Don’t put off your train ride

Regarding the recent story in the Messenger about Amtrak’s decision to reduce the Eagle to tri weekly service, one can usually learn a lesson from history especially in the case of train service reduction.

When I was young the Southern Pacific Railroad operated a train called the Sunset. Amtrak still uses the name on its New Orleans to LA service. About the time I turned twenty the Interstate Commerce Commission and the railroad reached an agreement regarding train service frequency. The arrangement was based on the Southern Pacific’s attempt to discontinue all long distance passenger service including the daily train through my home town of Lake Charles. I was reminded of this while recently working on a railroad volume for Arcadia. The sixties were a time of turmoil for railroads. After the government cancelled their mail contracts the losses increased greatly, thus the resultant train off petitions. Southern Pacific put pressure on the traveling public to fly rather than ride the trains by denying the trains existence, discontinuing sleeping and dining car service on overnight runs and providing minimum accommodations to travelers in the form of ill maintained equipment. Mom and I sat up two nights on the Sunset on a trip to see my family in 1968. This was unnecessary because the train actually added a sleeper on the California border that was a part of our train into LA because of a mandate by the California Public Utilities Commission requiring sleeping car service. The railroad complied but neglected to tell road weary patrons of the cars existence. When mom found out, after one night without sleep, that we had a Pullman car on our train she asked to buy a ticket. She was told the car was running empty. Southern Pacific kept this up as long as they could get away with it. Finally the ICC made an agreement with SP that, in return for adding real sleeping car service and a dining car to the Sunset, the railroad could reduce frequency to tri-weekly. Most people presumed they would get their daily train back. Of course the railroad had no intention of ever returning to daily service on the Sunset Route. Where the train off petition was concerned they had lost and yet they had won. Now over fifty years later it is only possible to ride the train to LA three times a week. Timetables or train schedules are nonexistent unless one is computer literate and even then it is a challenge to figure out which days the passenger train stops in and returns to whatever little town one lives in. Folks who take the train because of a fear of flying or simply for nostalgia have no great desire to play “guess when the train is coming,” and as a result resort to the daily airplane flight or the convenience of the ever present auto. Dying with dignity is still dying. Dying a bit at a time is painful. Don’t count on a return to daily service in 2021. One of lives painful lessons is that it is much easier to dismantle than to restructure. Don’t put off your train ride.

Thad H. Carter, Marshall Depot, Inc.