Today was the weekly Rotary meeting where Gerry Lemmons was the speaker. I first met Gerry when he was working with the Main Spring Art Gallery group. He was instrumental in bringing the group of artists together to create the co-op that is now the gallery. What I didn’t know about Gerry until today, though, is that he works with Private Pullman Railcar Management. His presentation today was in regard to the changes that the railroad has gone through over the years to remain a major mode of transportation for the country.
At the turn of the century, train travel was at its highest, carrying both passengers and goods across the country. The train was instrumental in servicing the rural communities throughout the country, connecting them and providing passengers with an opportunity to visit many small towns (including Excelsior!). The Pullman Company was a business founded by George Pullman, who invented the Pullman sleeper car, that advertised themselves as the largest hotel in the world. Every night, there were over 45,000 beds occupied and 150,000 that would ride in coach.
During WWI the government took over the railroads, transferring both men and material. Doing this almost ran the railroads into the ground, though, so when WWII came around, the railroads didn’t turn over management to the railroads, but continued the operation themselves. The railroads were at their greatest demand, transporting troops off to war and bringing them back home. When the war ended, many of the troops returned home to good jobs restoring the infrastructure of the rail lines.
In the 1930s, diesel electric engines were introduced, proven to be much cheaper to operate than steam had been. When the railroads began ordering the sleeker, streamlined diesels, this added a lot to the economy during the Great Depression. When World War II happened, everything was put on hold and all engines, freight and passenger cars were put into a pool of equipment controlled by the consortium of railroad companies.
After the war, troops returned home wanting their own mode of transportation. As automobiles and buses became the main mode of transportation, the railroads no longer had the demand they once did for passenger travel. At the same time, airlines started booming, allowing safer and faster travel. The railroads began to lose a lot of money, but still had their government contracts to deliver mail to communities throughout the country. They then began a fight to be let out of their contracts. Cities, fearing they would lose such a valuable service, began lawyering up. Finally the railroads realized that if they made the train ride uncomfortable and inconvenient, people would stop riding them.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Congress enacted the National Railway Passenger Corporation, also known as Amtrak, insisting that the passenger train operation works. The act forced railroads to allow Amtrak to operate on their private lines, which they still do today. During that time, Amtrak replaced equipment and built new equipment receiving appropriations from Congress. Lobbyists work to keep the act in place but the funding has been in jeopardy in recent years, with the threat of cuts. Each time the American people have risen up to stand up for train travel, and that’s why it continues today.
My family and I had the pleasure of riding Amtrak to Chicago last year in March. We highly suggest it to all families to travel via train. It’s a great experience and is definitely something we will remember forever. Here are some fun pictures from our Amtrak trip: