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Re: PC: What killed PC?
- Subject: Re: PC: What killed PC?
- From: "Philip J. Kuhl" <pjkuhl@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 5 Jan 1999 19:12:37 -0500
I think that in our admiration for fallen flag railroads we shouldn't lose
our sense objectivity.
Penn Central was formed because the Central and the Pennsy could no longer
hack it financially as independent companies by the mid-1960s. The other
roads folded into the PC camp came in for the same reason. The reasons for
the financial decline were many: Excessive government regulation when it
came to setting rates or dropping unprofitable service, archaic labor
regulations that shot up labor costs astronomically, a physical plant in
much decay due to years and years of deferred maintenance -- and certainly
because of subsidized competition. (The "unfair competition" argument has
been around for as long as I can remember -- certainly NYC employee training
films from the late 1940s mention it. Alas, it's not that clear-cut an
issue either: Rail passenger service benefitted greatly from Railway Post
Office contracts for years. PC's own Metroliner service was the result of
heavy Department of Transportation subsidy. And western railroads in
particular benefitted greatly from enormous free land grants to spur
Penn Central did not have a good record at all of improving its situation
from 1968 to 1976. Physical plant declined even further, and maintenance
was deferred even more. (I even lost a brand-new 1976 Chevy Vega being
delivered from the assembly plant in Ohio because of a PC train wreck.
Probably a good thing in retrospect!) PC's management was much more
concerned with saving what financial assets it could. It was not in a
position to change Government regulation or get its labor unions to
renegotiate work rules. PC was is FAR worse shape when it died than when it
was born. That's why Conrail was created. Government subsidies to PC
without changing the causes of PC's financial distress would simply have
been money down the tube. And if you look at it another way, we basically
got Government subsidies to PC: PC simply was taken out of private hands,
made a quasi-Government corporation for a few years, and was renamed.
Now, to look at what Conrail had to start out with, and the massive
improvements that had been made by the time of the CSX/NS merger, we should
be taking out hats off to Conrail -- not knocking it. It went from a
decrepit basket case to a profitable, well-run railroad being SOUGHT AFTER
by other profitable, well-run railroads. And Conrail did that within two
decades? That's pretty good in my book.
There's a similar story at Amtrak: Pre-1971 passenger service was not all
Southern Railway/Santa Fe/UP spit and polish! How many or us remember
freezing PC passenger trains in the winter because the steam heat didn't
work, or broken down AC in the summer? Or travelling Southern Pacific New
Orleans to Los Angeles in a train that not only had no Pullman service but
where food service was a converted coach housing a few vending machines?
That's what Amtrak started with. Now we've got Superliners, Amfleet,
reliable heat & AC, and wonderful NEC service. (Don't forget that the NEC
is the primary Amtrak-owned line and thus Amtrak can call the shots
regarding service; as opposed to other lines where Amtrak is just a tenant
on a freight railroad and the freight railroad calls the shots.) And it's
true that service outside the NEC is not as good as it could be as regards
frequency or breadth of service -- but Amtrak's started new daytime
Pittsburgh-Chicago service and entered into very innovative partnerships
with state and local governments to provide some regional passenger service.
And for a political entity at the whims of Congress for its funding -- it's
not done poorly in providing service.
All of us wish we could somehow go back to whatever our personal perception
of the Glory Days of Railroading. But we ought to be fair too: The state
of Conrail and Amtrak service now is a helluva lot better that PC service
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