Archive for April, 2011

Amtrak Approaches Middle Age

April 20, 2011

Amtrak turns 40 on May 1 and in human terms that means that it will have reached middle age. Like anyone in the middle years of adulthood, Amtrak is showing signs of getting older. It may not have wrinkles and gray hair, but it has plenty of bridges, stations and pieces of rolling stock that are or soon will be in need of a facelift, if not major reconstructive surgery.

Unlike a person, though, Amtrak began life looking like a senior citizen with its collection of hand-me-down locomotives and passenger cars. The first few years of Amtrak may have been its most colorful with its trains featuring a mix of liveries from a couple dozen railroads. But keeping that equipment in operable condition was a daily struggle until the arrival of Amfleet, Superliners and F40PH diesels. Horizon coaches and Viewliner sleepers later joined the roster in relatively small numbers.  

Some streamliner era equipment remains, primarily baggage cars and diners, with a great dome car thrown in for good measure. The F40 has given way to the P42DC Genesis locomotive. Over the years, other motive power that graced the roundhouse included the SDP40F, the P30CH, the GP40TC and the P32BWH. Some of the latter are still around. Don’t forget the Turboliners, Talgos and California fleet.

That is not a bad history for an operation that began as a skeletal network and remains so today. Amtrak’s inauguration day map bears a strong resemblance to today’s route map. Sure, some routes have changed, a few have been added, and others have vanished altogether. Remember when Amtrak used to have a route across central Ohio via Columbus and Dayton? The National Limited has been gone since October 1979. Remember the North Star? The Lone Star?

 In northeast Ohio where I live, we have four daily trains. Our daily train count has been as high as eight and as low as two. We once had a daytime train, the Pennsylvanian, but it went away after a brief run. Also gone are the Broadway Limited, which ended in 1995 and a successor, the Three Rivers, which ended in 2005.

Ever since the last Penn Central passenger trains between Cleveland and Cincinnati made their final trips on April 30, 1971, there has been talk of reviving service in the 3-C corridor. With four of the Ohio’s largest cities on the route, how could it lose? But the political will or Amtrak management commitment to get the 3-C route rolling has been elusive. Increasingly, it is looking like it will take another generation with a different perspective on public transportation to make 3-C happen. I wonder if that generation has been born yet.

As anyone who has reached middle age knows, as you get older life gets more complicated even as it becomes more settled. And so it has been for Amtrak. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about golden opportunities and expansion, but not all that much has much happened at Amtrak in the past decade.

The carrier in the past year placed an equipment order and is working with a few states to upgrade routes for higher-speed service. But the type of service that rail advocates have long sought remains as stuck in neutral. It has been many years since Amtrak drew a new line on its map. Changes to Amtrak over the past 10 years have been incremental. But considering how many political officials have tried to kill or cripple Amtrak, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Because of Amtrak’s limited presence in Northeast Ohio, its 40th birthday is likely to pass here with little or no ceremony. It will occur on a Sunday. If you are out and about that day, take an Amtrak tour. Start in Canton. Next to the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline downtown you’ll find a forlorn reminder of Amtrak’s past. The station that Amtrak built in Canton sits vacant and unwanted. Many an ARRC member embarked on his first Amtrak trip from that platform, but “all aboard” hasn’t been heard here since late November 1990.

Drive north to Akron on Interstate 77 and you’ll see an equally forlorn former Amtrak station near Quaker Square, but also a hint of what passenger rail could be. Look westward and you’ll see next to the CSX mainline a gleaming new city bus terminal that was designed with the idea of adding a train station if Amtrak or rail passenger service ever returns.

Complete the circle by visiting Amtrak’s Cleveland station near the Lake Erie shore. This is still a working train station, although you wouldn’t know that during daylight hours when it appears to be as abandoned as the depots in Akron and Canton.

 Designed in the 1970s, the Cleveland station reflects what Amtrak has been for much of its life: functional and modest. Some find that hard to embrace, but if you are charmed by the allure of travel involving steel wheels on steel rails, it is the best you can do until that future generation can begin to implement a different vision of transportation policy in America.