Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Remembering a Circle Trip to Ride 2 Last Runs of Amtrak Trains 40 Years Ago

The last westbound National Limited sits in Indianapolis Union Station on Oct. 1, 1979. Amtrak would be absent from Indy for nearly a year before the Hoosier State began service to Chicago.

Forty years ago I found myself driving through the early Saturday morning darkness on Interstate 57 in east central Illinois on the first leg of a three-day adventure during which I would ride two Amtrak trains set to be discontinued the following Monday.

By the time I returned home on the afternoon of Oct. 1, 1979, I had been aboard four Amtrak trains, flown on two airlines and ridden Greyhound. It was an experience unlike any other I’d experienced before or since.

The logistics were complicated. On this Saturday morning, I drove 29 miles to leave my car at the Effingham Amtrak station, walked a couple blocks to the bus station, rode Greyhound for 79 miles to Champaign, walked another few blocks to the Amtrak station, and rode the Illini 129 miles to Chicago Union Station.

In Chicago I caught the eastbound Cardinal, disembarking just before 10 p.m. at Catlettsburg, Kentucky, to be in position to board the last eastbound trip of the Hilltopper when it left at 6:33 a.m. on Sunday.

I got off the Hilltopper in Richmond, Virginia, took a cab to the airport and flew to Indianapolis via a connection in Atlanta to be in position to ride the last westbound National Limited on Monday morning from Indy to Effingham.

What happened on the last weekend in September 1979 was the culmination of a political battle in Washington that had been going on for at least four years and ended in the discontinuance of six long-distance trains, the Floridian, National Limited, North Coast Hiawatha, Hilltopper, Lone Star and Champion.

There would have been more trains killed but for a political free-for-all that saw influential members of Congress conspire to save trains serving their districts or states.

It was a bloodletting the likes of which Amtrak had never seen in its then eight-year history.

The drive to Effingham, the bus ride to Champaign and the train ride to Chicago were routine.

My time aboard the Cardinal would be my first experience trip in a recently refurbished Heritage Fleet coach.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it because its earth tone interior colors were quite a departure from the cool blue shades of Amtrak’s early years.

I struck up a conversation with a guy in my coach as we trundled across Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic train travel advocate who said he took Amtrak every chance he got, including for business trips.

That latter comment struck me at the time as being odd though I rode Amtrak often myself. Maybe it was the fact that he was so open about his love of trains that struck me as unusual. I had never met such an unabashed passenger train fan.

Peru, Indiana, was a crew change stop and I opened a vestibule window to take a look outside.

The inbound conductor, who moments earlier had been a jovial sort, pointed at me and sternly said, “close that vestibule window.”

I might have gotten off to walk around in Cincinnati, and likely ate lunch and dinner aboard No. 50, but those meals were not memorable.

I was one of the few passengers to get off in Catlettsburg where I had seven and half hours to kill in a small 1970s era modular train station.

I passed some of the time talking with the Amtrak agent and two other guys who were spending part of the night in the depot waiting to board the last Hilltopper.

One of them, and maybe both, worked for Amtrak at the Washington headquarters.

The guy I talked with the most wouldn’t be specific about what he did for the passenger carrier.

The Amtrak agent locked the doors to the station because he didn’t want people wandering in off the street. It apparently wasn’t the greatest neighborhood.

At the insistence of the guy who worked in Amtrak headquarters, the station agent pulled the Hilltopper name and arrival and departure times from the train bulletin board as we made photographs.

At least I thought I made photos. I’ve never found those slides. Maybe I just watched.

The Hilltopper is widely remembered as a “political train” that existed because of the political clout of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

It was lightly patronized and lampooned as beginning and ending in the middle of nowhere. There was some truth to that.

The equipment, F40PH No. 278, an Amfleet coach and an Amfleet café car, arrived from the Chesapeake & Ohio yard in nearby Russell, Kentucky, to the west of Cattlettsburg where it had been serviced overnight.

Few people boarded. The conductor was not wearing an Amtrak uniform and told us to give our tickets to the next crew.

The Hilltopper originated on the Chessie System, but at Kenovah, West Virginia, about three miles to the east, it was handed off to the Norfolk & Western.

The two guys I’d met at the Catlettsburg station sat behind me and talked about Amtrak funding and economic theory, which suggested they might work in finance. It was not the typical conversation that you overhear aboard Amtrak.

For the first hour the Hilltopper lived up to its reputation. But then the nearly empty Amfleet coach began filling with passengers.

A woman who sat down next to me sat she was eating breakfast at a local restaurant when someone said Amtrak was making it last trip today.

She and several others went to the station to ride the train, probably for the first time.

They only rode to the next station and I didn’t record where she got on or off.

The Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society had arranged for three of its passenger cars to be attached to the rear of the Hilltopper for a trip to Roanoke.

I didn’t record where those cars were added, but it might have been Williamson, West Virginia.

One of those cars was former Illinois Central observation car Mardi Gras.

I had brought along two cameras. My own camera was loaded with slide film while the other camera, which I used at the newspaper where I worked at the time, was loaded with Kodak Tri-X black and white negative film.

Much to my later chagrin, I never made a single image aboard the Cardinal or the Illini.

The Hilltopper continued to be near capacity as far east as Roanoke. Many of those who rode went a short distance to experience the last passenger train on the N&W.

One of the passengers I met was an N&W management trainee. He used his company ID car to get into the cab and ride between stations. I was envious.

Someone else mentioned that the conductor working east of Roanoke was making his last trip before retiring.

Not only would he retire, but his ticket punch would also be retired. I bought a ticket to Crewe, Virginia, to get a copy of his ticket punch on its last day of “revenue service.”

It was the sort of impulsive action that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Initially as he would announce an upcoming station that conductor would give a little history of that town. But that practice abruptly stopped. Maybe it was too painful for him.

Near Bedford, Virginia, No. 66 met the last No. 67. I was standing in the rear vestibule when the meet occurred with No. 67 having gone into a siding for us.

No. 67 had on the rear the open platform car My Old Kentucky Home.

Passengers aboard that car had been allowed to disembark to make photographs of the meet. It was raining and some had umbrellas.

I was the only passenger aboard No. 66 to photograph the meet from the vestibule. The rain and overcast conditions hindered the quality of those images.

At Petersburg the Hilltopper swung off the N&W and onto the Seaboard Coast Line route used by Amtrak’s New York-Florida trains.

I got off in Richmond, Virginia, and headed for the airport where I boarded an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 bound for Atlanta with an intermediate stop at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

In Atlanta I connected to a Delta Air Lines DC-9 for the flight to Indianapolis. It was the era when airlines had lower fares known as night coach.

I remember that flight as being smooth and kind of enjoyable.

I landed in Indianapolis after midnight and walked to a Holiday Inn on the airport grounds. At long last I was able to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I bought a copy of The Indianapolis Star which had on the front page a story about the last eastbound National Limited to depart Indy the night before two hours late.

Trains that originated on Sept. 30 would continue to their destination which is why the last National Limited through Indianapolis would be westbound.

No. 30 arrived 15 minutes early into Indianapolis Union Station. There was plenty of time before it would leave.

I walked around and made several photographs on black and white film.

As I stood near the head end of the train, I noticed a guy with a camera talking with the outbound engineer.

He identified himself as Dan Cupper, a reporter for a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper who was on assignment to ride the last No. 31 to Kansas City.

Dan wanted to ride in the cab out of Indianapolis. I immediately pulled out my wallet, showed the engineer my press card from the Mattoon [Illinois] Journal Gazette and made a similar request.

Engineer Russell Smith Jr. thought about it for a few seconds and then said he’d let us ride as far west as Terre Haute.

We climbed up into the cab of F40PH No. 310 and awaited the highball to leave Indy. It would be my first Amtrak cab ride.

Fireman L.W. Reynolds was still on the platform when it was time to leave, but Smith said “this will get his attention.”

He turned a couple knobs on the back wall of the F40 and immediately the generator creating head end power kicked into high gear, making that screaming sound that many associate with an F40.

As the train began moving Reynolds was standing on the steps to the cab looking backward.

He later explained that a passenger had given him his camera and asked him to photograph from inside of the cab.

Reynolds said about the time the train began to move the passenger had handed the camera back to the passenger, “and he was running like hell” to get back onoard.”

Reynolds said he wasn’t sure if the passenger made it, but he made the photographs anyway.

Maybe it was because he had an audience or maybe it was because it was his last run as a passenger locomotive engineer, but Smith wanted to show off a little.

He had hired out on the Pennsylvania Railroad and pulled the throttle on a number of Pennsy trains out of Indianapolis, including the Jeffersonian.

The top speed on Conrail at the time west of Indianapolis was 70 miles per hour, but Smith often exceeded that, hitting 90 mph shortly after leaving Union Station.

He said was going to reach 100 mph. Somewhere out on the straight away on the old New York Central mainline Smith let ‘er rip.

The speed recorder rose aboard 90 mph. I had my camera ready for when it hit triple digits.

But about 3 mph short of 100 a safety device tripped, a warning siren came on and the brakes started setting up.

“What did you do?” the fireman asked before breaking into laughter. “Russell you run too fast.”

Smith said he thought he had disarmed the device back in Indianapolis, but he hadn’t. Once the train reached a pre-determined speed the safety device kicked in and No. 31 came to a halt.

All of the fast running meant that No. 31 would be arriving in Terre Haute a half hour in advance of its scheduled arrival time.

There were grade crossings by the Terre Haute station and Smith didn’t want to be blocking them for an extended time. So we loafed along at 45 mph into Terre Haute.

Dan and I thanked Smith for allowing us to ride with him and got down.

I found a seat in a mostly empty Amfleet coach and then went to the café car to get something for lunch.

There were three passengers eating in the cafe car when I arrived. None of the four coaches was close to being full and one was empty while another had just three passengers.

After the cab ride, the rest of the trip to Effingham in the coach seemed anticlimactic. In a story I would write for my newspaper I would describe the mood as routine but somber.

Conrail crews were out rebuilding the former PRR mainline west of Terre Haute and there were slow orders for the MOW gangs.

No. 31 had to wait for an eastbound freight train west of Marshall, Illinois.

That put us into Effingham at 2:03 p.m., seven minutes late.

I made a few more photographs as No. 31 departed for the final time.

The first railroad photograph I had ever made had been of No. 31 arriving in Effingham a couple hours late in January 1977. So there was sense of symmetry to the moment.

* * * * *

Although the National Limited, Hilltopper and Champion made their last trips as scheduled, court orders kept the Floridian, Lone Star and North Coast Hiawatha going for a few days before they succumbed.

Forty years later Amtrak might be in a similar position to where it was in 1979 as another battle plays out over the future of the long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s president, Richard Anderson, has been playing up how much money those trains lose and Amtrak management has spoken of transforming the network into a series of short-haul corridors linking urban centers.

Although the 1979 route cuts were implemented in a short period of time, the fight had been going on in Congress for at several years leading up to that.

We don’t know if there will come another weekend when a sizeable number of long-distance trains begin their last trips. But it remains a possibility.

If it does come about, I doubt that I’ll be making a grand circle trip to ride some of those last runs.

It’s also a sure bet that Amtrak won’t be allowing any private cars to be attached and removed in the middle of a run.

It is noteworthy that 1979 was the last year that Amtrak launched a long-distance train, the Desert Wind.

Although portions of the routes that lost service in 1979 regained it in subsequent years, once an Amtrak long-distance route is discontinued it doesn’t come back in the form in which it once existed.

The Roanoke NRHS Chapter added three of its passenger cars to the rear of the eastbound Hilltopper for part of its final trip. The cars are shown in Roanoke.

Amtrak conductor F. M. Thompson gets photographed from both sides as he works the last eastbound Hilltopper at Bluefield, West Virginia.

For its last day at least the Hilltopper has crowds of people waiting to board. This image was made of passengers waiting to board in Roanoke, Virginia.

It’s not a great photo, but it is historic. The westbound Hilltopper waited in a siding near Bedford, Virginia, for its eastbound counterpart to pass. This image was made from aboard the latter.

Locomotive engineer Russell Smith allowed myself and another reporter to ride in the cab of the last westbound National Limited from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, Indiana. He is shown just before the train departed Indianapolis.

The view of the former Big Four passenger station in Terre Haute, Indiana, as seen from an F40PH leading the last National Limited into town. Terre Haute has been without scheduled Amtrak service ever since this day.

The National Limited departs Effingham, Illinois, for the final time. Train No. 31 was the first Amtrak train that I ever photographed and that image was made in Effingham in January 1977.

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One Response to “Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Remembering a Circle Trip to Ride 2 Last Runs of Amtrak Trains 40 Years Ago”

  1. Lon Orlenko Says:

    Thought you might like this one………..After all, Big Four was part of NYC.

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