Author Simon Cordery guest blogs for us today on what would have been National Train Day. This year, Amtrak announced it would no longer continue its Train Days program due to financial difficulties. Cordery shares his thoughts on the loss of this national celebration of trains.
By Simon Cordery
America has a lukewarm relationship with our railroads. Despite their historical significance as forgers of a national marketplace, as pioneers opening the Great Plains and beyond, and as key players in peace and war, trains are often seen as nuisances blocking roads when they are not invisible to all but the most perceptive observer. Our economy would collapse without them, but their role is significantly undervalued and they are often criticized.
That’s why National Train Day seemed like such a good idea when it was created in 2008. Held on the weekend closest to May 10, the date we celebrate completion of the first transcontinental railroad, it originated as a combination of entertainment and marketing. At first there were concerts and other ways to bring people trackside, but that proved pricey. Then came a focus on equipment displays, including freight and passenger. Private cars soon replaced the freight, but then even the varnish proved too expensive. Now, with a few exceptions, the celebrations are gone, victim of a shrinking marketing budget.
Though understandable from a short-term financial perspective, the elimination of National Train Day is a shame. Americans are generally historically illiterate, especially when it comes to railroading. National Train Day had the virtue of reminding Americans of the industry’s rich heritage and vibrant future.
It’s a shame Amtrak could not convince the freight corporations or the American Association of Railroads to save the Day. As revenues tumble and traffic declines, the railroads need all the friends, and customers, they can get. National Train Day could have been part of an outreach program designed to remind people of the importance of railroads to our daily lives and our national security. More importantly, it could have helped alert potential customers to the competitive advantages of rail.
Instead, Amtrak Train Days replaced National Train Day. In 2015, the Amtrak Exhibit Train and interactive displays sponsored by corporate partners travelled to locations across the country. A similar round of runs is planned for 2016, though oddly nothing is scheduled for May 10th. This year’s program kicked off in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the end of April, with stops in Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas, before concluding at October’s Seaboard Festival in North Carolina.
The death of National Train Day begs a question: how is a rapprochement between Amtrak and the freight railroads to be effected? Most of our passenger trains run on tracks owned by those corporations, which often see them as hindrances to efficient freight movement. But there is excess capacity now and a growing demand for long-distance passenger trains. Can Amtrak fill the void? Can the freight railroads be encouraged to help it do so? Despite friction, both sides are staffed by people who love trains and want what is best for the industry in the long run. National Train Day could have provided an opportunity for the passenger corporation to begin making peace with the freight carriers. And that’s another reason it is a lost opportunity.
Simon Cordery researches, writes, and rides on railroads on both sides of the Atlantic. He serves as Chair of the Inductions Committee of the National Railroad Hall of Fame and Chair of the Department of History at Western Illinois University, and he is a member of the Lexington Group of Transportation Historians. He has published two books and numerous articles and is a sought-after lecturer on the history of Illinois railroading. His most recent book, The Iron Road in the Prairie State, was published last December by IU Press.