NARP Background- How It Started, What We have Done
In the 1960’s passenger trains were clearly in trouble. As the Interstate System was built out, the allure of “free” superhighways was irresistible to the traveling public. One route, Chesapeake and Ohio’s Pere Marquette service between Detroit and Grand Rapids routinely carried five coaches and a tavern-lounge car. When I-96 opened paralleling its route, one C & O official said, “When I-96 opened, you could see the bottom fall out.” Within a year, the train was down to a locomotive and a coach, usually less than half full.
In 1966, B & O rerouted its Cincinnatian train, adding 20n minutes to the schedule. This caused a young attorney, Anthony Haswell, to file a case with the ICC to restore the original route. He lost, but that effort led him to form the National Association of Railroad Passengers as a consumer organization for passenger train users. Haswell worked with the Department of Transportation to slow the pace of passenger train abandonments, and helped lay out the legal basis for what would become Amtrak.
When Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971, an estimated 2/3 of all passenger trains were discontinued. NARP’s 4,000 members wrote letters and telephoned elected officials to save what was left. Time-keeping was little more than a hope, equipment failures were common and stations were crumbling and filthy. NARP members locally organized station cleanups, educated local officials that a train station was still a potential gateway to their cities.
Progress was slow until 1973 when OPEC began its first oil embargo. Suddenly, gas prices shot up, and the trains were jammed. NARP worked with Congress and finally obtained funds for the first order of new cars, the Amfleet cars, which were assigned to short-distance routes. The Amfleet cars were an instant hit with the public, and ridership continued to grow. Next, NARP worked to get new cars for the long distance, or national network trains. The result was the Superliner fleet of double-deck cars. As with the Amfleet cars, the Superliners replaced steam heating and air conditioning systems with more reliable and lower cost electrical systems. These cars also proved to be a hit with riders, and began arriving just as the second oil embargo hit in 1979.
The downside was that with inflation running at 13%, Amtrak’s bottom line showed progressively larger losses. 1979, President Carter eliminated 29% of the remaining route-miles in the Amtrak system. In 1981 Ronald Reagan became President, and at the urging of his Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Reagan proposed to end Amtrak service altogether. NARP reacted by individual members passing out tens of thousands of leaflets in stations and on trains alerting the public that their trains would soon end unless they got their members of Congress to override the Reagan budget.
The results were astonishing. Sen. James Exxon of Nebraska said, “I received more individual, handwritten letters on Amtrak than on any other topic, including Social Security. For the next twelve years, into the George H. W. Bush administration, NARP had to re-fight the battle, and was able to get enough funding for Amtrak to continue.
The battles continued at a slightly lower level of intensity. There was one unexpected result: as more people rode trains, more of them joined NARP. The membership slowly kept climbing, and went from 5,000 to 10,000 to 15,000, and now stands at about 20,000 paid members.
Over the years, NARP staffers worked with Amtrak management to identify and find solutions that would result in greater passenger satisfaction. One example resulted in a redesigned diner which proved highly popular with passengers.
NARP continues to listen closely to its members and to work with Amtrak. Our partnership with Amtrak is one of many factors which have helped push Amtrak’s ridership to over 30million passengers in 2011, following a string of 9 out of 10 straight years of record ridership. Ridership is now the highest it has been in over 40 years, and is still not only climbing, but the service and equipment are better.
We have been an active voice for intermodal stations where trains, buses and local transit operate from a common station. NARP’s goal is to give Americans the travel choices they want. We are a grass roots, membership based organization working to link all forms of public transportation into a seamless travel option for the public. We’ve made great strides, but still have a long way to go. You can help us get there.