Amtrak: The History and Politics of a National Railroad

By David C. Nice | Go to book overview

2
Development:
Building the System

Any organization must strike a balance between stability and change, and transportation organizations are no exception. 1 Changing public preferences, new technologies, population movements, and rising or falling prices of supplies may force an organization to make drastic changes in many aspects of its operations. Internal conflicts, employee discontent, and discovery of previously unrecognized performance problems also may stimulate modifications in an organization. All of these forces have been at work in the transportation industry in recent decades.

Although transportation organizations must change at times to keep pace with shifting external conditions and to manage internal pressures, a degree of organizational stability is essential. For example, transportation systems require substantial public and private investment in fixed facilities, vehicles, and personnel training. A high degree of instability risks rendering those investments irrelevant or wasteful.

Amtrak has faced considerable difficulties in trying to achieve the desired balance of stability and change needed to maintain credibility as a transportation mode. Beginning with uncertain and conflicting goals, the Amtrak system seemed to be destined for chaos rather than predictability. Repeated attacks by the Reagan administration, conservatives in Congress, and bus companies seemed to foretell large cutbacks or even termination. Moreover, the nation's passenger train system was in relatively poor condition at the time of Amtrak's creation; maintaining the conditions that existed in 1971 would hardly give the system credibility.

Nonetheless, the Amtrak system has managed to achieve a substantial degree of stability, coupled with significant change -- much of it in the nature of improvement. The political turmoil surrounding Amtrak stands in stark contrast to the substantial operational consistency and improvement that the system has achieved.

-15-

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