Will America return to passenger rail?


June 12th, 2012

Omaha, NE – As Union Pacific Railroad celebrates its 150th birthday some are considering the past and the future of passenger rail service in America. In 1862 President Lincoln signed legislation that launched America’s first coast to coast railroad and gave U.P. its start as a Nebraska business. It has not carried passengers commercially for years, but a new push in Iowa could bring a new line to Nebraska, complementing the limited service offered by Amtrak.

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Amtrak struggles to get people to ride the train in Nebraska. Five stations serve the state, but to catch the train either east or westbound, passengers must board sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. In 2011, 42,000 people got on or off the train in the state, according to numbers released by Amtrak. That averages 115 people a day. During that same time frame, 4.2 million people used the Omaha airport.

The peak of passenger rail travel through Union Station was in 1944, according to Durham Museum tour guide Bob Fahey. (Photo courtesy Union Pacific Railroad)

This is not the way it used to be on the American rails.

During the peak of rail travel popularity, it seemed everyone passed through Nebraska and Union Station in Omaha, specifically.

“The peak of the travel was in 1944 when we had 64 trains a day,” said Bob Fahey, a tour guide and unofficial rail historian at the Durham Museum, housed in the former Union Station. The museum took over the massive art deco temple to rail travel and preserves the main terminal building. Fahey pointed out that at it’s peak, “seven railroads came into the station, so it was just wall-to-wall people”

During the 1940s and ’50s, trains were the most reliable and comfortable way to travel around America. As a Union Pacific advertising jingle sang in the early ’60s, “Live it up on the U.P. luxury train!”

Efforts in Iowa may help revive cross country passenger rail travel in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy Union Pacific Railroad)

Historians set the birth of cross-country trains, both passenger and freight, in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The law directed two companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, to build a trans-continental railroad. The decision assured Nebraska’s prominent place in rail history and provided. Union Pacific with significant financial help from the United States government to create the rail line.

A young America needed to carry what was being manufactured on the East Coast out to fast-growing West Coast. Passenger service, according to Union Pacific spokesperson Mark Davis, “was a second thought.” Looking at early photos of UP’s trains reveals there were no dedicated trains just for people.

“You may have had one or two passenger cars tacked on the back of the trains” that were moving raw materials and manufactured good into the newly settled west, Davis said.

Throughout the rail company’s history, records tallying the number of passengers and the amount of revenue show that passenger service was never the biggest part of its business.

It did, however, capture the biggest part of the American imagination.

Dave Purdy, a Nebraskan brought up in New England, has fond memories of taking the train and still prefers it, even with the pared-down service available today.

“It’s a lot easier to work, eat (and) play on a train,” he said. “There are more amenities like bar cars and buffet cars.”

These images, courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad, capture a by-gone time when traveling by train was popular and glamorous.

Passengers paying the price would get white linen service with fine china in the dining car. Compact sleeper cars, while tiny, made overnight, cross-country travel possible for many.

“That was one thing that attracted me a great deal,” Purdy said. “I could wait until late in the evening, get on a train and wake up the next morning where I wanted to go. You didn’t waste any usable time.”

During the height of rail’s popularity, big-name Hollywood films like “Some Like It Hot” and “White Christmas” used train travel as a major plot device and conveyed these trips as glamorous and even mysterious.

It helped that celebrities were using the train off-screen, as well. While working at Omaha’s Union Station as a baggage-handling Redcap, or station porter, Bob Fahey helped many big-name entertainers during their travels. It was not only a preference. At times, it was a necessity.

“You stop and think about it in the war years, there was no air travel,” Fahey pointed out. “There was gas rationing, tire rationing, so even the rich and famous had to go by train.”

For a time, seven different railroad carriers ran trains through Nebraska, including Union Pacific, the Great Western, and the Rock Island line. That level of service did not last once America’s love affair with cars and the open road began.

Vintage photos courtesy Union Pacific Railroad.

“Passenger rail ridership began to diminish as the interstate highway system was put in place,” said UP’s Davis. “It was so slow that the railroads were beginning to stop moving passengers.”

Western Pacific’s California Zephyr vista dome passenger train made its last run in 1970, and one year later the National Rail Passenger Service Act transferred most passenger service to Amtrak. A handful of railroads attempted to hold on and operate their own trains with little success.

Forty years later, there is talk of breathing new life into cross-country rail travel. The state of Iowa is promoting a 100 mile-an-hour high-speed rail line which would follow the Interstate 80 corridor on an existing path with upgraded track. Service would be available on points between Chicago to the east and Omaha on the west. Studies are still underway to determine how many stops would be included and in which communities.

“People are ready for an alternate form of transportation,” said Amanda Martin, policy coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail office.

Surveys done by the state of Iowa on behalf of the project reveal “a lot of interest from older people who rode the train back when they were a kid and young people who are looking at other modes of transportation,” according to Martin.

Two significant hurdles face the proposal at this stage. Freight rail carriers, like Union Pacific and Burlington Northern, share the rails with passenger trains. Their first concern is to make sure their cargo is not delayed.

“We have to first consider meeting our customer’s needs,” Davis said. “At the same time, we are willing to sit down and take a look, and if it means an additional track that may be able to be placed on our right of way, then we’ll … work with the various commuter agencies to go through that.”

That is the approach Union Pacific has used in negotiating plans for upgraded passenger rail service in Missouri between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The Iowa project has one significant point of concern on the route. Freight and passenger trains heading into Omaha currently share a single Missouri River bridge. Plans would likely have to include upgrading or replacing that bridge to accommodate additional tracks. Both cost and negotiating who gets scheduling priority are major issues to be resolved.

As the westernmost point on this proposed rail venture, government and business officials in Omaha have been supportive of new passenger service. ProRail Nebraska, a group dedicated to preserving and improving passenger rail service in the state, has found officials with the state of Nebraska less interested in the Chicago to Omaha line.

Purdy, the group’s current president, summed it up with one word: “Abysmal.”

Purdy has letters from Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinemann spelling out the state’s concerns over the cost of promoting rail travel: “The (Nebraska) Department of Roads will pay no attention to rail transportation.”

Last year the number of passengers using Amtrak in Nebraska dropped by almost seven percent. The rail carrier put part of the blame on flood waters in Iowa and Nebraska that damaged tracks and disrupted schedules. However, the biggest fans of rail travel say it’s difficult to get people to show up at the train station in the middle of the night to start their trip.

6 Responses

  1. Patricia Stutzman says:

    I enjoyed the new article…. I have never rode a train since arriving in this country in the late 1960’s and yet in England we rode weekly, it would be a nice to have the same type of service here, but the times of departure are just not condusive to a trip especially i would think for the retiree crowd, who would love to go back to yesteryear in service and pleasures.

  2. Jim Loomis says:

    Yes! The U.S. certainly should return to passenger rail! Certainly that’s what has been happening all around the rest of the world over the past 30-40 years where governments, private enterprise and the traveling public have long since decided that by far the best way to provide mobility to their citizens is by rail, from high-speed networks to conventional speed intercity trains to transit systems. Sadly, perhaps even tragically over the long run, rail has become the whipping boy for the right-wing idealogues in this country. Their shorts are all in a knot because rail is subsidized, yet they conveniently ignore the fact that ALL public transportation is subsidized, from the airlines on down to highways and sidewalks. Further, most of the other transportation modes require much higher subsidies than rail. Let us hope that the clear thinkers prevail and the U.S. can soon begin on building a nationwide rail network. It would be nice if we could start catching up with the rest of the world in the transportation arena.

  3. john mckenzie says:

    I do remember the station in Omaha 50 years ago. It was a busy place. The time I travelled to Omaha was from Kansas City. Why has Amtrak not reinstated service between Omaha and Kansas City? That would make sense. A Kansas City to Denver train would be a good move.

  4. Randy Garbin says:

    We should definitely put more emphasis on rail in our transportation policy. Either that, or the government should get out of the transportation business entirely, and stop focusing on high-cost, high-speed boondoggles. Let’s just restore and upgrade our existing network.


  5. Robert van Wormer says:

    Thanks for an excellent story. I recall visiting the old Union Station in Omaha some years ago.

    There will be some sort of revival of rail passenger service in this country eventually, perhaps even by the private railroads. Road maintenance is increasingly problematic, the cost of oil will go up as more people around the world try to convert to the automobile way of life we’ve had for the last 80 years. Rail travel would be a lot cheaper to maintain than the present fly and drive only system. But it would have to be at a very high volume of travel to be cheap, for the cost benefits to kick in. If only 5% of present day travel switched to the rails that would still be several orders of magnitude greater than Amtrak now carries.

  6. JD Steckel says:

    As a Quad Citian, I would love to be able to ride the train to Omaha on Friday and back on Sunday! To visit downtown Chicago we currently drive an hour and then take the train in. Best way to eliminate traffic and parking issues.

    We have also taken the CA Zephyr to Winter Park ski area over night. Great way to get there and back without a lot of wear and tear.

    PS: Re-acquire the old Burlington Station, your going to need it and what you have now is embarrassing!

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