About a Book, a Blog and Me

In spring 2006 Indiana University Press published my book Amtrak in the Heartland. It was as comprehensive a history as I could manage of Amtrak operations in the heartland of America, which amtrak-book-covermost people define as the Midwestern states.

But even in a book of more than 120,000 words there wasn’t enough room to cover everything. History is not a stagnant thing and much has changed since I published Amtrak in the Heartland. So I created this blog to summarize Amtrak’s history, cover areas I couldn’t get to in the book and comment about various things Amtrak.

Sometimes you will read in this blog about current events and sometimes you’ll read about the past. The story of Amtrak is a lot like the plot of the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray lived the same day over and over, although as time went on he learned to live each day a little differently. So it has been with Amtrak.

I consider myself a historian, not an advocate. There is a difference. There are scores of people actively seeking to persuade public officials at all levels of government to open the purse strings and spend money on rail passenger service. I support those efforts, but I do not partake in them. This must drive the advocates crazy.

Instead, I am interested in documenting, understanding and explaining the history of rail passenger service. I take a more dispassionate view of passenger trains than those who advocate for them and the critics who rail against them.

I rode my first Amtrak train in November 1972, a day trip between my hometown of Mattoon, Ill., and Chicago on the Panama Limited. Since then I have ridden Amtrak more than 400 times over more than 118,000 miles.

I’ve seen Amtrak at its best, at its worst and everywhere in between. I have been a witness to the rainbow era, the last of the streamliner equipment era, the Heritage fleet era and the Superliner-Amfleet era. I wrote a book about Amtrak history because the company has been around long enough to have a varied and interesting history, yet few seem to know much about it.

I am fond of Amtrak because we both came of age at the same time. Amtrak ushered in a new era for the passenger train in America on May 1, 1971. I had just turned 18 two days earlier and would graduate from high school a month later. But on May 1, a Saturday, I stood in my backyard, looking across a field toward the Illinois Central tracks about a mile away, hoping to see the second Amtrak train to come through my hometown of Mattoon.

Amtrak had promised to make the passenger train worth traveling again and I wanted to see this new world order. The “new” Amtrak City of New Orleans trundled through a good half-hour late, looking exactly like it had the day before, or for that matter, 10 years earlier. I was disappointed. I don’t know what I had expected. Just something different from the same old Illinois Central orange and chocolate brown passenger cars that I had seen all of my life.

But I quickly got over it and began following the fortunes and misfortunes of this fledging operation. Every book has a story about how it came to be. I want to tell you a story about Amtrak in the Heartland.

Amtrak in the Heartland had its genesis in 1986 when I returned to Bloomington, Ind., to begin doctoral studies at Indiana University. While living in Bloomington I used to take walks that took me past the remains of the Bloomington Amtrak station. Until October 1979, Bloomington had been served by the Chicago-Miami/St. Petersburg Floridian, which I knew had vanished in a 1979 route restructuring. But what was the real story behind that train’s demise?

It would be four years before I began seriously researching that and until I moved to Cleveland in 1993, my Amtrak research was only a sometimes activity. But after settling in Cleveland, I became more systematic about researching Amtrak. I collected a lot of information, but didn’t know what to do with it. Somewhere along the line I got the idea of limiting the scope of my Amtrak book idea to Amtrak trains and routes in the Midwest, which kept the project managable.

I am a college professor, currently teaching journalism and public relations at Cleveland State University. I’ve also taught at Kent State University, John Carroll University, Penn State University, Indiana University and the University of Southern Indiana. I have a Ph.D. in mass communications and a master’s in journalism from Indiana, a master’s in political studies from Sangamon State University (now the University of Illinois-Springfield) and a bacherlor’s in history and political science from Eastern Illinois University.

Before becoming a professor, I was a reporter and copy editor at four daily newspapers in Indiana and Illinois. I live in University Heights, Ohio.

Craig Sanders

One Response to “About a Book, a Blog and Me”

  1. Evan A. Thomas Says:

    Thank you for this fine, detailed account. Evan Thomas, Professor of History, Grand View University , Des Moines. (I grew up near the Illinois Central main line on the far South Side of Chicago and remember those orange and brown streamliners very well,

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