Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Old Buddy, Goodnight

The wind blows cold in Wyoming,
The stars shine clear and bright,
But if you don’t wake up tomorrow at all,
I guess it’s, old buddy, goodnight.

Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, a fellow UU, and as he put it, a “rumor in his own time” and one of the grey eminences of the “great folk music scare of the 1960’s”, went to sleep in his own bed last week at the age of 73 and didn't wake up. I had been a fan of his for more than 30 years and had seen him in concert several times.

The tributes to this modern bard are beginning to roll in, and others can tell of his masterful storytelling, his prodigious knowledge of railroading and hobo lore, or his fierce advocacy for labor rights and society’s outcasts. I’ll tell instead a little vignette of how his art touched my own family.

I grew up in Washington, DC, in the charged atmosphere of the 1960’s. My father was a management consultant with a practice that focused on organizational restructuring, and the federal government was a steady client. One of his most ambitious assignments came in 1971 when his team was commissioned to design a feasible national railroad passenger system out of the wreckage of the Penn Central Railroad bankruptcy. It was for him a particularly fascinating project because his father had been an electrician and shop foreman in the old McIntosh & Seymour plant of the American Locomotive Company in Auburn, NY, just off the New York Central “Water Level Route” that carried the 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago. (And not far, or at least so I imagine, from the farm in the preceding post.)

By the time Penn Central collapsed, it was generally recognized that airlines had eclipsed rail as the dominant passenger travel mode, and that rail passenger service was unprofitable in all but the shortest, most densely populated routes. Enabling legislation prompted 20 out of the nation’s 26 leading railroads to contribute their money-losing passenger operations to the newly-formed National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which soon adopted the now more familiar trade name “Amtrak”. The task fell to my dad and his team to recommend which unprofitable routes should be shut down and which should be continued under state or federal subsidies. Whole states stood to lose their service. For a Type A personality like my dad, combining the romance of the nation’s railroad heritage with the chance to match wits and do battle with powerful senators and governors over the future of an important sector of the economy was heady stuff.

Among the legendary routes my dad shut down was the Wabash Cannonball, an old passenger line of the Wabash Railroad, named for an even older minstrel song that became a big hit for the Carter Family when they recorded it in 1929. Utah Phillips rode the last regular run of the Cannonball, and wrote a new song about it, with the wistful refrain:

There’s no round trip ticket, you’re on the final run,
This Cannonball is never coming back.
Tomorrow she’ll just be
Another memory
And an echo down a rusty railroad track.

A few months later one of the news networks ran a documentary about Amtrak closing the door on a nostalgic chapter of American life. Dad watched most of the segment dispassionately, with occasional rationalist jibes about fiscal discipline and sound transportation policy and hard choices and soft English majors to balance the TV producers’ mawkish sentimentality. (I don’t remember now who the anchor was, but if he wasn’t Charles Kuralt, he should have been.) When the piece closed with Phillips’ song about the last run of the Cannonball, however, Dad suddenly looked like he had been punched. All these years later, he still listens to it every once in a while.

So goodnight, Utah, but not goodbye. You’ll always be around, whenever there’s starlight on the rails.

His earthly race is over; as the curtains 'round him fall
We'll carry him home to victory on the Wabash Cannonball.


At June 13, 2008 at 9:27:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful memory! Thank you for sharing. As a rail advocate, I spend much of my public life trying to undue the work not only of your dad, but of the money-losing lines that suddenly look less money-losing than autos.

I'd love to see that video someday.

At June 15, 2008 at 9:31:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

My dad is far from an enemy of passenger rail; in the case of Amtrak he was actually more of a rescuer. He was called upon to create a financially stable quasi-public corporation out of the abandoned unprofitable passenger systems of private rail companies, after Congress (a) lifted the regulatory requirement that the private railroads maintain service and (b) deliberately appropriated insufficient subsidies to keep the previous level of service going. There were also a whole lot of state governors and legislatures that were very vocal about the prospect of losing their federally or privately subsidized routes, but were unwilling themselves to replace the necessary subsidies when the moment of truth came. My father didn't make the policy decision to spend federal funds to develop the nations highway and air travel systems rather than rail; he merely tried to figure out how much of what was left of rail service could be saved with the resources available. Hey, at the time, everybody thought Amtrak would be bankrupt in five years, but here we are 35+ years later, and Amtrak is still running.

Later in his career, as an official in Jimmy Carter's newly-formed energy department, my dad advocated a higher federal commitment to rail service (both passenger and freight) and a lower level of federal subsidy to highways, on the grounds of rail's superior energy efficiency. Unfortunately, most of Carter's visionary energy policies died a-borning.


Post a Comment

<< Home