As the story goes, told by David Luberoff in Governing magazine in 1996, when it started, no one thought Amtrak was long for this world. President Nixon's economic advisors believed the financials of a new national railroad system would never work. His political advisors, on the other hand, figured the railroad could score some points with the American public and "wouldn't die until after Nixon left office":
The president could claim credit for saving passenger rail service and leave the blame for killing it to an unlucky successor.
Time had the last laugh on that one: Nixon's political career soon came crashing to an end, and Amtrak is still chugging along in 2015. Today America's passenger rail provider does still receive help from the federal government, but it also now recovers 93 percent of its operating costs through fares, and lately the service has broken ridership records year after year.
But that initial political gamesmanship is on spectacular display in a series of historical documents highlighted this week by the (subscription-only) Eno Transportation Weekly. Initial maps show officials struggling to balance profitable routes with service broad enough to satisfy the public. White House memos show that political points were high on Nixon's mind: one even scores various plan options on "presidential risk of blame for killing RR passenger service."
DOT to Nixon: November 24, 1970
The first memo is dated November 24, 1970. Congress had just passed the law that would lead to the creation of Amtrak (though at this point it was still called Railpax). Transportation Secretary John Volpe recommended a Railpax map of 27 routes, including 13 intercity "corridors" with sufficient demand to compete with buses and planes (below, shown in tracked lines) and 14 "long haul" routes where service might break even (below, solid):
DOT warned Nixon this map represented a "dramatic reduction" in intercity rail service from the current (albeit failing) levels, with 53 U.S. metros losing passenger trains. But the "bare bones" system would serve 93 percent of the population currently served by rail, and it formed an "essential nucleus" of national service. Here's Volpe:
We believe that the system we have designed is the minimum which has a chance to be acceptable to the public and the Congress.
As outlined, the service would become profitable in Year 4, making $11.7 million. That figure would be buoyed by the highly profitable Northeast Corridor—which carries Amtrak's balance sheet today, too. Here are the DOT financial specs:
OMB to Nixon: Late November 1970 (undated)
The second memo (undated) comes from Office of Management and Budget Director George Shultz (later the Secretary of State under Reagan). OMB summarized the basic tension in drawing up the new rail plan: you could have profit or service, but not both. Schultz's office felt DOT went too far in the direction of service and preferred to focus on profits for Nixon's sake:
Profitability and financial soundness of the system are mandatory so that your Administration cannot be blamed for the failure of the Corporation, the demise of national intercity rail passenger service, and possibly the ultimate nationalization of the railroads.
OMB gave Nixon five route options. At one end was a plan that maximized service along the lines of what DOT preferred:
At the other was a plan that maximized profit, as OMB preferred. The difference in service is like night and day:
The enclosed financial chart show the clear advantages of the high-profit map. Under OMB's estimates, that option could make upwards of $45 million in profit by 1975, whereas the DOT's high-service option might still be in the red $11 million by then. The gem of the chart is the aforementioned row on "presidential risk of blame for killing RR passenger service," which rated that risk from "very low" to "high" in the short term (through 1973) and the long run:
It's not clear who circled Option 3, with its the "low-low" political risk outcome.
OMB to DOT: November 25, 1970
A November 25 memo from OMB to DOT suggests that Nixon ultimately preferred OMB's option 2 from the earlier memo (below, top)—a variation on the high-profit map that also included routes whose losses came to less than $1 million a year. That choice, closer to the profit end of the spectrum, suggests a possible fear that a broader system might go bankrupt. Some further additions have been scribbled in (as indicated in the top-left corner) so the map could be updated before its public release at the end of that month:
This memo is also notable for some of the advice it gives DOT in advance of the public announcement. In words that might just as easily be used by DOT Secretary Foxx today, OMB points out that Nixon would like to emphasize the importance of a "multi-modal" transportation system:
The language of the announcement should stress a multi-modal response to national transportation needs and the important opportunity which Railpax presents if it is properly conceived in a multi-modal context.
Internal OMB memo: January 22, 1971
After the public announcement, the Railpax routes were adjusted again based on public and Congressional response. Among the outcry was the omission of Washington-Chicago service, which led to negative press, according to Eno, when the Washington Star reported it the result of a "scrap" between the White House and DOT. The January 22 OMB memo states the route was left out by mistake.
The new maps are starting to look cleaner, with the most profitable option (below, top) now estimated by OMB to make $20 million by 1975. (DOT estimates ranged up to a far more optimistic $37 million.) OMB also developed a map it considered the "maximum" necessary political response to the public reaction (below, bottom); the service expansions made here to appease the public reduced profitability to $15 million by 1975.
DOT report to Congress: January 28, 1971
The final system map was presented to Congress on January 28, 1971. Compared with the very first DOT map, we see some pretty dramatic (and, in retrospect, questionable) changes. Three cities considered part of the "essential nucleus" in the very first map have been eliminated: Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh; and the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, Norfolk/Newport, Virginia, makes its very first appearance on the map, connecting for some reason to Cincinnati, Ohio:
And here's what the Amtrak map looked like, with all the intermediary stops included, by July of 1971, shortly after its launch:
The key lesson from all this is found in one of the OMB memos above, which states: "Maximum profit and maximum service are the two fundamental but conflicting system criteria." That's a choice many of today's Congressional representatives still fail to understand. They demand that Amtrak operate money-losing long-distance routes, but they deride its reliance on federal funding—a "fundamental" contradiction. Then again, as Nixon himself showed at the dawn of Amtrak, politics have always been at the heart of the map.