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John Volpe
Instrumental In The Creation Of Amtrak

John Volpe was very instrumental in the creation of Amtrak. Whether or not any form of a national passenger rail system would exist at all today if it were not for John Volpe is highly questionable.

The following chronology was reported in Kalmbach's "Journey to Amtrak" and was brought to our attention by Merritt Mullen:


Oct 30 Nixon signs Railpax legislation.

Nov 6 White House staffer Ehrlichman tells Sec of Transportation Volpe routes must be approved by OMB and the White House. White House and FRA consult on route issue.

Nov 25 OMB director Shultz orders Volpe to announce a skeletonized national system with most service in NEC and minimum of long-haul routes.

Nov 27 Volpe rebels and recommends adding many routes struck out by OMB.

Nov 30 On deadline set by law, Volpe announces the initial route structure. NARP and the ICC disagree and release their own recommendations.

Dec 18 Nixon names 8-member board to incorporate Railpax (NOTE: Railpax/NRPC did not exist, except on paper, before this date).


Jan 28 Volpe announces final route selections, adding 5 routes to those announced on November 30.

The following is from the book: John Volpe, The Life Of An Immigrant's Son by Kathleen Kilgore, published by Yankee Books, Inc., Dublin, New Hampshire 03444, 1987:

Frustrated in his effots to obtain support and guidance from the White House, Volpe turned his attention to Congress and the passage of his own legislative agenda. Here, his experience in fighting for his bills in the Democratic State House, his years of service with the national Republican party, the contacts he had made as federal highway administrator, and his time as a member of the Labor Relations Committee of the Associated General Contractors came into play. In an administration short on experienced politicians and long on media experts and advertising executives, Volpe was one of the few effective lobbyists the White House had. Volpe's best-known legislative accomplishment was the implementation of a concept that had long been the norm in Europe but was politically unpopular in the United States: a government-subsidized passenger rail system.

Early in the summer of 1969, Assistant Secretary Paul Cherington told Volpe that there would be no more passenger rail service in the United States within two or three years unless the federal government intervened. Beggs and Baker agreed with Cherington's analysis, and Volpe went to the president to propose a federal program. Nixon agreed in principle. With the president's approval, DOT began an in-house study. The study was then sent out to be approved by the Office of the Budget, then on to the White House.

In January 1970, when passenger rail study was being reviewed at the White House, The New York Times printed a story on the "Railpax" proposal. Ehrlichman called Volpe, accusing his office of "leaking" the story. Volpe replied that the story also could have come from the Office of the Budget, the congressional leaders with whom the White House staff had directed Volpe to check, or even within the White House itself. "Why do you think it was leaked from here?" Volpe asked. "Well," Ehrlichman replied, "I have a hunch that's where it came from."

By the middle of February, the bill had still not been approved by the White House, and Volpe was called by the Senate Commerce Committee's ranking Republican, Norris Cotton. Cotton told Volpe that the only bill under consideration to save rail passenger service was one sponsored by Vance Hartke of Indiana. Where was Volpe's bill? Volpe went to see Ehrlichman personally and had it out with him, banging his fist on the desk and threatening to pack his bags and go back to Boston the next day unless the president saw him the following morning. This time Ehrlichman relented, although he and other White House staffers opposed Railpax. Volpe met with Nixon, and as he had with the SST, Volpe appealed to Nixon's sense of patriotism. What would America be like without any passenger trains?

Nixon agreed in principle to support Railpax, but now that Hartke's bill had already reported out of the Senate Commerce Committee and was ready for consideration on the floor, they could not send down Volpe's piece of legislation. "You'll just have to leave that to me, Mr. President," Volpe replied.

Volpe met with Senators Warren Magnussen and Norris Cotton and told them that at last he had White House approval. "Fine," they told him, "but first you'll have to make your peace with Hartke." Hartke agreed to let his staff work with Volpe's to modify the Hartke bill. Then Volpe asked Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to hold the original bill for a month. Mansfield refused. "How about twenty days?" Volpe bargained. Mansfield agreed. The new bill, now 90 percent DOT bill and 10 percent Hartke's original bill, was ready in eighteen days.

The enabling legislation, as it was finally passed, set up a quasi-governmental corporation with a bare minimum of $340 million in capital under the control of a board of directors selected by White House and the four major railroad corporations that became stockholders. Volpe, as DOT secretary, was the first chairman. By 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation had been renamed "Amtrak," and on May 8, Volpe joined a crowd of dignitaries and reporters aboard the Metroliner from Union Station in Washington to New York. A band on board one of the cars played at each station. Although the train was late for its first run, Vople was elated. He hoped that within five years, after eliminating marginal lines, the new corporation would turn a profit and no longer rely on government subsidies. That was not to be the case, but Amtrak did save the passenger train and cut down on the need for new highway construction in the Northeast.

A Small World
Introduction To The Following Post

This introduction was written in July of 1999, but the information below was posted in early 1997. I have the greatest respect for the contribution that John Volpe made to passenger rail. Even though I can only recall personally meeting him once in my life when I was very little (there must have been other times, but I was much too little to understand who was who), I feel honored to have crossed paths with John Volpe at all in my life!

Most people involved with passenger rail have no knowledge of John Volpe, his life and his works at all. There are a few that do, but among those people, there is a good deal of controversy over the value of the contributions that John Volpe made to passenger rail. The reason for this is that John Volpe can also be considered one of the key players in the promotion and building of the Interstate Highway System. Most passenger rail advocates, including myself, believe that passenger rail would be alive and well today if the government had not gotten involved in the promotion, capitalization and susidization of the Interstate Highway System. Thus, many credit John Volpe as being instrumental in the destruction of passenger rail.

We all have to face the fact that after World War II, General Eisenhower was totally convinced that we needed a national road system like that of Germany. He saw how easily the Germans were able to move troops and supplies from one part of the nation to the other and was convinced that America needed a similar system of roads for our own defense. Interstate commerce and personal travel by automobile were believed to also benefit by such a system, but that was of secondary importance to the perceived benefits to national security. Since the personal automobile market and popularity of travel in ones own car was booming at the time, it was not hard to garner public support for a national system of highways. It also was not hard to find financial and congressional support for the idea. Big construction companies lobbied for it and politicians were all too happy to bring jobs and construction into their districts to insure re-election.

With or without John Volpe's participation, the Interstate Highway System would be built. But, when it came to transportation issues, John Volpe was about the most balanced of the advocates of the day. He wasn't just involved in highway construction, but he was always a big promoter of both mass transit and a national passenger rail system. When the government finally decided to allow the freight railroads to shed their passenger operations, almost all passenger trains in America would have vanished from the map had not John Volpe put his support behind a plan to keep the passenger trains running. This proposal is what turned into Amtrak.

As you will find from reading below, my life only had the most fleeting of contact with that of John Volpe, but the paths of the Grande and the Volpe families were heavily intertwined as you view back into the history of each family. I have only been able to describe a little of this relationship as I am about as far on the tail end of that history as can be.

I wish to make it clear that it is not my intention to sully the memory of John Volpe nor to offend anyone. To the contrary, I rather wish to honor John Volpe and his contribution to passenger rail in this nation. There is one incident posted below that I believe is totally innocent and harmless that I don't believe should offend anyone. It was told to me by my father and was confirmed by my mother. (My father died on February 21, 1999 on the day of the Inaugural Revenue Run of Train #702, the Amtrak San Joaquin between Sacramento and Bakersfield, California. Click here for more information.)I have no reason to believe it was not true. I used to have what I felt to be my own humorous interpretation of the event. However, I was contacted by a member of the Volpe family that found my comments offensive. I did remove that which was my opinion and only left what I have no reason to doubt are facts. I just hope that nobody takes anything that I have posted below to be prying, personal or offensive.

I remember when I was little being at a party at my grandfather's. His name was also Stephen Grande. He owned the house that we lived in. He lived upstairs with two of my aunts and my cousin. My Mom and Dad and I lived in the downstairs apartment in that house.

My grandfather was dancing with a woman about his same age. I asked my Mom who that woman was. She told me that it was Mrs. Volpe. That didn't mean much to me at that time. Later, I was to learn that this was Mrs. Filomena Volpe, John Volpe's mother.

My Dad was an employee of the City of Malden, the city in which we lived. He would sometimes take me to some of the public buildings and pointed out the plaque that showed who built the buildings. They all said they were constructed by the "Grande & Volpe Construction Company". Even the elementary school that I went to was built by the "Grande & Volpe Construction Company". I asked my Dad which Grandes those were as I didn't know any Grandes that owned a construction company. He told me they were my cousins, but they weren't relatives that we saw much. My Dad was a carpenter by trade and my grandfather was a brick-layer, so I guess it made sense that construction ran in the blood. Still, the name Volpe didn't mean much to me.

It wasn't until John Volpe was elected Governor of Massachusettes that the name really meant anything to me. As it turned out, the father of John Volpe was a very close friend to my grandfather. They had been brick-layers together. The Mrs. Volpe that I mentioned above was the mother of Governor John Volpe and would often come to parties and family gatherings at my grandfather's home.

Later I learned that the Grandes and Volpes that had built so many buildings together had each gone their own way. The Volpe family continued to remain close to my grandfather and to visit, but we never saw much of that side of the Grande family.

Recently I picked up another little bit of family history. Matchmaking was pretty common in our families long ago. Evidently, someone tried to make a match between John Volpe and my Aunt Clara. Beyond dating a couple of times, not much more developed from that relationship.

Have you had enough coincidences yet? If not, there is more! When I was about 9 years old, we moved to the other side of town. There I made two new friends next door. It turned out that their Dad was John Volpe's chauffeur! He would usually bring one of Volpe's cars home from work. It seemed to me like it was a different car every night! I don't really know if he had a car of his own or not. When I went places with my next door friends, their Dad would drive us in John Volpe's cars. When John Volpe was elected Governor of Massachuessetts, that job came with a state provided State Trooper to be his chauffeur. So, my next door neighbor became the chauffeur for the wife of Governor John Vople. I remember driving onto the Volpe estate one time with my next door friends. We had to switch cars for some reason. It was a long time ago and a pretty foggy memory.

John Volpe was considered for the vice-president slot under Richard Nixon, but Spiro Agnew was picked instead (one of several mistakes under Nixon). Instead, John Volpe was appointed as Secretary of Transportation under President Nixon. He resigned the Governorship of Massachussetts to take that position.

So what brought back these memories? An item in the June 1996 Amtrak Anniversary Issue of "Trains" Magazine, page 49:

"Know your Amtrak"
"A trivia quiz: After 25 years, there's surely no shortage of it"

"At the Creation"

"1. Who convinced President Richard Nixon to sign the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 creating what had been called 'Railpax'?" [Railpax was later renamed Amtrak before it started operations]

"--Secretary of Transportation John Volpe persuaded Nixon to sign it over the objection of Office of Management and Budget Chairman George Schultz."

So ... without Secretary of Transportation John Volpe, Amtrak and American Rail Passenger service might not have existed today! So close and yet so far from notoriety!

Former Secretary of Transportation John Volpe died in 1994. He was just a bit older than my parents. The National Transportation Systems Center was dedicated to him and can be found at the following web site:

The Volpe National Transportation Systems Center remains involved in innovative methods of transportation, especially those on the leading edge of technology, just as John Volpe did when he was the Secretary of Transportation. In addition to helping to create Amtrak, John Volpe also proposed high-speed 300 mph air-cushion transportation between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He was also involved in the design and construction of the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower.

The following was posted on August 20, 2001 and was also taken from the book: John Volpe, The Life Of An Immigrant's Son by Kathleen Kilgore, published by Yankee Books, Inc., Dublin, New Hampshire 03444, 1987:

In March 1933, during the week of the national Bank Holiday, the cousin of an old friend, a bricklayer foreman named Fred Grande dropped by the Eastern Avenue (Malden) house to see whether John would be would be interested with him for a job to convert an old theater in Everett into a church. Each partner would have to come up with $500 to be bonded. Volpe promptly cashed in an insurance policy for $300 and borrowed another $200 from an uncle, and the two men were in business as Grande and Volpe. They did not get the church conversion job, but shortly afterward, Volpe figured out the successful bid for an addition to the heating plant of the Eastern Massachusettes Street Railway's car barn in West Lynn. The bid was for $1,287. Grande and Volpe were the low bidders by $14.

After the first several years in operation, Grande and Volpe specialized in "monumental" construction: schools, offices, police stations, and hospitals. The company did not build houses, except housing units on military bases, or bid on highway work.

Malden (my home town and that of my father, my grandfather, and that of John Volpe for many years, about 5 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts) in the 1920s was a small city of about sixty-one thousand, made up of factories and factory workers. Originally a stagecoach stop in the eighteenth century, by the 1850s Malden was already industrialized. The center of both the factories and the immigrant population who provided the manpower was the neighborhood of Edgeworth, the home of Converse Rubber Company, the Boston Rubber Shoe Company, knitting mills, mattress factories, and scores of small bakeries, markets, and coal companies.

In September (1926), while [John Volpe's] friends from Malden High went to Northeastern, Boston University, and Harvard, Volpe signed up for evening blueprint-reading courses at a Boston technical school, Wentworth Institute, and "Volpe and Son" began operation.

(Concluding this "Small World" page, both my father and I also graduated from Malden High, though quite a few years apart. My father also went on to Wentworth Institute, just like John Volpe. Like Volpe's friends, I went on to Northeastern University and then to Boston University for graduate study. And, like Volpe, I never went to Harvard either, other than to hang around in Harvard Square during my student days!)

So what does that all have to do with my interest in Amtrak? Nothing at all! I knew hardly anything about Amtrak until Amtrak started running radio ads on my favorite station in 1995!

-- Steve Grande

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