Our high speed four lane corridors that we take for granted today did
wonders in helping to improve travel but it was essentially the death
blow for the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel as people took to the
highways in even greater numbers. While new equipment in the 1950s
helped bring back some passengers, overall the returns
fell extremely short and in the end it only proved to be a costly waste
of money as the decline only continued. To make matters worse
railroads were also losing a larger share of their bread and butter
service, freight traffic to trucks that now had a high speed, free, and
well maintained four-lane highway system to move goods. While trucks are always more efficient at moving short-haul freight the new Interstate system was also taking away a larger share of the railroads’ long haul traffic.
For instance, by 1950 passenger revenue was 10 percent of freight revenue when in 1920 passenger revenue had been 20 percent of freight revenue. While passenger trains are rarely profitable, before the 1950s railroads were earning
enough that their freight revenues could easily offset the losses.
Also, in just a decades span between 1947 and 1957 operating mileage by passenger trains dropped from 160,000 (1947) to 112,000 (1957) and would continue into the following years. It can be said (which is true) that one reason for the decline and the “depression” of the railroad industry as a whole,
which occurred beginning in the 1950s until deregulation in 1980, is the
result of severe sanctions and regulation by the Interstate Commerce
Commission (ICC). However, the railroads also, in a way, caused their
own downfall by the shoddy and monopolistic practices they took part in
during the 19th and early 20th centuries (which resulted in many of the
regulations imposed on them).
A few stats regarding the decline during these years:
· Between an 18-year span following the year after World War II, 1946, passenger traffic declined from 770 million to 298 million by 1964.
· By the 1950s total industry losses on passenger rail service was over $700 million.
· Commuter trains declined by 80% from over 2,500 in the mid-1950s to under 500 by the late 1960s.
In any event, by the 1960s three things were clear about the decline; one, because of the heavy regulation laid down on the
industry it was no longer a threat to take part in such shoddy
practices; two, because railroads were forced to provide passenger
service, which by now was only severely draining their profits if
something was not done the industry would be near total collapse; and
three, because of these heavy losses railroads desperately wanted to cut
whatever they could to save money (which was tough considering heavy
regulation forbid them from abandoning rail lines, canceling a passenger
train[s], laying off workers, or raising/lowering freight charges all
without ICC approval). As a Boston & Maine official was once quoted
as saying, "Every rate case has become a carnival of oratory." The 1960s also saw the end of the government’s lucrative mail
contracts it held with the railroads and only furthered the decline as its loss was a severe blow to passenger traffic earnings.
Relief for passenger operations would finally come in the way of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, signed into law by President Richard Nixon as the Rail Passenger Service Act and the new carrier began operations on May 1st, 1971. Government-controlled (all common stock
is federally owned) and funded, Amtrak operates almost exclusively over
the private freight railroads, save for the Northeast where it owns the
[mostly] PRR’s former Northeast Corridor (NEC), a four-track main line
operating between Washington, D.C. and Boston. In total Amtrak operates
roughly 21,000 miles of track. When Amtrak began operations railroads were asked to provide two things to the upstart passenger
carrier; one-time payments, which would eventually total $190 million
(from 13 railroads), and equipment (of note not all of the major Class
Is elected to turn their operations over to Amtrak because they either
felt that they could provide better service themselves or were not
financially capable of doing so [such as in the case of Rock Island]). In all, the equipment Amtrak would receive included 300 locomotives and over 1,200 cars.
From a railfan perspective perhaps the most interesting time to watch
Amtrak was during these early years when a train’s equipment hosted an
entire assortment of liveries from railroads all over the country. On
the contrary, however, it was also disappointing to see a number of
famous trains discontinued or canceled with Amtrak’s upstart. While
Amtrak was initially intended to become self-supporting (an improbable
notion to begin with, passenger rail is rarely profitable) it quickly became obvious after its first year of operations this would not be the case. In its first year Amtrak earned $163 million with expenses of
$310 million. By 1980 things were not much better as the carrier saw
$454 million in revenues and $1.08 billion in expenses. Even though
the decline of passenger railroading took place after World War II,
until Amtrak’s creation in 1971 the carrier has been steadily improving
and just in 2007 broke its all-time ridership record. For more on
Amtrak regarding its early years through today please click here.
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Travel By Train
Decline Of Rail Travel