This year, Americans held what may have been the most subdued observance of the Fourth of July in the nation’s history. There were few parades, town celebrations or fireworks displays in recognition of the nation’s birthday. In short, there were essentially no parties or events, so few people had reason to go anywhere.
Author: David Peter Alan
This writer began working on this series on June 19. It was Juneteenth, the day an increasing number of Americans of all colors and heritages now view as an occasion to celebrate freedom. Part of the freedom that many Americans treasure is the freedom to travel, as stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The “right to travel” is one thing, in the sense that government cannot unduly restrict travel (as questionable as that assumption may appear these days), but there is also the issue that this sacred “right” can be limited if access to mobility is also limited. Millions of Americans who depend on Amtrak for part of their travel are about to lose a significant portion of the mobility they have today.
A railroad battle is shaping up in Miami. Two competitors want to serve potential commuters into Brightline’s new Miami Central downtown hub. It may not be as dramatic as the Chile War, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande Western literally fought armed skirmishes to determine who could build new rail lines in the New Mexico Territory in the early 1880s, but it nevertheless is a battle.
While the COVID-19 virus was occupying most of our attention, an event so unforeseeable and strange occurred that anything remotely resembling it had previously been considered unthinkable. For a brief time in April, oil literally became equivalent to trash. It brought a negative price on the market, which meant that its owners had to pay to get rid of it, as the cost to store it kept rising. That phenomenon was a momentary hiccup of our virus-based economy, but it says something about supply, demand and the cost of infrastructure. This does have something to do with the Gateway Program, and it is time for the members of the Board of the Gateway Development Corp. (GDC) to start noticing some recent changes. As of the May 28 meeting, they had not.
As Amtrak enters it 50th year, many of its schedules bear little resemblance to the service that was offered a mere two months ago. President and CEO Richard Anderson is out (though serving in a transitional role), and William Flynn is in. Will that change at the top mean much to Amtrak customers and supporters? The COVID-19 pandemic has knocked out a large portion of Amtrak service, as well as much local transit. Still, the nation will come back to life in some fashion, someday. How will Amtrak participate in the recovery? Anything can happen in these unpredictable times. What could happen in Amtrak’s possibly most-pivotal year?
As states begin or continue the process of allowing more businesses and public facilities to open, some members of the traveling public wonder how many trains Amtrak will run this summer. Amtrak is running fewer trains than ever on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and other corridors, as part of the shutdown of much of the nation’s activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this writing, a few places have loosened some of the virus-related restrictions, while others are planning how and when to do so. Amtrak will probably return to a level of service approaching the schedule at the beginning of March someday, on some lines if not all of them, but nobody knows when. Apparently not even Amtrak is sure and, for some trains, Amtrak lacks the authority to make those decisions.
New York has long been known as the “City That Never Sleeps,” partly because its subway system has, with very few exceptions (Superstorm Sandy and 9/11 among them) continuously operated 24/7 since it opened in 1904. That will soon change, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has announced that the system—plagued with homeless people who have turned it into a trash-strewn shelter—will shut down for four hours, between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m., every night, beginning in the early hours of Wednesday, May 6, for cleaning. As well, the MTA has instituted new rules implemented new rules to restrict those who have been camping on the system.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo predicted last year that the Canarsie Tunnels between Brooklyn and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan on New York City Transit’s L train line would be repaired without a major service disruption. He was correct. Cuomo announced on April 26 that the service reductions necessitated by the tunnel repair project were over, and that both tunnels would be open for service on April 27 under the New York MTA Essential Service Plan. His announcement came on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of reduced service.
It has been a grim month in the United States and Canada, and almost everywhere else around the world. There will more grim months to come. But amid the deaths and crushing fear, our freight and passenger railroads, along with much of our transit, have kept going. Not many people need to go anywhere these days, but many of those who do still have a way to get there, even if not as often as they could a mere 30 days ago. Much of the credit for our remaining mobility goes to the employees who keep our passenger railroads and our local transit going.
On Saturday, Feb. 22, history buffs and railfans from around New Jersey gathered in a repurposed and still-beautiful former railroad terminal to celebrate a train that, during its short life, was an iconic and luxurious one that the Garden State could call its own. That train was the Blue Comet on the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ). It was New Jersey’s all-time premier train, which set the standard for décor and service at reasonable prices during an era when not many people could afford even a coach ticket. Few of the people who actually rode that train are alive today, and probably fewer still have vivid memories of the trips they took, but the fast and luxurious train that whisked riders through the countryside and the Pine Barrens of South Jersey to Atlantic City lives on in the DNA of New Jerseyans who remain tired of living in the shadows of New York and Pennsylvania, and who cling to memories of experiences of the past that their state could claim as its own.