A Comprehensive History of Amtrak That Narrowly Misses Its Mark

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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BOOK REVIEW: Amtrak, America’s Railroad – Transportation’s Orphan and its Struggle for Survival. By Geoffrey Doughty, Jeffrey Darbee, and Eugene Harmon. Indiana University Press, 2021.

Three authors who do not claim experience concerning passenger railroading in the United States, or advocacy for same, have joined forces to present a 220-page history of Amtrak; from the situation before it began, through its origin and early days, to a glimpse of “America’s Railroad” today. Their work is comprehensive, scholarly and loaded with politics, as could be expected. 

The central challenge that probably should have been the focus of the endeavor was stated by Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono at page 164 (but not sooner): “Amtrak’s purpose should be to attract passengers. It’s that simple.” The authors describe in detail how Amtrak has done over the years in its efforts to attract passengers or repel them, according to the politics appertaining at any given time. They also complain, strongly and correctly, about the lack of a transportation policy that includes passenger trains. In doing so, they present a great deal of background that will be useful to future historians when they analyze what will either be the half-century nadir of America’s attempts to produce such a transportation policy, or the early stages of the eventual downfall of a mode of travel well-liked by a portion of the citizenry but not by politicians who hold the power of the policy purse.

For us veteran Amtrak-watchers, there are few surprises. For the uninitiated, the authors spin a tale that appears shockingly difficult to believe, at least to someone who appreciates a robust and well-run network of trains designed to take riders where they want to go, and to resist undue political influence.

For the most part, they tell Amtrak’s history like it was: the sad story of a railroad that barely and unexpectedly made it to the half-century mark; well-liked by the public, but subsisting on grudging life-support from politicians who do not ride, and against other politicians who still strive to destroy it.

The role of the riders, who should be the primary stakeholders and intended beneficiaries of the entire Amtrak venture, is given only four pages of text (at 147-151); gleaned from interviews with randomly selected passengers. They were interesting, but why does the “rider experience” get less than 2% of the space?

The authors portray politics as the reason why Amtrak has not done better; an assertion beyond dispute. Still, they say little about the impact of its current head, political mastermind Stephen Gardner, and they ignore the provision of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) that froze Amtrak’s National Network at 14 trains; the same size it was in 1971.

They correctly condemn Roger Lewis (1971-74), an airline man without railroad experience, for poor leadership and similarly criticize George Warrington (1998-2002) for his errors, but those two men are safely in their graves. The authors are much kinder to more-recent airline men William Flynn (now CEO) and Richard Anderson (2017-20); many riders and their advocates see Anderson as the man who made a best effort to destroy Amtrak and kill their trains, but the authors criticize him only mildly (at 170-71). They praise Charles “Wick” Moorman, the CEO from Norfolk Southern who took the Amtrak job temporarily, and is best-remembered by riders for addressing serious track problems at New York Penn Station.

Inexplicably, the authors effusively laud Thomas M. Downs (1993-98) and quote him as saying: “If you wanted to kill off Amtrak, setting up three-day-a-week service would be the way to do it. All of Amtrak” (at 180). To this writer, such praise appears disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. It was Downs himself who implemented the infamous Mercer cuts during the mid-1990s that killed a number of trains and slashed service on roughly half of Amtrak’s long-distance network to three or four days a week. To his credit, Downs restored most trains to daily operation in 1997, killing two of them in the process. Downs set the stage for the entire long-distance network of passenger trains to be slashed to tri-weekly last year, until Congress intervened.

I read the book in an appropriate setting: the long ride from Florida to New York City on Trains 92 and 90. The reading experience felt like a ride on the NEC: smooth-going and enjoyable some of the time, like the “Speedway” in New Jersey, but harder during the wonky stuff in Part 3, like the rough-riding railroad closer to Philadelphia. One particular high spot was the appendix, which documented efforts by various states to establish state-supported trains and corridors. It’s also wonky, but it’s comprehensive.

One omission was the lack of disclosure about how much the authors have ridden on Amtrak trains and when they started riding. That information would have helped me (and probably you, too), in evaluating their experience with issues whose explanation require more than just traditional scholarship. Sometimes, to get a genuine understanding of a situation, there is no substitute for being there.

David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit’s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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