The Railroad Station at Billings, Mont., is old, clean, wooden, and deathly quiet, except when the long coal trains roll past along Montana Avenue. A passenger train used to come through Billings on the run between Chicago and Seattle. But the North Coast Hiawatha is dead now, been dead since October -- the victin of a head-on collision with a thundering herd of numbers, statistics cooked up at Amtrak headquarters in Washington to justify killing off some trains.
Amtrak does most things slowly or not at all. You could go from puberty to Social Security waiting for a phone reservation line. The trains run late. Through the hot dusty summers the air conditioning lies silent, kicking in only when snow starts to fall. Sometimes they run the trains without food, sometimes without heat.
But it should not be inferred that Amtrak is incapable of swift, decisive action. When it comes to killing off trains, Amtrak can move with the precision and confidence of a samurai. Citizens and congressmen who tried to save sereral doomed long-distance trains this year found themselves hopelessly handicapped; Amtrak had the numbers, Amtrak had the criteria, and if the criteria didn't support Amtrak, the criteria could be changed or ignored. When, in desperation, the citizens and congressmen went to the court, Amtrak lawyers outmaneuvered them repeatedly, even rousing the chief justice of the United States on a weekend to help dispatch the trains to oblivion.
We are speaking now of a nation encumbered by a rapidly deteriorating fuel supply. We are speaking of the most fuel-efficient form of transportation, the steel wheel on the steel rail, and of a network of wheels and rails already in place across the continent. We are speaking of the summer of 1979. Listen to the president of the United States as he steps off an Amtrak train in Baltimore, having taken a 37-mile ride from Washington. Hear him say:
"Trains represent the future and not the past in American transportation. I recommend this type of trip to every American."
Having made that recommendation, President Carter continued to support legislation in Congress that would cut Amtrak's schedules by 43 percent, and in the middle of the gas shortage the White House even went so far as to cancel Amtrak's advertising plans. Months later, when the policical skirmishing ended, the routes had been cut by 20 percent, and the Hiawatha was gone.
The problem in early 1979 seemed to be this: Amtrak either had to lobby aggressively for heavy additional subsidies with which to overhaul and upgrade its extraordinarily decrepit collection of passenger cars, or it had to eliminate trains wherever possible in order to shift the best of its cars to a more concentrated collection of routes.
Democratic Rep. Pat Williams of Montana traces the problem back to the old palm card that politicians traditionally passed out to the voters at the polls. "They always promised 'businesslike administration,'" he says. "As a result, you've got folks who still want Amtrak to earn money."
For its part, Amtrak adopted a posture familiar to watchers of Washington:
the low profile, accompanied by the shrugged shoulder and the finger of blame pointing somewhere off there. Amtrak president Alan Boyd: "Our guidance is so specific that Amtrak has little or no latitude in determining those trains to be continued, discontinued, or modified. Our task is not one of making decisions between various alternatives, but rater one of strict observance of congressionally-approved provisions." It's not me, Jack. It's them.
But it was Amtrak, not Congress, that collected the numbers on passengers using the trains, and it was Amtrak's bookkeepers who decided where to assign the full financial weight of deteriorating equipment and cost ineffective administration -- exercises filled with arcane accounting procedures capable of shifting millions of dollars from one region to another.
From these exercises, criteria were developed. Traines that could demonstrate that they were meeting the criteria of 150 passenger-miles per train-mile (PM/TM) and an "avoidable loss per mile" of seven cents or less would be spared. Others might not.
The decision-making process was subject to a range of variables, all baffling. In a system chronicaly plagued by equipment failure, busy signals, delays, and the absence of advertising, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy that ridership statistics would seem low. And a decision to equip a long-distance multiple-stop train with only, say, 220 seats guaranteed that the train would never meet the 150 PM/TM criterion; a bloc of seats sold to passengers traveling from A to C would cause the computers to show the train full at B, and people trying to get from B to D would be told that no seats were available. Then the number-crunchers in Washington would report to Congress that nobody at B or D wanted to ride their trains. And so on. The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) came up with data showing that trains like the Hiawatha and the doomed National Limited (New York-Philadelpia-Pittsburgh-Columbus-Dayton-Indianapolis-St. Louis -- Kansas City) were coming close to meeting even Amtrak's criteria. Amtrak's own numbers -- released only in slow dribbles without the usual explanatory press releases -- showed the Hiawatha at 140 PM/TM and 7.9 cents "avoidable loss" for fiscal 1978.
This was remarkable, considering the circumstances under which the Hiawatha and its crews struggled to function. Amtrak didn't advertise it. People had to call from station to station -- long distance toll calls -- trying to find a line open, just to obtain information about the train's timetable. Since it was rarly on time, an element of roulette was involved in trying to catch it. Aboard, the dome observation car windows were opaque with scratches, and the riders endured smothering heat or paralyzing cold.
"It seemed to me like Amtrak was trying to drive people away from this train," says Don Sandman, who was the traveling electrician on the Montana leg of the Hawatha's run. A rail worker for more than 30 years, he had been with Amtrak for the past six.
"Whatever they say, we -- the crew -- cared about that train," Sandman says, "and we believed that if we ever had just one six-month period with new equipment and daily service, we'd probably never have an empty seat after that."
One time the train was running nine hours late, westbound from Chicago, on a subzero nigh. "I went to the platform in Billings and told people that just about every toilet was frozen solid. They still got on -- and a lot of them were elderly people. Just imagine what our ridership figures would have looked like with thawed toilets."
Despite Amtrak's sophistication with computers, Sandman says the railroad routinely couldn't manage to put enough food on board the Hiawatha to serve its passengers. One Sunday the situation was so bad that he radio-telephoned his wife and she drove the family pickup truck to the Livingston station with $100 worth of groceries.
"The big problem is that board of directors," Keith McIntyre, a brakeman on the Hiawatha, argues. "Hey, if we had a law that said they actually had to get off their butts in Washington and ride their trains -- actually get on board, go by train instead of limousines and jets -- they'd see we know what we're talking about."
In 1979, Amtrak in Washington was raionalizing cutting off the Hiawatha on the grounds that about a third of its route was redundant, in the sense that it was also covered, four times a week, by the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder. The problem with this argument was that would-be riders along the remaining two-thirds of the Hiawatha's route would have to drive from 100 to 300 miles just to catch the train. The Empire Builder takes a highly scenic but sparsely populated route across northernmost North Dakota and Montana; the Hiawatha's route served the population centers.
Sandman and McIntyre and some other Hiawatha crew members proposed running a small train along the northern route between Fargo and Spokane. "It would be two Amfleet passenger cars, an Amfleet lounge car, and one locomotive, and it would meet up with the main-line train at each end," Sandman says. "It would require only a small crew, maintenance costs would be low, and there are service facilities along that route." Working without benefit of Washington's computers, the crew figured that routing the main train through the population centers would be a better way to lure passengers than running it past a lot of bears and lumberjacks.
Sandman went to Gary Erford with the idea. Erford is Amtrak's manager of onboard services in its Seattle regional office. Erford says he passed the idea along to "interested parties," although he is vague about who they might have been. It appears likely that he got in touch with somebody in Congress, rather than with the Amtrak board.
Wherever Sandman's suggestion went, nothing came back. When Amtrak's board met in August tto determine which trains to kill, the Hiawatha was on the hit list, along with four other long-distance trains; other trains in Amtrak's 21-train long-distance fleet that had failed to meet the PM/TM avoidable loss "criteria" survived by virtue of political influence.
The cuts were to take effect on Oct. 1, barring action by Congress to the contrary. A lobbying effort organized by NARP and an ad-hoc coalition of labor unions and consumer groups laid siege to Capitol Hill, but the political momentum was against them.
"Look around the world and there's not a public transportation system run for profit," Jack Kroll, president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC), argued to anyone he could stop in a hallway.
"Amtrak's 1978 subsidy was about $500 million," Kroll notes, "compared to $728 million in Britain, $930 million in France, and $4.1 billion in Japan. And the United States is contributing $2.4 billion a year to the World Bank for railroad development in other countries." It seems logical to Kroll that a nation so willing to help others should be at least equally willing to help itself.
But Congress wasn't quite prepared to accept that logic, and the lobbyng effort, according to numerous Capitol Hill staff people, came too late and never was as effective as it might have been.
Amtrak contunued to churn out numbers supporting its case. And it executed other maneuvers that resulted in inflicting additional wounds upon the already battered Hiawatha. Ticket agents along the Hiawatha's route claim that Amtrak offices in the East were routing passengers to the Empire Builder, to hype its PM/TM figures, and were cutting coaches from the Hiawatha even as its ridership steadily increased.
Even when Amtrak has shown initiative, somebody has rushed in to stifle it. Last June Amtrak managed to prepare a newspaper ad capitalizing on the gas crisis: "During the Gas Shortage, Our Stations Will Stay Open," the headline read. "Amtrak is more than a fair weather friend," the text continued. "Twice, now, we've seen what happens when we rely on unpredictable sources of oil. A switch in time to comfortable, convenient, and low-cost transportation can keep lightning from striking a third time . . . "
No sooner had the ad been scheduled in 169 papers across America than lightning struck. It came not from OPEC bu from Jimmy Carter. Here was the administration, trying to cut back on train service, and there was Amtrak, trying to drum up new business. This could not be allowed. The White House called Boyd and tried to get the ads killed. Frantic phone calls went out, but only one paper -- The Baltimore Sun -- was reached in time to stop the presses. Elsewhere, Amtrak told an interested public to hop aboard.
Of course, when people actually tried to do that, it was a different story. In documenting this situation, we have the invaluable if unintended cooperation of Amtrak's gnomes at their computer keyboards. For the week of August 13-19, to take a typical example, Amtrak's own computer records reveal that 11,816 people were denied space on the National Limited, and 9,095 were rejected on the North Coast Hiawatha -- an average of more than 1,500 people on every run, more than enough people to meet the PM/TM criteria all by themselves.
Systemwide, Amtrak says that 92,000 would-be riders were turned down in June 1978. In the same month, one year later, the number had jumped approximately 1,000 percent, with nearly 1.4 million people turned away.
Of the prospective passengers approaching Amtrak in June 1978 by telephone, Amtrak numbers show that 222,000 people ran into a busy signal; but this was as nothing to the busy signals encountered by 6 million hapless callers in June 1979.
Instead of seeing these people as frustrated suitors worth wooing, Amtrak writes them off as summer loves. The corporation claims that after the gas crisis of 1974, roughly 75 percent of its new riders went back to their automobiles. This, say Amtrak, is proof positive that the same thing will happen again in 1979.
Congress accepted this argument despite its profound absurdity. Amtrak's 1974 riders found themselves aboard "traveling antique museums," as Alan Boyd himself has described Amtrak's rolling stock. They sweated, they froze, they stood in the aisles when trains were overbooked, they endured unpredictable delays, lights that failed by night and toilets that failed around the clock; not surprisingly, they got off when the crisis eased.
Most of Amtrk's proposed cuts were adapted, after the usual skirmishing and resurrecting of politically indispensable trains.
Facing the loss of their trains unless they could find a solution by Oct. 1, the would-be riders and some of their congressmen headed for the courts. But here again, Amtrak and Congress had piled boulders on the tracks. In 1974 Congress voted to prohibit anyone except the attorney general from suing Amtrak over route decisions. The Supreme Court has upheld this position. So the advocates of the doomed trains went into court on far-fetched environmental grounds.
No sooner had one court issued a 10-day restraining order against Amtrak than Amtrak responded contemptuously by cutting the affected trains to the minumum possible number of cars and refusing to take any reservations. People arrived at stations and found them closed. In Washington, Amtrak's lawyers persuaded Supreme Court Justice Byron White to reverse the order.
When Rep. Hall and the City of Dayton filed suit in Washington, they were denied a restraining order. On appeal, however, the order was granted, and it appeared briefly that the National Limited might be on its way to a reprieve. Within hours, however, Amtrak had managed to scramble Chief Justice Warren Burger out of a weekend and onto the bench, where he promptly overruled the appeals court. The full Supreme Court later upheld Burger's ruling.
Meanwhile, the one person with clear-cut legal standing to sue -- Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti -- stayed out of the fray. Amtrak could argue, with considerable persuassiveness, that the executions of the trains had been carried out in the presence of several hundred witnesses from Capitol Hill, and that those who were now struggling to get into court had had their chance to organize the votes necessary for a reprieve, and blew it.
President Carter's attorney general could hardly be expected to fight to restore trains that President Carter himself had wanted cut -- unless, of course, the Amtrak routes ran through enough concentrations of angry voters in key primary-election states.
And therein lies the ultimate lesson to be learned from the Amtrak Fiasco of 1979. In Billings, few people were really surprised by the murder of the Hiawatha:
"What else," they say, "can you expect from Washington?" And then, having said that, they shuffle sadly back to their cars; and you can picture them, disappearing down a long dusty highway, popping a Coors, ignoring the 55-m.p.h. limit and trying to ignore the fools in Washington who saddled them with that, and then gave them high gas prices and took away their train to boot.
The problem with ignoring Washington, however, is that Washington will strike again. The new Amtrak law (euphemistically named the "Amtrak Reorganization Act of 1979") is a slowly ticking time bomb. The surviving long-distance trains are tied even more tightly to the same garbled "Route and Service Criteria" that mortally wounded the Hiawatha. Systemwide, Amtrak's subsidies have been increased, but probably not enough to permit comprehensive upgrading in the face of escalating inflation; thus there is very little doubt that many trains will continue, month in and month out, to fall short of meeting the "criteria," and those that fail will be marked for execution in October 1981.
Based on recent experience, it would be unwise ot assume that Amtrak's hierarchy will crusade for any train. An aggressive management might reasonably be expected to see the continuing energy crisis as a truly golden opportunity to do things right, for once; this would mean pushing a crash program to overhaul and upgrade equipment, followed by a blitz of advertising and travel incentives -- reduced fares, for example.
Amtrak shows no signs of metamorphosing into that kind of management. To the contrary, it has even been using the general increase in gas prices as an excuse to boost fares -- just one more sure way to alienate the people who should be its allies.
So Amtrak won't save the trains. Who will? If all the angry would-be train riders of America lie low until the next great energy shock hits, it will not be hard to figure out where to assign much of the blame on the sad day when the last long-distance American passenger train finaly rumbles into history.