Optimists were in short supply in 1971. When Presiden Richard M. Nixon signed the legislation creating Amtrak, many critics viewed this last desperate attempt to save the intercity passenger train as nothing more than a visit by the undertaker to a terminally ill patient. Passenger trains, critics thought, would be consigned within a few short years to the American technological attic, next to the Conestoga wagon and the overnight packet boat.
It didn't happen.
On Wednesday, Amtrak was able to light twenty candles on its birthday cake and found itself wallowing not only in public acceptance but congressional acceptance. And it was actually beginning to pay a goodly share -- 72 percent -- of the cost of its operation from revenues.
Amtrak, a semipublic corporation created by the Rail Passenger Act of 1970, was designed to be self-supporting eventually. Private railroads were able to turn over their intercity passenger service to Amtrak, paying it in money, equipment or services. In return they received Amtrak stock. The Department of Transportation is also issued stock based on the amount of federal support.
Today Amtrak operates 252 trains daily over 24,000 route miles and serves 574 cities and communities. In fiscal 1990, 22.2 million passengers traveled 6.1 billion passenger miles in and generated $1.3 billion in revenues, an increase of more than 100 percent in the last decade.
These figures are all well above those for Amtrak's first full year of operation, when it ran 200 trains over 23,000 route miles and served 380 communities. Passengers hauled amounted to 16.6 million and revenues were $162.6 million.
The high water mark of the American passenger train was in 1918 when the trains carried 1.08 billion passengers over a steel network that added up to 254,000 miles.
The slow decline of the passenger train began in the 1920s, with the rise of commercial aviation and the automobile. Planes were faster, even if somewhat terrifying, and the auto allowed a greater sense of flexibility in traveling that a railroad schedule didn't.
The World War II years saw the American passenger train taxed to capacity between moving the civilian populace as well as the armed forces across the country.
The postwar years, in spite of the introduction of new, stylish, stainless steel streamliners, trains failed to capture the imagination of the American traveling public, which still remembered the horrors of train travel during wartime.
Thus began the long march toward liquidation in the 1950s, when service cutbacks and protracted battles with the Interstate Commerce Commission became the norm. Railroads sought to eliminate passenger service, reducing red ink and restructuring operations around their more profitable freight traffic.
The Interstate Highway Act, signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, hastened the decline of the long distance passenger train. The traveling public in ever-increasing numbers turned toward the heavens and the highways to get here from there.
The great trains, so long a fixture in the American psyche, had become by the late 1950s and 1960s dirty, late and operated by disgruntled crews. It was like, to quote the American humorist Robert Benchley, "traveling third-class in Bulgaria."
There were those, however, who envisioned the long term effects of air and ground gridlock as well as environmental damage caused by a lopsided national transportation policy that excluded the passenger train as a means for moving people.
Amtrak became the last hope for the Federal government to work with private enterprise in saving what remained of the intercity network. It wasn't to be an easy task.
At Amtrak's birth in 1971, most of the equipment received from the participating railroads was in bad shape, 20 years old on average.
The turn-around began with orders for new cars and locomotives. Stations were spruced up and in some cases; Baltimore's Penn Station, for example, was eventually restored to its 1911 grandeur. Trains were made to run on time. The new corporation, attempting to woo riders back to the rails, created such slogans as "Tracks are back" and "We're making the trains worth riding again."
But Amtrak's great strides accomplished in the last decade very much belong to its president W. Graham Claytor Jr.
Mr. Claytor, a native Virginian and Harvard-educated lawyer, joined the Southern Railway Co. after World War II. In 1982, at the age of 71, he was appointed president of Amtrak and immediately brought to his new employer his vast expertise in railroading.
Very much a hands-on executive, he actually rides his railroad, not in some plush private office car, but rather as a regular coach or first-class passenger seeing and feeling what the regular traveler experiences.
Until recently, Amtrak was regarded in Washington as something of a joke. The Reagan administration called Amtrak a "mobile money-burning machine." Every president from Carter to Bush has tried to torpedo Amtrak's budget requests, but Congress has always ridden to its rescue. This year, reversing what seemed to be an institutionalized trend, President Bush proposed a modest budget increase for Amtrak. Its 1992 estimated subsidy is $563.2 million. Of that $321.2 million is for operations.
According to Mr. Claytor, the operating loss covered by the subsidy is just 23 percent of the private railroads' loss in 1970, after accounting for inflation.
Mr. Claytor says that Amtrak's financial prospects may allow operation to break even by the turn of the century.
Ross Capon, director of the National Association of Railroad passengers, a rail advocacy consumer group, says that Amtrak is still a "vastly underutilized resource and should be a direct alternative to the fly-drive syndrome."
Mr. Capon acknowledges that Mr. Claytor's presence is crucial for Amtrak's continued success.
"However," says Mr. Capon, "Amtrak is still plagued with several problems: late trains and equipment shortages."
In April, Amtrak signed an agreement with the Bombarider Corp. of Montreal for the purchase of 140 new Superliner cars with an option to buy an additional 39. Fifty-two new diesel electric locomotives have been ordered from General Electric, which should go along way in easing Amtrak's chronic shortages.
Some of Amtrak's achievements since its founding:
* The Northeast Corridor Improvement Project resulted in Amtrak purchasing most of the 457-mile corridor between Washington, Boston, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New Haven and Springfield. Because of track improvements, Amtrak is able to operate trains between Washington and New York at speeds up to 125 miles per hour.
* Amtrak now controls 38 percent of the travel market -- including cars as well as buses and planes -- between Washington and New York.
* New labor agreements have brought Amtrak's 24,000 employees under its direct jurisdiction rather than that of the participating railroads. New work rules have eliminated the old 100-mile rule which resulted in a day's pay for every 100 miles traveled. Today, Amtrak's employees work a 40-hour week.
* On April 4, Amtrak opened its new 10 mile Empire Connection on the West Side of Manhattan connecting Penn Station with upstate New York rail lines thus eliminating Grand Central Terminal as a long distance station. The new $100 million project allows through service from the South northward without passengers having to change stations and trains.
* Shared operating costs by nine states for Amtrak service on twenty different routes has resulted in generating $50 million in FY 1990.
* Operating commuter services under contract for several states has resulted in an additional 20 million passengers annually.
* Proposed electrification of the old New Haven Railroad Shoreline from New Haven to Boston will reduce travel time between Boston-New York by an hour to 3 1/2 hours.
* Some of the new trains proposed that are currently under study include the extension of rail service to Maine and re-routings that will bring trains to Wyoming as well as the restoration of New Orleans-Jacksonville and Chicago-Atlanta-Jacksonville service.
Amtrak celebrated its birthday modestly on May 1. Passengers aboard that day were given birthday cupcakes. "We're saving our resources for a big twenty-fifth party," says Amtrak spokeswoman Sue Martin.
Fred Rasmussen is a Sun librarian with an interest in railroads.