Amtrak’s 40th anniversary has received much attention this year, largely driven by Amtrak itself with its repainting of at least four Genesis series locomotives into liveries once used by the company and a national touring train that provides exhibits about Amtrak history. The nation’s passenger railroad partnered with Kalmbach Publishing to produce a book and it has also created a DVD. Trains, Passenger Train Journal, Classic Trains, and Railfan and Railroad have all devoted individual issues to Amtrak’s 40th birthday, but otherwise no other videos or books have been released tied to the milestone.
Filling that void is Amtrak 40 1971-2011, a DVD released in late June by Revelation Video, which is owned by Ron McElrath. The video is billed as a four decade retrospective of Amtrak. Although similar in style to programs that Revelation released for Amtrak’s 20th and 30th anniversaries, Amtrak 40 differs in that it is not intended to be a review primarily of what happened at Amtrak over the previous decade.
Before discussing what Amtrak 40 provides, it would be useful to say what it is not. It is not a documentary. The video provides some factual background, but that is not its strength. The program is also not organized in linear fashion. Although it somewhat starts at the beginning and works forward, there is much jumping back and forth in time.
Amtrak 40 presents a series of vignettes that give a sense of what Amtrak has been about and how it has changed during its 40-year existence. Many of these vignettes are short and some have been excerpted from previous Revelation programs pertaining to Amtrak.
Opening with footage of Amtrak heritage locomotive No. 156 in the red-nosed Phase I livery that lasted until about 1976 bringing the Adirondack into Plattsburgh, New York, McElrath, who narrates the video, notes that anniversaries are a time of reflection to think of what has been, what failed to come to be and what might yet come to pass.
With that in mind, the program makes a brief review of the 40 years before the coming of Amtrak. This segment uses vintage movie film of various railroads, some of it black and white and some in color. The contrast in image quality between the old films and modern video is quite stunning. Passenger trains are not the only thing that has changed over the past 80 years.
Amtrak 40 features interesting footage of Amtrak trains during the “rainbow era” when consists featured an array of locomotives and passenger cars still wearing the liveries of their previous owners. These images alone make watching the video worthwhile. Although largely unintentional, there are glimpses at freight equipment that no longer exists and indications of how much the railroad infrastructure and operations have changed. I was struck, for example, by now much vegetation was growing between the rails on the tracks leading into Chicago Union Station in the early 1970s.
The 90-minute video contains ample footage shot from locomotive cabs, primarily the Genesis units that Amtrak uses today. These segments include cab rides on the Downeaster, Cardinal and a Northeast Corridor train heading from New Haven to New York’s Penn Station on a snowy night.
Viewers are also shown various scenes aboard Amtrak trains from the coaches, to the dining car to the sleepers to the kitchen of the diner. Most of these were recorded aboard Superliner-equipped trains. One particular highlight is a ride on a former New York Central open platform observation car on the rear of the Adirondack. With a little imagination you can feel the car rock and roll over the former Delaware & Hudson tracks in upper New York State.
Some viewers might find the fast-paced action a bit disconcerting. At the end of the cab ride on the Downeaster, the viewer is whisked way to the Surf Line between San Diego and Los Angeles and then whipped around the country in rapid succession to view various state-supported services. Although some stories are told deliberately – such as those of the development of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and the Adirondack – others are more fleeting.
There are a few surprises in the video, including a rapper doing a ditty that pays tribute to the California Zephyr while sitting in the train’s lounge car as it climbs the Colorado Rockies.
To be sure, not all trains that Amtrak operated are shown or mentioned. It is amazing how much history that an operation characterized as having branch line density over most of its skeletal network can make so much history in 40 years. But if you look closely enough, you’ll get a good sense of what has come and gone during that time. Amtrak 40 provides for an enjoyable evening of re-living Amtrak’s past.