Monday, May 31, 2010

Last Train to Des Moines, Forty Years Ago

Note: The following was submitted to the Des Moines Register as a guest editorial. As the Register has apparently decided not to use it, I'm posting it here. Photo Credit: Ron Goodenow. (Train No. 7 near Grinnell, IA, late 1960s or 1970)

On May 31, 1970, I took Trailways from Iowa City to Davenport, walked across the Government Bridge to Rock Island, Illinois, and walked a few more blocks to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad station. I was there to ride the last run on the Rock Island Lines' Train No. 7, which, along with its eastbound counterpart, No. 10, were the only passenger trains serving Des Moines and Iowa City. The Rock Island depot was filled with families taking the children for a first, and presumably last ride on the train. They rode from Rock Island to West Liberty, West Liberty to Iowa City, and so on down the line to Council Bluffs, the train's western terminus. Forty years later, Des Moines, Iowa City, and the entire state of Iowa north of U.S. Highway 34 still have no passenger train service.

From the vantage point of 1970, that wouldn't seem very startling. Louis W. Menk, who was about to become chairman of the newly-merged Burlington Northern Railroad, appeared on NBC's Today Show on February 26, 1970, and said, "in my view we ought to let the intercity passenger train, the long-distance passenger train, die an honorable death, like we did the steamship, or the riverboats and the stagecoach and the pony express." Gasoline was cheap, the airlines were profitable and expanding, and passenger trains were being eliminated all over the nation. Des Moines wasn't even the biggest city in America without rail passenger service. Dallas, Texas had that dubious honor.

But even though things looked bleak for the passenger train, there was change in the air. Congress was working on a bill, popularly known as Railpax, that would create a quasi-public corporation to operate a national network of passenger trains.

In fact, the Rock Island was desperate to eliminate its passenger service across Iowa because the Railpax bill would put a hold on train discontinuances. And because membership fees in the proposed National Railroad Passenger Corporation would be based on the railroad's passenger train losses for 1969, the Rock Island wanted to stay out. (The railroad had claimed a $1.3 million loss on Nos. 7 and 10 for 1969. It had also run a Minneapolis-Des Moines-Kansas City train for the first half of 1969, for which it claimed huge losses.) It was cheaper to run its two remaining intercity services: Chicago-Rock Island and Chicago-Peoria, than join NRPC.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, the agency with jurisdiction over passenger train discontinuances, gave the Rock Island what it wanted, and allowed the line to drop Nos. 7 and 10 before the ICC held hearings on the discontinuance petition. Normally the ICC would order the trains continued during the hearing process. As expected, the Commission reaffirmed its original decision, and the Rock Island remained "freight service only" west of its namesake city. (The Rock Island and Peoria trains survived until the end of 1978.)

Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon signed the National Railroad Passenger Act of 1970 on October 30 of that year, and Railpax emerged as Amtrak on May 1, 1971. In spite of efforts by every administration from Nixon through George W. Bush to curtail or eliminate Amtrak, passenger trains continue to cross the nation. And President Obama, with assistance from his train-riding vice president Joe Biden, has made high-speed rail a priority of his administration.
In 1974, when the energy crisis made the fuel-efficiency of rail attractive, it seemed likely that passenger trains would return to central and northern Iowa. The Iowa Legislature even approved $4 million for passenger train service that year, but in what state Representative Stephen Rapp (D-Waterloo) called a "sell-out," the appropriation was eliminated in conference committee.

Amtrak planned a Chicago-Des Moines train in 2000, when then-CEO George Warrington thought the corporation could make money by hauling freight as well as passengers. The expected freight contracts never materialized and the plan was dropped.

In the forty years since I stepped on board the last No. 7, I've promoted rail passenger service both as a citizen and for the last 26 years, as an Amtrak employee. But though I've lived out-of-state since 1981, I'm still an Iowan at heart. It's refreshing to hear of Governor Chet Culver's interest in reviving intercity rail service in Iowa.

I hope Iowans will continue to work for fast trains in the Hawkeye State. Another forty years is too long to wait for good public transportation in Iowa.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Happy Flora Day!

Every year, around May 8, the people of Helston, Cornwall celebrate Flora Day, culminating in the "Hal an Tow," with the plays of St. George and the Dragon and St. Michael and the Devil. I'm sure the celebration evolved from a pre-Christian Celtic spring festival. Here are the lyrics:

Robin Hood and Little John
Are both gone to the fair-O
And we will to the merry greenwood
To see what they do there-O
And for to chase-O
To chase the buck and doe

Chorus (after each verse):

Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow
For we are up as soon as any day-O
For to fetch the summer home
The summer and the May-O
For summer is a-coming in
And winter is a-gone-O

As for St. George-O
St. George he was the knight-O
Of all the knights in Christendom
St. George he had the right-O
In every land-O
The land where'er we go

But for a greater than St. George
Our Helston has the right-O
St. Michael with his wings outspread
The archangel so bright-O
Who fought the fiend-O
Of all mankind the foe

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Maybe I made a mistake by allowing AdSense

Last week I decided to try to make a few bucks from this blog by allowing Google AdSense. I've had two politically-oriented posts which clearly indicate that I'm a liberal Democrat and opposed to the the worship of markets. Yet I'm getting ads urging people to urge Senator Bayh to vote against environmental legislation and the regulation of banks. I'll keep AdSense on for a while, but if my liberal blog is going to become a platform for right-wing nuts, I'll have to forgo the money.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Kent State and the Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon

The verdict of history is never final. Warren G. Harding, almost universally considered one of worst American president, has been rehabilitated by at least some historians. Conservative columnist Mona Charen, in an October 13, 2009 article in the National Review, quotes two historians who lionize Harding.

Richard Nixon has never lost his defenders. And sometimes they make a strong case for him. The historian Robert Dallek, in his Modern Scholar lecture series, The American Presidency , gives Nixon high marks for his economic program and his ending of the Vietnam War. And Dallek is very much in the progressive school of historians. Yet the memory of the Kent State killings, which happened forty years ago this week, reminds us of the vicious and divisive nature of the Nixon presidency.

George W. Bush's campaign strategy of polarizing the American electorate and demonizing his opponents was nothing new. While Nixon used the slogan "Bring Us Together" in his 1968 campaign, by 1970 he had become the most divisive president in recent history. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, began the assault on intellectuals, the press, and dissidents. In 1969 he made headlines with the line, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." The Nixon machine, while never employing the outright racism of George Wallace, the 1968 American Independent Party candidate for president, took advantage of racial prejudice in what was called the "Southern Strategy."

Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, promised "an honorable end to the war." But once he became president he widened the war while launching a domestic offensive against the antiwar movement. The Johnson Administration took no action against Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, and others who demonstrated in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was the Nixon Administration which ordered the Chicago Eight (later Chicago Seven after Seale was tried separately) trials.
In the spring of 1970 Nixon widened the war by approving an invasion of (he called it an "incursion") of Cambodia. As a result, there were antiwar demonstrations on hundreds of American campuses. Nixon's widely-quoted May 1 reaction to the demonstrations was:
You know, you see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world and here they are, burning up the books, I mean, storming around about this issue, I mean, you name it. Get rid of the war, there'll be another one. (American Experience, Nixon).
Three days later National Guardsmen fired on students demonstrating at Kent State University, killing four. "My child was not a bum," said the father of one of the girls killed.
Many Americans blamed the students for the deaths, as they had blamed demonstrators for the violence at the 1968, Democratic Convention, which the Walker Commission deemed a "police riot." The Republican National Committee decided to make campus riots, or "law and order" the main theme of its 1970 campaign.
The culmination of the 1970 Nixon effort was an election-eve broadcast:
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (AP) President Nixon will climax his strenuous role in the 1970 campaign by appearing on major television networks tonight in filmed segments of a speech decrying violent dissent..." -Elkhart Truth, November 2, 1970.
The broadcast turned out to be a disaster. The grainy black-and-white film, with a poorly-recorded soundtrack, showed an angry Nixon who seemed out of control.
The Democrats aired a speech by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine (the 1968 vice presidential candidate). It was in color and professionally recorded. Muskie exuded calmness and rationality in contrast to Nixon's anger. Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the PBS NewsHour put it this way: "In 1970, Muskie's star rose when he responded in a nationwide speech to a divisive Republican campaign that attacked the patriotism of college students and Democrats."
In fact, polls showed Muskie beating Nixon during much of 1971. And so began Nixon's "dirty tricks " campaign, which succeeded in eliminating Muskie as a 1972 presidential candidate.
Nixon may have been progressive in his economic policies. The Environmental Protection Administration and Amtrak began under Nixon's watch. He helped bring about detente with Moscow and opened up relations with China. And after four bloody years, he removed our combat troops from Southeast Asia. But all that pales in comparison to his campaign of division, anger, dirty tricks, and yes, hatred.

Indiana's Third District: A Race for the Extreme Right

It's Primary Election Day in Indiana: the first Tuedsay after the first Monday in May. I'll be taking a Democratic ballot, so I won't have many choices. But I've had fun watching the Republicans trying to one-up each other. The Third District of Indiana, which includes part of my hometown of Elkhart, is represented by Mark Souder, a Christian Right Republican who's best known for his "Drug-Free Student Loan Amendment" to the federal student aid law. While the restrictions have been softened in recent years, the gist of his amendment was that students with drug convictions were ineligible for federal aid. Or, as my daughter Sarah put it, you can be an axe murderer and get student aid, but not if your record is clean save one conviction for marijuana possession. In any other state, Souder would be considered a right-wing extremist.

But apparently not in Indiana. He's got a primary opponent this year, Fort Wayne car dealer Bob Thomas, who virtually calls him a tax-and-spend liberal. Thomas is from the business right. He's against professional politicians and wants to impose term limits. And while Souder has been known to vote for omnibus bills which may contain things he doesn't like, Thomas appears to be a no-compromise conservative.

After enduring Thomas's attacks from the right, Souder began airing a rather clever commercial:

I live in the Second District of Indiana, currently reperesented by Blue Dog Democrat Joe Donnelly. But if I did live over in the Third, I think I'd take Souder over Thomas. At least Souder has a sense of humor.