On May Day 2021, Amtrak celebrated its 50th anniversary as the national passenger railroad of the United States.
This article is part of an ongoing series on the past, present, and future of railroads in Fullerton and Orange County.
The previous two articles in this series (in the Early September and Mid-September 2019 issues of The Fullerton Observer), introduced Amtrak as the federally-owned national passenger railroad that serves Fullerton, as well as the historic relationship between the U.S. government and the railroads up until the mid-20th century. This article will continue the history of railroads in the U.S., and how Amtrak was created a half-century ago.
In the years after World War II, railroads in America tried to compete with cars and airplanes by introducing faster diesel “streamliner” locomotives and trainsets like the one shown in the above photo at the Fullerton depot in 1955. However, they had little government support to fund upgrades and mandated safety systems. Railroads reduced speeds on most routes to a maximum of 79 mph due to requirements for automatic train control for passenger trains operated at 80 mph or higher following a major 1946 accident in Illinois. Automatic train control is a safety technology that has existed since the 1920s and was the predecessor to today’s Positive Train Control being implemented across the U.S. rail network. However, during the late 1940s and after, private railroad companies did not want to spend the money for automatic train control for which the government provided no money. As a result, many U.S. rail passenger services were faster in the 1940s than they are today. By contrast, aviation safety received extensive federal government support and funding, especially after a major 1956 mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon. The lower speeds hurt the ability of passenger trains to compete with airplanes and cars.
Also, during the postwar period the Interstate Commerce Commission continued to require railroads to provide passenger service and regulate their rates on routes deemed essential, but the federal government did little or nothing to financially assist rail service or infrastructure. The burgeoning automobile, bus, aviation, and trucking industries did not have to operate under nearly as many regulatory constraints on their revenues. At the same time, these competing modes of transportation were having their extensive infrastructure constructed by the government, and the use of this infrastructure was heavily subsidized (especially so for trucking). Federal, state and local government spending on highways, roads, and airports exploded after World War II, and the Interstate Highway System began crisscrossing the nation.
The 1960s U.S. railroad crisis leads to federal action
Competition from cars, trucks, and airplanes led to severe declines in rail passengers and freight shipments. These competing modes of transportation were also receiving vastly greater amounts of public subsidy. A particularly hard blow to the railroads was the loss of express freight (parcel) and U.S. Postal Service shipments in 1967 when these shifted to trucks and airplanes.
By the end of the 1960s, U.S. railroads had been pushed into a severe financial crisis. The Penn Central was formed by the merger of three major northeastern railroads (the Pennsylvania, New York Central, and New Haven) between 1968 and 1969 in an attempt to survive. However, the combined company soon went bankrupt. At the time, this was the largest corporate bankruptcy in U.S. history. The collapse of the Penn Central led Congress to take action to restructure the railroad industry and save it from financial ruin. In October 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act. This legislation enabled railroads that operated (mostly unprofitably) intercity passenger rail lines to turn the service over to the new National Railroad Passenger Corporation, allowing them to focus on freight business. The new federal passenger railroad, under the brand name Amtrak, launched service on May 1, 1971. The first Amtrak train to arrive in Fullerton that May Day morning was a San Diegan handed over from the Santa Fe Railway.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the nation’s long-distance passenger trains were saved but were still hindered by many challenges. Of the 366 intercity passenger train routes that were previously operated by U.S. railroads, Amtrak continued only 184 routes and those it consolidated and cut to a much smaller number. Frequency of train service on many lines was also reduced. Amtrak inherited problems such as worn-out locomotives and passenger cars, as well as run-down train stations and yards suffering from poor maintenance. Amtrak also initially received no railroad tracks or rights-of-way of its own and had to pay to run all of its passenger trains over tracks owned by freight railroads. In the beginning, Amtrak operated trains using the rolling stock and other equipment it had inherited from the various railroads’ passenger operations. Before its red, white, and blue livery became widespread in the mid-1970s, the variety of colors of locomotives and cars used during its first few years became referred to as the “Rainbow Period” of Amtrak.
Despite being relieved of the financial burden of providing passenger service, major U.S. freight railroads continued to go bankrupt through the decade of the 1970s. Federal railroad bailouts from acts of Congress in 1973 and 1976 led to the more comprehensive Staggers Rail Act of 1980. This legislation largely established the business model of the U.S. rail industry as we know it today. It removed from the railroads most regulation of shipping rates and operations. This deregulation encouraged mergers and consolidation of the freight railroads and freed them to focus on the most profitable lines of business—long haul and bulk shipments. The Staggers Rail Act is widely credited with restoring profitability to the freight railroads and reversing their historic loss of market share to trucking. However, the railroads’ pursuit of maximum profit in freight hauling has often conflicted with allowing passenger trains to run on time or accommodating more of them. Federal law requires that the freight railroads share their tracks with Amtrak and provide dispatching preference to passenger trains. In practice however, congestion of shared tracks has often led to delays and interruptions to Amtrak trains, earning them a reputation for chronic lateness. Amtrak is often blamed for its own unreliability despite much of it being the fault of the freight railroads and their constrained infrastructure. On-time performance of Amtrak has improved somewhat over the past decade due to strengthening of the federal laws after a 2008 Department of Transportation investigation of railroad dispatching practices. At the end of 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a new rule establishing a minimum standard to measure on-time performance by host railroads, which was unsuccessfully fought in the courts by freight railroads. But Amtrak continues to have difficulty sharing freight railroad lines to the detriment of passenger service.
The North Orange County boy who loved trains
President Nixon’s Transportation Secretary John Volpe and several key U.S. senators (notably Vance Hartke of Indiana) were strong advocates for maintaining a national passenger rail network with federal support. Through most of 1970, they urged Nixon to support the Rail Passenger Service Act. However, Nixon’s powerful domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman and other White House aides were adamantly opposed to federal support of passenger rail as well as public subsidy to railroads in general. They almost succeeded in having Nixon veto the Amtrak bill. Ehrlichman (who would later go to prison for Watergate crimes) had effectively blocked any railroad proposal from White House consideration until the Penn Central bankruptcy forced some kind of action. Even after Nixon signed the legislation, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget nearly succeeded in eliminating all intercity passenger trains outside of the northeastern U.S.
In the end, Nixon decided that a national passenger rail system needed to be saved even if he himself (along with many others) had doubts that Amtrak would survive as a government-owned corporation for more than a few years. Public opinion still favored keeping the nation’s intercity trains, despite the fact that the majority of the public was no longer riding them. Nixon did not want to be remembered as the president who killed off the nation’s long-distance trains. He, in fact, had a lifelong love of trains that began while growing up in northern Orange County. His father Francis Nixon once worked as a motorman on the Pacific Electric Railway’s Whittier/La Habra/Yorba Linda line. The young Richard occasionally would ride the Pacific Electric Red Car between his parents’ home in Whittier and his aunt’s home in Fullerton, where he stayed while attending Fullerton Union High School during his sophomore year. His early boyhood home in Yorba Linda was near a Santa Fe branch track to the Olinda oil fields. As Nixon described in a speech to an audience of railroad men in Centralia, Illinois in 1960:
“Right alongside our house ran a railroad track, and I used to hear the whistles at night, and I used to think of all the places those trains were going. And I wanted to be a railroad engineer so that I could travel through America and through the world. I didn’t make that, of course, but got to travel anyway. But may I say to those who run the nation’s railroads, ‘Remember, it’s a wonderful service you’re rendering.’” (“Richard Nixon: Rail Romantic” Trains Magazine, November 1971)
Special thanks to Thomas White of VTD Rail Consulting for providing historical information and reviewing this article. Upcoming articles in this series in The Fullerton Observer will explore the past and present of the two Amtrak lines that serve Fullerton—the Pacific Surfliner and the Southwest Chief—along with more recent history and current challenges of Amtrak, in particular the drastic drop in ridership and revenues over the past year due to the pandemic.
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