Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

May 2, 2016

Yesterday was May 1st, known as May Day in much of the world. Through the years, May Day has become a symbol for many things, including on May 1, 1971, the day Amtrak began operations.

The New York Times noted the beginning of Amtrak with this headline: “AMTRAK CHUGS IN WITH FEW ABOARD – Little Confusion or Fanfare and usual Low patronage Mark New Day on Rail.” Forty-five years later, we’re in 2016.

In 2016, airlines are reporting high profits, cruise lines are reporting high profits, and Amtrak – a virtual monopoly in much of the United States for passenger rail – is reporting record losses and is trying to save itself once again by starving itself to death.

In the beginning, Amtrak was a much simpler organization, which contracted with the private railroads which formerly operated passenger trains to continue to do so, with the private railroads providing train and engine crews (conductors and engineers) and Amtrak being a coordinating organization with a reservations system, and other services.

Sadly, because of the bankruptcy of Penn Central in the Northeast, Amtrak ended up owning and operating the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak at first fought against taking over the NEC, but, once it happened many Amtrakers said “Finally, we have our own railroad to run!” and things have never been the same (or, as good, since).

Forty-five years later, new federal legislation calls for some of Amtrak’s long distance routes to be privatized, and Amtrak no longer has an absolute strangle-hold on state operated services. Brighter days are ahead as Amtrak’s Board of Directors looks to hire a new president and chief executive officer.

Perhaps 2016 will be the year Amtrak becomes serious about providing and partnering with other private companies to offer better, more sustainable passenger rail service in America. Forty-five years is long enough for an experiment. It’s time to do the real thing.




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