Railfans and Sports Fans: They Have Much in Common, Including Frustration at Being Ignored

It’s a spring evening in 1975. I’m sitting in a class at Sangamon State University, now known as the University of Illinois-Springfield, listening to Gerald Rawlings, a staffer in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He was talking about transportation systems in the Prairie State when he said something that at the time struck me as odd for a government planner to say.

It is the height of absurdity for planners in the Bureau of Planning of the Illinois Department of Transportation to talk about the future of Illinois coal reserves when those reserves don’t belong to them.

He seemed to be saying that what he did as a planner was a waste of time and, by extension, the public money being used to pay him and the expenses of his office.

Yet I remember Rawling’s comment because it contained a hard truth that not everyone considers when talking about things they care about but don’t control.

Railfans in general and rail passenger service advocates in particular are much like rabid sports fans.

They are passionate about “their” teams and many are not shy about expressing their ideas of how the owners should be spending their money and how management should be doing its job as though the fans have an ownership stake in the team.

Owners tolerate this because fans can be a source of revenue. Fans buy game tickets, team-themed merchandise and concession stand products.

Even a fan sitting at home watching a game on television is money to the owner because the more people who watch the game the more valuable the rights to broadcast those games become.

But while owners might at times acknowledge the views of fans they are not going to give up control of it. That frustrates countless fans who think they know better than owners and managers how the team ought to be run.

It can be quite entertaining to read or listen to the views of those who don’t own a railroad company about how those who do should be operating and managing their property.

They have been out in full throat since late May when Amtrak announced it would scale back the frequency of operation of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

A popular view is that it is part of a plot to kill the long-distance passenger trains by driving away business.

Amtrak denies that, but it is not out of the realm of possibility given some of the public statements made in the past couple of years by former Amtrak president Richard Anderson and current senior vice president Stephen Gardner about their desire to transform Amtrak into a more corridor-oriented business.

There are valid arguments to be made that less-than-daily passenger train service is not an ideal business practice.

Yet Amtrak management has chosen to do it, ostensibly as a money-saving move during a time when ridership and revenue are way down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There may be other motivations that management is not talking about publicly.

The critics have been decrying Amtrak’s plans on social media sites and in the printed and website pages of such national publications as Trains and Railway Age.

The Railroad Passengers Association has flooded my inbox with email messages urging its members and friends to exhort Congress to force Amtrak to run the trains daily.

Although legislation to force the carrier to maintain daily service on long-distance routes has been introduced it continues to languish in Congress.

There is nothing wrong with lobbying lawmakers in favor or your pet cause. The Constitution encourages it in the First Amendment, which grants the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Yet some of those social media posts and magazine articles are veering into the realm of “height of absurdity” territory by advancing ideas that have little to no chance of being adopted given the realities of the political system.It’s fine to write in social media posts what you want to see Amtrak do, but be careful about getting too caught up in your views.

They are just ideas about decisions that are not yours to make. Those who have the authority to make those decisions are free to ignore your views and more than likely they will.

That is not to say that decision makers can’t be persuaded to come around to accepting your ideas.

But I see in many of these writings little reason to believe that the authors of these posts or magazine articles have a good grasp of what it will take to get there let alone a viable plan.

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