Across the country, thr National Park Service has moved far from its original role of conserving our natural resources for posterity. These days, historic landmarks, recreational areas, concert halls, and theaters have joined Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as wards of the Interior Department.Now the National Park Service has an opportunity to become involved in a different form of perservation.
Establishing a Traveling National Park may be the only way to preserve a feature of American life that has has a greater impact on American history than most of the events commemorated by our national historical parks-and one that will otherwise become as extinct as the passenger pigeon.
An Interstate Commerce Commission decision granted a reprieve to the Southern Crescent, the only major passenger train in the United States to be operated in scheduled service by private enterprise. For a limited time the three thousand passengers who travel each week on the Southern Crescent can continue to enjoy their journey on the last representative of an era that gave us the Twentieth Century Limited and the Super Chief. But unless some action is taken, America's last regularly operating luxury passneger train will disappear forever.
While it is probable that Amtrak will eventually assume responsibility for the Southern Crescent, they can hardly be looking forward to assuming the $6 million a year loss that the Southern Railway claims as justification for ending the service. Unfortunately, Amtrak's financial woes will almost certainly result in short thrift being given to the touches that are a throwback to the days of first-class train travel. No longer will Fodor be able to fhapsodize over the immaculate dining car with tables decorated by a single red rose, or the enjoyment of hominy grits and well-cooked strips of fatback for breakfast.
Recently there has been a falling off in the standard of service, but the Southern Crescent could soon be restored ot its former level if the National Park Service was to assume responsibility for its operation. While the idea of the park service operating a passenger train may seem incngruous, it is entirely in keeping with its role of preserving historical artifacts for future generations.
Fortunately the park service does not have to get into the railroading business in order to keep the Southern Crescent running. Experience has shown the advantages of making them responsible for the fixed (in this case moving!) facilities, leaving the day-to-day operation in the hands of a separate organization.The Southern Railway might well be prepared to continue operating the train if the responsibility for the operating deficit was assumed by someone else. And when compared to the $60 million expended each year by the park service in the Washington area alone, the $6 million required to keep the Southern Crescent in operation hardly seems an insuperable obstacle.
Aggressive marketing could even lead to a reduction in the losses being sustained at present-of at least prevent them from rising in step with inflation. One way to increase ridership would be to take advantage of nostalgia for the days when railroads were operated by steam. It may seem incongruous to consider the steam locomotive as a means of revitalizing passenger service, until one thinks of the thousands throughout North America who are prepared to pay for the pleasure of riding behind one. In Canada a steam passenger train runs from North Vancounve to Squamish, a distance of 80 miles, on a daily sehedule, Nine coaches are required to handle the load-more than most of Amtrak's trains require at peak times. In this area, steam-hauled trains operate during some summer weekends from Alexandria to Charlottesville and Front Royal. These are fully booked well in advance-with fares high enough to cover the operating costs. How many more people would be attracted to the Southern Crescent if it were hauled by steam locomotives over part of its run?
The Southern Crescent also runs over Amtrak's electrified line from New York to Washington. Although many trains are now being hauled by the new electric locomotives purchase by Amtrak, it should be possible to retain some of the magnificent GGI's of the old Pennsylvania Railroad, still as impressive as when they were first introduced over 40 years ago. To round it off as a working museum of American railroading, typical coaches could be refurbished and put back into service.
A well-thought-out and imaginative publicity campaign could attract many who would not otherwise consider rail travel back to "the last of the great trains." Special "rail-fan" excursions could be organized to increase ridership at times when regular travel was at a low ebb. Experience across the United States has shown that the market is there. Does the part service have an entrepreneur who could exploit it?
The refreshing unvureaucratic approach shown in many other park activities suggests that it does. Any orgainzation that can justify its sponsorship of mule-drawn barge trips along a disused canal can hardly be considered. This may even be one of the few opportunities the government has of making a success of something that has failed under private enterprise.