How We Got There. And Here.
One time—I was probably 12 or 13—our entire family drove to Florida from our home in Connecticut. It was over Spring Break, which was known as Easter Vacation in those days. My father enjoyed the experience because he did the driving, but I remember it as a dreadful 1400-mile, 3-day ordeal, an opinion that was reinforced beautifully when—I think it was just south of Washington—we began to see billboards showing the Eastern Airlines logo and the mocking words . . .
YOU’D BE THERE BY NOW!
We stopped for gas at a two-pump gas station somewhere in North Carolina and my father told the young attendant in bib overalls and no shirt to “fill ‘er up with high test.” Then he got out of the car to stretch his legs while the kid pumped the gas, checked the oil and the air in the tires.
When he got back into the car, my dad grumbled, “I think we’ve been cheated.”
We all clamored for him to explain what made him think that?
“Because,” he said, “It cost five dollars and 12 cents for a fill-up. I’ve never paid more than five dollars for a tank of gas in my life!”
This was in the 50’s when new airlines were popping up all the time and the federal government was starting to work on the Interstate Highway System . . . at least two concrete lanes in each direction, separated by a swath of green. And no stop lights!
A young aggressive airline industry, a brand-new interstate highway system, and cheap gas. It’s no wonder that the dozens of railroads were desperate to get out of the passenger business. And when the once mighty Penn Central railroad collapsed in 1970, it was really . . . once-and-for-all . . . over.
It is the great good fortune of succeeding generations that there were people in those days—an assortment of visionaries in both private industry and government at every level—who created Amtrak from the wreckage of passenger railroads large and small. They knew that passenger trains were going to be increasingly important in this country’s future . . . for commuters traveling from suburbs to jobs in the cities . . . for city-to-city commerce . . . for kids going off to college . . . for family vacations. . . and for countless other reasons fulfilling the needs and wishes and dreams of a mobile American population. And almost 33.5 million of our fellow citizens bought an Amtrak ticket in the last full year before this damn pandemic showed up.
It’s been a struggle, but we now have an administration in Washington that understands the importance of a national passenger rail system. And it’s about damn time!