity rail service and attributes Amtrak's survival in considerable part to that support. Here he lays out the huge costs of accommodating traffic growth by highway and airport expansion. He notes that trains are environmentally friendly, fuel efficient, and safe, and that the states, closer to the public than Congress, are investing in trains. He sees a change in the attitude of freight railroads and the prospect of developing a number of highspeed rail corridors. He has hopes for an Amtrak trust fund, for nowhere in the world can rail passenger service survive without subsidy. Indeed, he says that the first law of finance for Thomas Downs, Amtrak's new president, is to obtain a dedicated trust fund regardless of its initial size or source.

For anyone interested in railroads or concerned with passenger transportation in course or seminar, this book is required reading.

Ernest W. Williams, Jr., FM-AST&L Professor Emeritus Columbia University
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Author:Wlliams, Ernest W., Jr.
Publication:Transportation Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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