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On Amtrak: Railroads Try for Comeback

Updated on December 6, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

Over the Saugatuck Bridge

Metro North train at the Saugatuck River Bridge in Westport, Connecticut
Metro North train at the Saugatuck River Bridge in Westport, Connecticut

Metro North Train in Saugatuck

Metro North train in Saugatuck, Connecticut
Metro North train in Saugatuck, Connecticut

The heyday of our nation's passenger trains is a distant memory for those of us old enough to remember when railroad travelers were treated like royalty.

In the early '60s while shuttling to New York University from Connecticut I took a course in customer relations that turned out to be one of my most memorable largely because the professor told the class in a casual and entertaining style about the glory days of the railroads.

Those were the days when porters greeted passengers with a smile as they raced to help you find your sleeping accommodations, conductors made sure your trip was without untoward incidents, stewards made sure you had a place in the dining car and a good meal -- and other attendants helped with information about other onboard services.

World War II and the financial decline of the railroads after the war led to service that was spotty at best for train travelers. Railroad management, trying to keep costs under control, spent years berating trade unions for featherbedding.

Railroad management won the battle, but lost the war. The unions lost the battle, and the war; both management and the unions were losers.

Damaging Personnel Cutbacks

But passengers lost, too! Personnel cutbacks left trains so understaffed that some rolled along without as much as a conductor. It got so bad for a while that underworld types became aware of easy pickings on the trains; they would hop on a train at one station rob some passengers and hop off at the next stop.

But things may be turning around. Amtrak, at least, is trying!

I've been taking the sleeper to Fort Lauderdale (from Connecticut) for several years. While I love trains and have a high tolerance for pain when it comes to travel, service and accommodations on Amtrak -- in the past -- sometimes left something to be desired.

But, lo and behold, the improvement this year has been remarkable.

When I arrived at Pennsylvania Station literally moments before departure time a redcap tossed my suitcase and golf bag on a dolly and escorted me in good humor to my sleeping compartment; the "chief of on board services" showed up to explain the workings of the new sleeping cars -- sink, toilet, upper and lower bunks, tray (with chessboard) and lights, as well as a dining schedule and hours of operation of the lounge car.

Another service employee came by with a complimentary bottle of Chardonnay, a nice wine glass and tie-bag containing virtually every toiletry item one might need on an overnight trip (I received the same gifts on the return trip.) Everyone was courteous, even friendly.

Courteous Stewards, Good Food

The stewards also were courteous and did a great job. While the menu offers a selection of only a half dozen items the hamburger and fish I had (catfish) were well prepared and of good quality.

I don't have any relatives on Amtrak's payroll but I offer this endorsement:

For my money, Amtrak is making a welcome effort to improve service despite budget cutbacks. To me, passenger rail travel, as a means of transportation, comes second only to the trolley car (which I grew up with in Yonkers, N.Y.

If you're planning a trip, consider going by rail! Unless you're a certified "Type A" personality, you'll like it!

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on April 5, 1997. Since then the railroads, and Amtrak in particular, have struggled with tight budgets. As a result, efforts at a comeback have been spotty.

Should America invest more in passenger rail service?

See results

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    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you, WesternHistory. Rail traqnsportation must necessarily be a major key to America's future -- both economically and militarily as well as socially. We need to make huge investments in better forms of transportation. The automobile has had its heyday, but in the future we will need a more balanced approach to transportation.

    • WesternHistory profile image

      WesternHistory 6 years ago from California

      Excellent hub. I enjoy taking the train when possible. The service has certainly declined but so has commercial airline service. It's all about the economics and service seems to have lost out.

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Privatizing may produce efficiencies, Larry, but not for the benefit of ordinary Americans. Privatizing of our prisons and our schools prove that. Privatizing health care or railroads would be great for the well-to-do, but not for the ordinary person. Our country needs better mass transportation, better health care and better railroads, but that won't be achieved by privatization. More money, more jobs and greater infrastructure is what's needed. American corporations aren't interested in America, they're interested only in profits (that's why our jobs are going to China, India, et al, not here in the USA.

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 6 years ago from Northern Arizona

      William...So your solution is to just throw more money at it and somehow government will save the day...Privatization of federal assets makes sense for many reasons. First, sales of federal assets would cut the budget deficit. Second, privatization would reduce the responsibilities of the government so that policymakers could better focus on their core responsibilities, such as national security. Third, there is vast foreign privatization experience that could be drawn on in pursuing U.S. reforms. Fourth, privatization would spur economic growth by opening new markets to entrepreneurs. For example, repeal of the postal monopoly could bring major innovation to the mail industry, just as the 1980s' breakup of AT&T brought innovation to the telecommunications industry.

      Any service that can be supported by consumer fees can be privatized. A big advantage of privatized airports, air traffic control, highways, and other activities is that private companies can freely tap debt and equity markets for capital expansion to meet rising demand. By contrast, modernization of government infrastructure is subject to the politics and uncertainties of government budgeting processes. As a consequence, government infrastructure is often old, congested, and poorly maintained.

      Privatizing federal businesses and infrastructure would allow new managers to extract greater efficiencies out of existing assets and to improve customer services. Private entrepreneurs can often innovate where government workers cannot, and they can more easily end unneeded and failed activities...Larry

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your comment, Larry. I do not have the disdain that you have for the government. Privatizing the railroads is a bad idea, in my opinion, just as it is for other needed public services such as health care, highways, bridges, prisons, etc. The profit motive has some value, but not when public service is involved. Making a profits on building and running railroads or building highways or providing health care translates to providing these services only for the wealthy and not for all citizens. That's why we're having economic problems today. The corporations have plenty of money, but they won't spend it on creating jobs or anything else unless they can make huge profits (and that means cutting out the little guy.) What we need is more government investment to create jobs and a first class public service.

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 6 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Hi William...I worked For the Feather River RR for a couple of years in the late 70's as operations manager of their " steel wheel " division, ( container piggyback ). I learned that all railroads, including Amtrak, are subsidized by the federal government...they are a vital resource for intercontinental transport in case of a national emergency, a national asset that must be maintained...As such, the motivation towards profit is diminished within the private sector, as is innovation and competition...

      You mentioned feather-bedding as a union practice ( eventually eliminated by contract )...There also was and is lots of white-collar feather-bedding with bloated nepotic staff...They all feed from the government teat with equal appetite...

      In 2010, Amtrak received $563 million in operating subsidies and $1 billion in capital and debt service grants. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 pumped an additional $1.3 billion in capital grants into Amtrak. All this for an entity that provides transportation for 0.1% of the nations traveling public.

      The solution is to privatize and deregulate passenger rail. Varying degrees of private involvement in passenger rail have been pursued abroad, such as in Australia, Britain, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand. Privatization would allow Amtrak greater flexibility in its finances, in capital investment, and in the operation of its services free from costly meddling by Congress.

      Thank you for this informative and interesting commentary...Voted up and useful...Larry

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks, Tony, for the nice comment and the link. Happy holidays.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Great Hub and yes, I love rail travel also. Have linked this Hub to mine on the Pretoria-based Friends of the Rail.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I don't disagree with your comments, Spuffler. Nevertheless, rail travel remains good, but it could be far better. It requires heavy investment, true, and that will come eventually. More routes, better accommodations and better service will accompany the growth of railroads when it no longer is possible to keep up with the pollution of oil and gasoline burning automobiles (See the hub I wrote about Darien: https://hubpages.com/politics/Darien-Could-Be-Para

    • profile image

      Spuffler 8 years ago

      In 2001, my wife and I took an Amtrack vacation. Keep in mind that I loved the rail trip, although later I might sound critical. We boarded in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid afternoon, taking our assigned sleeper with the pleasant company of the coachman when his time permitted. The sleeper was odd, in that it had a lot of brushed aluminum edging and acres of lima bean green molded fiberglass seemingly everywhere in the interior of the cabin. The fold down sink struck me as out of place, too. The trip to Chicago was mostly uneventful, but the sleeper just smacked of sterility and industrial ethic. From Chicago, where we switched trains, to LA, the cars were a bit older, but there were minimal sharp edges and lots of carpet, heavy cloth, darker colors and a bit more creature comfort in the cabin style. Throughout, interpersonal service from Amtrak employees was at least better than airlines. The real failure was the trackage. I recall areas west of Des Moines heading southwest towards Phoenix, where people walking from car to car (on the upper levels of the more elaborate sleepers) were completely thrown to the floor by the rapid shifting of the rails beneath us (and flange noise woke me many times). While I understand there will be gentle rocking motions from the better trackage, I'd have to demand substantial improvements in trackage before I'd talk openly about american rail transport. The leading downside of rail travel is clearly the travel time as compared to flight; lets not also lose customers by the need to tell passengers they should consider not walking about because 'we are on a rough stretch of track'.

      Recent talk from the president wants us to think that passenger rail may yet grow, but lets not lose sight of the 'recession', lets keep in mind lessons from a much needed tunnel in Boston that fails frequently yet made many contractors rich (in a time with stretches of relative prosperity). I seriously doubt any investment in high speed rail is going to produce large volumes of high speed commuter traffic in more than a single segment. So much money, so many chances for incompatibilities, so many chances to line a pocket, so many entrenched commuting habits. And then there is the idea of why would I travel - work? My career isn't going to need me to head towards big cities, and the majority of employment in the cities is all services based and does not pay well enough to draw me into the cities that may gain high speed rail services.

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for the comment, Bob. The only thing better than the trains were the old trolleys. If gas prices don't stop going up, maybe they'll come back!

    • profile image

      Bob 9 years ago

      Wish they would come back. If you have the time , the best way to see this Wonderful Country is with your nose pushed up against the window.

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

       It's been a while, pjdscott, since I've ridden the rails, and I miss it. Your trip sounds like it was fun. Thanks for the thumbs up!

    • pjdscott profile image

      pjdscott 9 years ago from Durham, UK

      It's great to hear about these positive changes. Some years ago we travelled all over the east coast/Chicago/Montreal/Buffalo on an Amtrak rover ticket and had a wonderful time. I would agree that the service and comfort was not always great, but the staff were!

      Super hub and thumbs up to you William.

    • William F. Torpey profile image
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      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thanks for the comment, Bogey047. It all depends on where you're located. I lived in Connecticut at the time, so I had to take the train to Pennsylvania Station in New York City to pick up the sleeper to Florida. For long distance, the sleepers are great!

      I'd love to see Amtrak get better funding from the government, compu-smart, but they apparently don't have much of a lobby compared to the auto and airline industries. I sure hope they don't even think about privatizing the railroads here in the U.S.

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 9 years ago from London UK

      Good points William,,

      It is such a shame that things have not improved with all kinds of services available to the public, which one would expect as time goes by especially as were far from a 3rd world countys!!

      Here in the UK most of our transport systems have all been priavatised which has not helped things at all!!

      Bogey.. Just jump on and enjoy the ride!;)

    • profile image

      bogey047 9 years ago

      I really enjoyed that article. I would like to take a vacation riding the rails soon. I just don't know where they go to and how many train changes you have to make to get to your destination?