American Passenger Rail -- From the Early Days to Amtrak: The 20th Century

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The New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited was inaugurated on the Water Level route in 1902, becoming the fastest and most luxurious way to travel between New York and Chicago. The Twentieth Century was the pride of the fleet and a national institution, its name synonymous with prestige and comfort. Another luxury train, the Overland Limited, provided passengers with fresh flowers and Persian carpets and served champagne for breakfast. By the late 1920s most city-to-city travel was by rail, with more than 15,000 passenger trains running every day over 254,000 miles (405,000km) of track. The 1932 film Union Depot gives a vivid picture of the atmosphere inside a busy station of the time.

In the beginning, the Pullman Company would hire only African-American men for the job of porter, which was eventually to have significant cultural and political consequences when A Philip Rudolph used the power of the labor union to demand substantial social changes for African-Americans. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which he founded, became the first African-American union to gain a contract with a major US corporation. Rudolph later went on to become an important figure in the 1960s’ civil rights movement.

The 20th century brought other dramatic changes. World War I made heavy demands for the movement of freight and people, which led President Wilson to set up the Railroad Administration to put the whole network under government control. With this extra workload the unions became more powerful, demanding an eight-hour day and the end of piecework. Over 100,000 women were recruited, mostly in clerical positions, but nearly all lost their jobs when the railways became private again after the war.

Many women recruited during World War II were given more responsible jobs and some remained for another 40 years. A few women had worked on the railways ever since the mid 19th century; sometimes making a living as professional gamblers. Former slave women sold food to passengers on the Chesapeake & Ohio line and attractive females were always in demand to christen a new engine or stretch of track.

Engines continued to become more efficient as ‘compounding’ (using steam more than once) and ‘articulation’, together with huge Mallet-type locomotives, allowed prodigious numbers of freight cars to be moved in a single train. Larger fireboxes and ‘superheating’ also improved productivity Steam railroads served almost every large community by 1920 and were augmented by many local electric and street railways providing passenger services and encouraging cities to expand.

As the 20th century progressed, diesel replaced steam as the chief source of power. Steam engine numbers reached a peak of 72,000 in the 1 920s but no more were put into service after 1953. The last regular service operating under steam was on the Norfolk & Western in April 1960. The first successful diesel service had been the streamlined Pioneer Zephyr, which in 1935 averaged 77.5mph (125km/h) on its inaugural run from Denver to Chicago. Streamliner designers boasted that they took their engines from trucks and their styling from automobiles. These trains were undeniably luxurious but rarely attracted enough passengers to pay their way

Railroads were badly hit by the Great Depression, when increasing numbers of hobos rode boxcars and flats to search for work. A million Americans are thought to have ‘caught out’ (jumped) trains during the 1930s, although it was a dangerous pursuit and thousands died from being crushed between carriages or falling from moving trains.

Even today ‘riding the rods’ offers the chance to travel free and hobo encampments can sometimes be seen alongside the track. ‘First class’ hobo travel means a boxcar offering protection from the elements and great panoramic views through the open doors. A wise hobo stays near the front of the car so that he is not thrown out of the door if the train suddenly stops. He tries never to walk between the rails, cross under couplers or carriages, ‘catch out on the fly’ (jump on a moving train) or join anyone else in a boxcar. Even with this guidance, being a hobo remains hazardous. Many were horrifically murdered during the 1990s in a series of killings for which there have been few arrests.

Hobos such as Danville Dan, Steamtrain Maury and Guitar Whitey continued to ride the rails in the 1960s and 1970s, sharing food, cigarettes and alcohol as they roamed 200,000 miles of track across the land. Evading the ‘bulls’ (railroad security guards), they became part of an underworld culture that would later attract students, accountants and other ‘weekend riders’ looking for thrills. The writer James Michener described this as ‘the last red-blooded American adventure’.

As the century progressed, mass car ownership, improved highways and air travel took away rail traffic, reducing revenues. America was the world’s first nation to transfer its affection from trains to the automobile. Almost 98% of inter- city passengers travelled by rail in 1916 but by 1975 the figure was down to 6% and falling. Freight traffic also declined, although less rapidly

Despite improved efficiency and lower wages, railways increasingly ran into massive deficit. By the end of the Depression half were bankrupt and many of those which remained were only rescued, temporarily, by World War II. Military and civilian traffic in 1944 totaled an amazing 97 billion miles (155 billion kilometers). After the war more streamlined trains were introduced, along with domed observation cars, high-level seating and economy sleepers. The Santa Fe slogan was ‘If you want to feel like a star, travel like a star’ and for a while the railways continued to carry more traffic than all other means of transport put together. The Interstate Commerce Commission insisted that they operate passenger services but by 1970 only 500 inter-city trains existed.

Tracks started turning to rust as railways merged or were forced into bankruptcy The greatest collapse was that of the Penn Central (formed only two years earlier) in 1970. Ironically, the last time many lines made a profit was when hauling concrete to build the new interstate highways. To stay in business, the Union Pacific halved its workforce and increased productivity by 55% in less than ten years. Federal government, under pressure to save America’s trains, passed the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act, and a year later the Railroad Passenger Corporation set up Amtrak (short for American Trackage) to take over most long-distance passenger routes. The Southern Railway, the Denver & Rio Grande Western and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific were the only lines to stay independent, but all three gave up their passenger services soon afterwards. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific line, which last saw trains more than 20 years ago, has recently been leased by the Union Pacific Railroad to the Missouri Central Railroad, which hopes soon to restore freight and possibly passenger trains.

The dire state of the freight industry in the early 1970s also forced the government to set up Conrail (the Consolidated Rail Corporation) to take over six bankrupt railroads in the northeast. An estimated $13 billion in subsidy was spent before the company was privatized in 1987. Like other private rail companies, Conrail shed labor, cut costs and sought new business. Services and revenues gradually improved, helped by a change in the government regulations which had put railroads at a disadvantage to truckers. Freight could now be transferred more easily between trains, trucks and ships. Containers gave faster delivery times and rates were cut by two-thirds. More powerful and efficient locomotives were introduced, train crew size reduced and unprofitable routes abandoned or sold, leaving the remaining lines more profitable. For the first time in decades, business found it could save on transport costs by using rail instead of road. Consequently, since the mid 1980s, haulage has increased by a third and revenues have reached more than $31 billion.

This remarkable recovery has led to a series of mergers, resulting in further cost savings as fewer freight cars need to be shunted into sidings or change trains before reaching their destination. From 31 rail companies in 1980 there are now eight, four of which control 90% of the traffic. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Pacific joined forces in 1995, and in 1996 the Union Pacific and Pacific Rail merged to create a giant of the west. Conrail was valued at $10 billion in 1997 when its operations were competed for by the CSX and Norfolk Southern, both based in Virginia. Further mergers seem likely, antitrust rules permitting, bringing shorter routes and more cost savings.

Today’s railroads employ 192,000 people to maintain and operate almost 200,000 miles of track, with 26,000 locomotives pulling 1.6 million freight and passenger cars. More rational line usage by freight companies should result in fewer delays for Amtrak passengers and the corporation’s future seems much more assured. New equipment and other improvements continue to be introduced and Amtrak has received more than $15 billion from the government since 1971, although funding has lately been reduced. Amtrak’s management personnel numbers have been cut by over a third in recent years and the workforce as a whole by several thousand, making it one of the world’s most efficient rail operators.

Even in the age of cyberspace, trains still have their uses. President Bill Clinton took a four-day train journey through West Virginia, Kentucky Ohio, Indiana and Michigan on his way to the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, travelling aboard the 21st Century Express on the kind of whistle-stop campaign not seen since the days of Harry Truman. Clinton went from the blue-collar mining and steel towns of Appalachia to Lake Michigan. At stops en route he could wave to cheering crowds from the train’s podium as he drummed up interest in his campaign and made a series of proposals designed to appeal to America’s heartland. The bullet proof royal blue car with gold curtains and dark wood paneling had formerly been used by Franklin Roosevelt. Other sections of the 16-car train contained Secret Service personnel, satellite communications equipment and enough gadgetry to start a small war.

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