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OPINION - Empty trains, empty busses

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) In the mid-1960s, the airlines took over as the dominant mode of transportation for long-distance travel. Until then, the railroads reigned supreme. (Before World War II railroads and travel were synonymous; many families didn't have automobiles, and there were no interstate highways yet.)

The great passenger trains; The 20 th Century Limited, the Super-Chief, the Broadway Limited, the Empire Builder, and the Capital Limited were practically abandoned in favor of wings and propellers. On some nights the 20 th Century Limited carried less than 60 paying customers. They could have all fit onto a Greyhound bus.

This was devastating to the railroads. Passenger trains were required huge amounts of labor and infrastructure. Consider the Denver Zephyr, the last of the long distance trains to get all new rolling stock. It was a magnificent silver-liner double-decker overnight train from Chicago. But it required four train-sets -- more than 40 cars -- to cover its daily-each-way schedule. Even with modern diesel engines, eight locomotives were dedicated to getting the train over the road. On each trip three sets of engineers, brakemen and conductors got-on or got-off the DZ at the end of their crew districts. The train required a dining car staff of five, seven porters, and a baggage handler for each trip. Large, imposing terminals had to be maintained at each end of the run and there were 20-or-more station stops that required a station agent and a baggage man at a minimum. An empty train could bleed a railroad dry.

Yet railroads in the 1960s were highly regulated, and the Federal Railroad Commission had the final say on train-off petitions. A railroad could be stuck for years running a money-losing train waiting for the fed's blessing to drop a route. The only cost-savings were on the margins: eliminating dining cars, substituting coaches for sleepers, or cutting checked luggage at some stations. It led to a joke among railroad executives: "It costs me less to run my empty train than yours."

When I see most Metro Ride busses in our area, I think of the long-gone passenger trains. Most of the busses I see are carrying only a few passengers. Some are empty.

Metro Ride is in discussions now with Weston, Rothschild and Schofield about Route K service in 2015. Route K was cut in 2011 because of low ridership. It was reinstated after a court fight and a binding referendum in Weston, where the village board was ordered to pay for the service. Supporters of public transit say there are poor people whod have no access to jobs and shopping if the route is dropped. Yet ridership is low. The service is expensive. We don't know if this drain on the taxpayers will limp forward for another few years, or if it will be brought to a close.

Railroad executives used to roll their eyes when people would show up at public hearings to protest before passenger train cancellations were posted. One woman was asked how often she rode the The Pamama Limited to Miami. "Its been years," she said during the public comment period. "But I sure do like to hear the whistle blow."

Chris Conley

Image: Passenger train at RIgby Yard (ME) via WikiCommons.com