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Thread: An observation on why passenger service tanked in the 60's...

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    Default An observation on why passenger service tanked in the 60's...

    Aside from all the other contributing factors to why passenger service died in the 60's, I made an observation last night while re-watching some footage from 1970 of passenger trains in Chicago.

    The older cars in the consists were painted in a rather elegant, classy manner. Dark, rich colors, gold leaf lettering or at least some sort of elegant font. The newer paint jobs were painted like freight cars. Bright colors, a modern billboard logo.

    Nobody wants to be treated like freight. No one wants to ride in an ugly train that looks like public transit. WTF were they thinking? Trains could have taken the high road and provided an elegant, relaxed experience for travel that was a cut above airline travel. Room to move...a bar car...good food...the ability to get up and walk around...a nice view. All those things are things that a train has over an airplane, but if it's wrapped in the same kind of package as a semi trailer or a garbage truck, no one is going to feel very elegant in climbing aboard.

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    While I agree that passengers don’t like to be treated as freight, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the paint schemes were much of a contributor to declining passenger numbers.

    The reason why passenger service decreased in the 1960s had more to do with competition from the airliner and the automobile. Many railroads kept up a high quality of service all the way to the end... Santa Fe, Seaboard Coast Line, Burlington Northern, Union Pacific... and of these only BN implemented a simplified paint scheme on their passenger cars, but more to bring unity to the three railroads that had recently merged.

    Passenger counts were declining starting as early as 1946. The trend continued and worsened with opening of new public highways and introduction of jet airliners.

    The whole business model collapsed with the end of mail contracts that were carried by passenger trains in the late 1960s.

    An excellent read on the decline of private passenger service in the US is Fred Frailey’s book Twilight of the Great Trains. I highly recommend it if you are interested in how various railroads approached the challenge of minimizing losses from passenger operations in the 1960s.

    Jim


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    I tend to think that the effect of airlines and autos was mostly along the lines of resetting everyone's expectations. When cars became ubiquitous, highways got built, and airlines became available, people's conception of how far they can travel in a day got adjusted. Prior to the 1940s, a train would take you as far as one could expect in a given timeframe, they set the standard as it were. But thereafter, the public expectation of how much time it should take to travel certain distances left the trains behind. Suddenly, there was a trade-off to be made; one had to have a reason to choose train travel over other efficient forms. Elegance, room to move about, scenic views, good food, yes all of these things fall into that category of reasons to choose, but they're all going against the inherent perceived inefficiency of train travel. I think the same thing happened to boat travel, when train travel became feasible as an alternative: the public expectation shifted.


    That perception might not even be right; in several instances the trip by train is roughly the same time it would take, overall, by car or even by plane. Amtrak from here to Chicago is about the same 6-hour schedule it would take me to drive it. But what I'm saying is that it's not so much the actual time measurement that matters, it is the common conception.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo View Post
    The reason why passenger service decreased in the 1960s had more to do with competition from the airliner and the automobile.
    Quote Originally Posted by WP&P View Post
    When cars became ubiquitous, highways got built, and airlines became available, people's conception of how far they can travel in a day got adjusted.
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    Some thought-provoking comments thus far.

    I might add that airlines suckered us in with comfortable seating, plenty of leg room and the attempt to have food and bar service. Over the years, seats have shrunk in the wash, leg room has become all but nonexistent, and good service is reserved for the few up front.

    Having traveled by steamship (not cruise ship), rail and airline, each has their place for me.

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    Passenger rail service began a long decline just as soon as the automobile became available to the general public. Thank Henry Ford.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Gosha View Post
    Thank Henry Ford.
    I thank him every time I saddle a horse.

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    When looking at Europe , I have a few thoughts on why American passenger travel declined and why Railroads couldn't cope with it. Not until Amtrak that is , certainly for shorter distances up to 2 hours.

    On longer distances the airplane has been the decisive factor. But the reason railroads couldn't cope with it in the US is imho because there were too many competitors that all had their own tracks , stations and trains , therefore not viable . In Europe most countries have always had the Amtrak model , we do have smaller public transport companies for local transportation , but the main trackage is done by one company that has all the passengers going between cities , so they don't have to compete with another company that does the same route. Like Amtrak now. There is still one diference though , Europe doesn't have many trans continental trains , most of the time you switch trains from one country to the other, once again making it easier viable.

    For trips longer then I would say about 1000 km most people fly, exception vacation trips.
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    A couple of additional comments. In Germany, the tracks are owned by the government, who charges usage fees. As a result, passenger service schedules are given priority. In the US, the railroads own the tracks. Since freight is more profitable (real or perceived), passenger schedules are regularly sacrificed in favor of freight. This does not make passengers happy.

    Also there are differences in efficiency. Amtrak checks tickets before boarding, causing delays at stations. In Europe, passengers board the train and the train gets rolling promptly. Conductors spot check tickets while under way. Local trains may stop between stations to eject freeloaders. High speed trains turn freeloaders over to the police for prosecution at the next scheduled stop. Coming up the Rhein valley on my 1st trip,the average station stop was 34 seconds. You best be ready when the train stops!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Janbouli View Post
    For trips longer then I would say about 1000 km most people fly, exception vacation trips.
    That may be changing. People are becoming more environmentally conscious, night trains are reappearing and there are more in the pipeline.
    There is even work (or at least plans) in progress to revive the TEE concept - not as the first class only service of yesterday, but as fast long distance connections including night trains. I have not yet heard of any government in Europe that has opposed the idea.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SteamPower4ever View Post
    That may be changing. People are becoming more environmentally conscious, night trains are reappearing and there are more in the pipeline.
    There is even work (or at least plans) in progress to revive the TEE concept - not as the first class only service of yesterday, but as fast long distance connections including night trains. I have not yet heard of any government in Europe that has opposed the idea.

    - Article in International Railway Journal
    - TEE 2.0 concept presentation from the German ministry of transportation
    Yes I see that change coming as well , but as long as it's much more expensive then flying , and there are nearer airports then there are stations where these continental trains run from it will remain for those that want to take a train even with it's drawbacks.

    For instance flight to the Algarve from Eindhoven airport ( only 80 km's from my home ) costs about 140 euro's round flight with golf bagage and takes including driving to airport and boarding etc. about 6 hours. Train to Faro in the Algarve would take me about 34 hours and I didn't look up to see what it costs because I would need to buy 4 separate train tickets , the cheapest by train mite be Interrail Pass which is 335 euro's for 7 days in one month of traveling.

    I am aiming to take Interrail for a 3 week trip through Europe one day , but not to go on a short holiday or business trip, and neither will many others. So I think flying will stay for a long time to come. And I didn't even weigh in that you have to drag your bagage from one train to another all the time.
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    Agreed - it's not a miracle cure, but still ... an efficient system has merit and don't underestimate the environmental aspect. People think about that now, and with a bit of competition, rail travel may be much cheaper. We've seen that on the airlines.
    A couple of years ago I was attending a conference in Stockholm. Took the night train with a sleeper, arrived in the morning well rested, attended the conference and returned with the night train. No hotel booking needed.
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    My comment on all of this is that there isn’t a passenger carrying service in the US that makes a profit and isn’t subsidized in some way by the government.

    When passenger trains were profitable for private companies, a large portion of the profit was due to hauling US Mail on passenger trains. To a lesser extent, there were military moves that helped as well…. But loosing the mail contracts was the final nail in the coffin for a lot of passenger routes. Amtrak is profitable above the rail on most routes ( I.e. the federal government pays for capital investments in equipment and infrastructure ).

    Bus service is subsidized by the largely federally funded highway system ( and our fuel taxes )

    Airlines couldn’t operate without the federally funded air traffic control system and government subsidized airports.

    Now to the heart of the matter, in today’s world, if where I am going is under about 200 miles away, it is typically quicker for me to drive… between arriving at the airport early, the actual flight time, and waiting for luggage… if Amtrak were an option for me, I would take it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by pbender View Post
    My comment on all of this is that there isn’t a passenger carrying service in the US that makes a profit and isn’t subsidized in some way by the government.
    Except maybe the ones in zoos and amusement parks!

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    As I started my post with "Aside from all the other contributing factors to why passenger service died in the 60's", I don't think that I ever put forth that my observation was THE reason that passenger service failed. I know all about the others...the rise of the auto and semi trucks...interstate highways...loss of mail contracts...GM's shady relationship with Washington to displace trains and trolleys and replace with busses... I was merely pointing out that with all of those other factors in play, the railroads didn't help themselves much with the 'modern' paint schemes. Of course, most of them were eager to get out of the passenger business entirely years before the government would allow it, anyway. Perhaps it was intentional.


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    Quite true, @P-LineSoo!
    That's what you said
    and that's what we read.
    Time to give us detention
    for not paying attention.

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    Hahaha! I woudn't go that far! I was watching an episode of "Trains and Locomotives" from RFD TV that I recorded months ago and kept on my DVR because it's so cool. It was some fellow's 16mm footage of Chicago in 1970, right before Amtrak took over. The last few minutes are the 'carnival trains' of the first Amtrak runs. What a mismatch of equipment! I think the saddest part of the footage was seeing the "City of New Orleans" of song and fame...looking very tired with a string of 4 or 5 mail cars and two old coaches. Must be what inspired Steve Goodman.

    The story on that song, for those unfamiliar, is that Goodman went to see Arlo Guthrie play in Chicago. After the show, Goodman, an unknown at the time, wanted to play for Guthrie. Arlo said, "Ok, kid...buy me a beer and I'll listen to you until it's gone". Goodman bought Guthrie the beer and started playing "City of New Orleans". The rest is history.

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    And here's the song - City of New Orleans
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF1lqEQFVUo
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    Quote Originally Posted by P-LineSoo View Post
    As I started my post with "Aside from all the other contributing factors to why passenger service died in the 60's", I don't think that I ever put forth that my observation was THE reason that passenger service failed. I know all about the others...the rise of the auto and semi trucks...interstate highways...loss of mail contracts...GM's shady relationship with Washington to displace trains and trolleys and replace with busses... I was merely pointing out that with all of those other factors in play, the railroads didn't help themselves much with the 'modern' paint schemes. Of course, most of them were eager to get out of the passenger business entirely years before the government would allow it, anyway. Perhaps it was intentional.

    Well, you have to consider this a chicken and egg problem…. Did the quality of service go down because the trains were losing money or was a degradation of service a reason for loss of revenue.

    Given the large investment many railroads made in the immediate post WWII years ( thinking roughly 1945-1955, though on some roads later than that ) I don’t believe the railroads anticipated the drastic decline in revenue that occurred, especially in the 1950s. I think that was the driver for the decline in service levels.
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    I don't think anyone's brought up operational flexibility yet. You can't easily re-route your trains to different destinations based on demand like an airliner can. You have to follow train tracks, deal with whatever speed limits those tracks have, deal with whatever traffic is on those tracks, and convince/pay the railroad who owns the tracks to let you use them. Airspace is more or less free game, and while there is traffic and restrictions on where you can fly, all it takes to manage this is just flying the plane around restricted airspace and coordinating with ATC to stay out of the way of other planes.

    Planes are also easier to manage since they can easily be flown to wherever they are needed and aren't as susceptible to bottlenecks caused by accidents and breakdowns. A broken down plane on a runway or taxiway merely blocks that runway or taxiway leaving others open and can be removed quite easily, while a broken down train many miles away can easily plug up a vital route and back up traffic for many hours and in the case of an accident, several days or even weeks depending on the nature of an accident.

    I think the reason we see long distance travel working in other countries (like Japan, Europe, etc) is for some of the same reasons commuter trains, and the Acela work in America. There isn't as much ground to cover (western Europe is only about 1/3 the size of the lower 48), passenger trains often run on dedicated lines at higher speeds, much higher population densities (Europe is about 3 1/2 times more densely populated than the US), higher cost of vehicle ownership (fuel costs, mileage taxes, and extremely high costs just to get a license; a license Germany can cost nearly $4000 USD after it's all said and done), higher costs of living in general, relatively inexpensive tickets, and high passenger volumes allow for multiple trains to single destinations per day on a fixed schedule without the need to arrive 1 or 2 hours ahead of time like an airport.

    One other factor in Europe might also be that people in Europe work less, with a lot of European countries having the average full time hours worked per week being 5 to 10 hours less than in the US. Less time working means people are able to allocate more hours to a trip. Couple that with the lower costs and high speed trains, and you got a mode of travel that's preferable to an airliner or car for a lot of people.

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