October 20, 2020

Alan S. Boyd, former Amtrak president and the first USDOT secretary, dies at the age of 98

ABOVE LEFT: A 1970s portrait photograph of Amtrak President Alan S. Boyd. ABOVE RIGHT: Former Amtrak President Alan Boyd, Deputy Mayor of Seattle Hyeok Kim and Cascades Rail Corridor Director Ron Pate at Amtrak National Train Day at King Street Station on May 10, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. Photo credits: Amtrak (left) and Mat Hayward from ZIMBIO (right).

The Washigton Post reported the death of Alan Stephenson Boyd (July 20, 1922 – October 18, 2020) at the age of 98 on October 18th at a retirement home in Seattle. Mr. Boyd was an American attorney and transportation executive who led several large corporations and also served the U.S. Government in various transportation-related positions. He was the first United States Secretary of Transportation, appointed by Lyndon Johnson. Additionally, he served in executive positions with the Civil Aeronautics Board, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and was president of Amtrak from 1978 to 1982. For more on his life and career please visit his Wikipedia page.

The Washington Post writes that Mr. Boyd was later viewed as an ally by some mass transit advocates, in part for his skeptical approach to urban freeway projects such as the Three Sisters Bridge in Washington. Amid protests from residents, the Transportation Department sidelined the bridge, which was later canceled altogether. Mr. Boyd was “not anti-highway,” he told Schrag, but disagreed with highway advocates who believed that “God’s greatest gift to America was concrete.” Mr. Boyd also championed passenger rail service, a focus that brought him to Amtrak in 1978. He steered the rail service through what author Jim Loomis, a railroad authority, described as a period of “benign neglect” under President Ronald Reagan, and was credited with improving on-time performance, among other things. But he said he was disappointed he couldn’t secure a permanent or long-term source of funding for Amtrak, a quasi-governmental corporation that depends on annual appropriations. For more please visit his obituary in The Washington Post.

Mr. Boyd was also involved in a early serious High Speed Rail effort in America during the early 1980s. The American High Speed Rail Corporation was spun-off from Amtrak to planned, fund, and build with import Japanese Bullet Train technology and techniques to create a Shinkansen-style electrified high-speed rail service along the existing right-of-way of the Santa Fe Surf Line between LA Union Station, LAX airport, and San Diego Santa Fe Depot. The project was featured in the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and the PBS NOVA episode 'Tracking the Supertrains', the TV documentary including video of Mr. Boyd taking part in a US Congressional high speed rail mission to Japan. The 'California Bullet' project failed in late 1984 due in large part to NIMBY opposition from coastal residents and the failure to secure sufficient start-up money to complete project planning. It was unfortunately the first in a long series of high speed failures in the USA, setting a sad and fustrating pattern.

Nevertheless Mr. Boyd deserves credit for during his long and fruitful career in public service and the private sector acting on a vision of a balance passenger transportation system including airlines, highways, public transit, and modern high-speed railways -- including the need for strong govermental support in the form of public money for transit and rail transportation.

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ABOVE: The logo of the US Department of Transportation (left) and a painting (right) of the proposed Las Vegas-Los Angeles Mag Lev Train by futurist painter John Conrad Berkey, illustrative of the "can do... the sky's the limit" optimistic vision of transportation that once existed in the United States during the Space Age of the Postwar Era. Reality today in the America of the 21st Century is a bit different.