May is Amtrak Month

Amtrak is here to stay! That might seem like a no-brainer now, but that would most certainly shock the men who created it back in 1970-71. The minds that manufactured Amtrak had a two-fold mission: publicly, they wanted to assure travelers that some form of the railroad passenger network in the US would endure; privately, they envisioned Amtrak as the vehicle that would gradually phase out passenger trains, excepting within high-density commuter corridors where local governments were already subsidizing such service. The first Amtrak board of directors was a curious collection of talent and motives that included the skilled railroad professional Louis W. Menk. No one questioned Menk’s ability, but his perspective about passenger service confirmed Amtrak’s rumored tentative status. Said Menk: “You couldn’t make money then, can’t make money now, and won’t make money ever on intercity passenger trains. That’s all there is to it.”

The agency was born out of desperation as privately-held railroads aggressively shed passenger train schedules after 1965. Give the railroads some credit: They invested heavily in new passenger equipment between 1945 and 1950, anticipating a great renaissance in luxury passenger travel. Latter-day rail analysts and men of finance now claim that the build-up of new passenger trains in that postwar period was one of the biggest mistakes the rail industry ever made. Perhaps or perhaps not, but such thinking ignores the fact that quality paved highways had not reached many communities at that time and the Interstate Highway system was a decade in the future. In the age before teleconferencing and other technology options, business demands necessitated a personal appearance, and business travel added much revenue to railroad coffers.

The post-war passenger train party was over by 1952 when passenger train red ink started to consume the two largest railroads in the US, the Pennsylvania and New York Central. Both roads started to eliminate passenger trains and entire passenger routes. Lesser railroads followed suit, and many eventually exited the passenger business entirely. Western railroads were initially spared much pain, in part because they were not burdened with expensive and extensive local passenger train networks. Then too, their luxury transcontinental trains remained exceedingly popular. Any neutral ground about passenger service swiftly vaporized when the US Postal system canceled the contracts for hauling mail by rail. Without that added revenue, many passenger trains slipped into the red and disappeared rapidly. Finally, the bankruptcy of Penn Central on June 22, 1970, sent shockwaves through the industry, and many feared a sudden shutdown of passenger service.

Amtrak opened for business on May 1, 1971, and eventually challenged the damning denunciation by Menk on two counts: rail travelers were not willing to give up on long-distance passenger service without a fight, and – most importantly – the era of government big spending really took off! The Amtrak trains we see today reflect the public’s honest interest in the railroad travel option and the political agendas of those in the states served by Amtrak, not to mention a succession of Commanders in Chief. Making money on passenger service is no longer part of the equation.

Win, Place, or Show, we bet on a solid future for Amtrak and look forward to adding more examples of Amtrak prototypes to our inventory. The past 15 years has thankfully added much selection of Amtrak equipment to the world of model railroading – long overdue! The model railroader is spared the financial and political drama of passenger train operation and can simply enjoy the fascinating options of newer Amtrak creations in all scales. We look forward to making all future new releases available at the most competitive prices.

Frank Wrabel