Archive for the ‘Remembrances’ Category

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

September 30, 2019

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.

Event to Mark 40 Years Since Amtrak’s Floridian Ended

September 27, 2019

Amtrak’s Floridian in Jacksonville, Florida, in June 1977.

Rail Passengers Kentucky will hold a media event to mark the 40th anniversary of the discontinuance of Amtrak’s Floridian.

The Floridian, which operated between Chicago and Miami with a section that split in Jacksonville, Florida, and terminated in St. Petersburg, was one of six Amtrak trains that were axed as part of a route restructuring that was to become effective Oct. 1, 1979.

The Floridian, however, continued to operate for a few days beyond its posted discontinuance date due to a court order.

The 40th anniversary event will be held between noon and 2 p.m. in Nashville, Tennessee, at the Nashville Union Station Hotel.

The Floridian was the last intercity passenger train to operate between Nashville and Louisville, Kentucky.

RPK is also selling commemorative tee shirts for the occasion for $35 plus $3 for shipping.

To order a shirt send a check to Louisville Railway, 653 N 25th Street, Louisville, KY 40212 You’ll need to specify shirt size.

You can also send an email to ontrackkentucky@gmail.com for an invoice.

One of Those Places Amtrak Left Behind

February 15, 2019

I recently stopped in Milan, Michigan, while on my way back home from a trip to photograph Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains.

I wanted to photograph the junction of Norfolk Southern and the Ann Arbor Railroad and, if luck was with me, get a westbound NS train.

No trains passed through during my brief stay, but I did make an image of the former Wabash station, which still stands and is used by NS.

Being in Milan reminded me that there are countless places that Amtrak turned its back on when it started up on May 1, 1971.

Milan was one of them. It was a stop for Norfolk & Western’s Wabash Cannon Ball that used to run between Detroit and St. Louis.

Amtrak didn’t want the Cannon Ball, which made its last trips on April 30, 1971.

Of course had the N&W had its way the Cannon Ball would never have lasted that long.

My parents subscribed to the Decatur Herald as I was growing up and by the time I was a teenager I read it every morning at breakfast before going to school.

I read the numerous stories about the efforts of the N&W to ditch the Cannon Ball, but public opposition persuaded the Interstate Commerce Commission to keep it going.

Twice the ICC ordered N&W to keep the Cannon Ball running. The second of those cases, decided in 1969, prompted the railroad to ask a federal court to overturn the ICC action.

The court refused, but three months later Congress created Amtrak and the Cannon Ball began running on borrowed time.

There was never any apparent serious thought to Amtrak picking up the Cannon Ball.

When it left Milan for the final time, intercity rail passenger service ended for good in this city of 5,800 located 16 miles south of Ann Arbor.

A few passenger advocates have called over the years for restoration of Detroit-St. Louis intercity rail service, but no serious moves have been made to do that.

The NS tracks are in good condition so passenger trains could use the route, although it would cost a lot of money to build station facilities.

Passenger trains have passed through Milan on the former Wabash on occasion, mostly notably during the NS steam program.

In 2014 I rode a trip from suburban Detroit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, behind Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 and saw people standing by the Milan depot watching the steam train.

Soon it will be 50 years since Milan had scheduled passenger train service. Amtrak is something that happens somewhere else.

The Rio Grande Zephyr is Now Boarding

February 6, 2019

It’s early Sunday morning in Salt Lake City and the Denver-bound Rio Grande Zephyr is ready for boarding. The date is July 29, 1979.

I will ride the train all the way to Denver, enjoying the sights of the Rocky Mountains from one of the dome cars on the train.

Nos. 17 and 18 enjoyed one of America’s most scenic routes and Amtrak would have loved to have served it when it began operations in May 1971.

But the Denver & Rio Grande Western elected not to join Amtrak in 1971 so the remnant of the fabled California Zephyr continued to roll on.

Rising losses prompted the D&RGW to allow Amtrak to use its tracks between Denver and Salt Lake City and the Rio Grande Zephyr ended in February 1983.

Most of the RGZ’s route today is traversed by Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Remembering My First Amfleet Experiences

January 22, 2019

The familiar profile of an Amfleet car brings up the rear of the southbound Saluki pulling out of the station in Mattoon, Illinois, in July 2018. When the equipment was delivered in the 1970s it didn’t have wi-fi antennas.

Amfleet equipment will still be around for at least a few more years and maybe longer, but the recent request by Amtrak for proposals to replace its Amfleet I fleet reminded me of just how long it has been an Amtrak mainstay.

It a dark early evening night in 1975 back in Springfield, Illinois, when I saw Amfleet equipment for the first time.

I lived in an apartment four blocks from the quasi street running of the former Gulf Mobile & Ohio mainline used by Amtrak through Springfield.

I was out walking when I noticed the crossing flashers activate on East Allen Street. It was about time for late afternoon northbound train No. 304 from St. Louis to Chicago to arrive, so I paused to watch.

I couldn’t see much, just a line of lights on the side of the cars in the windows. But something about these windows looked quite different. The rectangular-shaped windows were uniform in size and shaped differently than the square shaped and larger windows of the Turboliners that had been the usual equipment for this train.

The locomotive pulling the train also looked difference from anything I’d seen on the point of an Amtrak train to date.

I didn’t know it at the moment but I had seen Amfleet and a GE-built P30CH for the first time.

A couple days later I was downtown when No. 301, the first southbound St. Louis-bound train, halted at the former GM&O depot used by Amtrak.

That provided me my first opportunity in daylight to see the new Amfleet equipment and a P30 in the flesh.

There was a guy with a camera running around snapping photographs of this train like a proud father recording every move of his first-born child.

I recognized the Amfleet and P30 from photos I’d seen in Trains magazine.

In daylight I was able to see how the shape of an Amfleet car closely resembled that of a Metroliner even though at the time I had yet to see a Metroliner car in person.

I would later learn that Trains 301/304 had been the first Midwest corridor trains to receive Amfleet equipment effective Dec. 18, 1975.

The new Amfleet equipment intrigued me. At the time I considered the conventional streamliner equipment Amtrak had inherited as old fashioned. I wanted to see and ride something modern and new.

I got my first opportunity to see Amfleet from the inside the following January when I rode No. 304 from St. Louis to Springfield.

My first impression of an Amfleet coach was that it resembled the inside of a jetliner cabin with its fold-down tray tables, overhead reading lights and small windows. That was a good thing in my mind.

Those smallish windows have been panned over the years, but I never had any problem with them or being able to view the passing countryside from them in a window seat.

By early 1976 Amtrak had begun to assign Amfleet coaches and café cars to other Midwest corridor trains, including the Chicago-Carbondale Shawnee.

By the end of the year Amfleet was ubiquitous on Illinois-funded corridor routes.

Aside from its jetliner-like appearance, I was impressed with Amfleet because its head end power heating and cooling meant a more consistent environment.

HEP came in handy for Amtrak during the brutal winter of 1977 when it assigned Amfleet equipment to three long-distance trains radiating from Chicago, the Panama Limited, James Whitcomb Riley and the Inter-American.

Those assignments would stick on all those trains except the Inter-American, which reverted back to conventional equipment that spring for several months before being “Amfleeted” again.

I rode in Amfleet coaches numerous times over the next decade when I was most active in riding Amtrak throughout its national network.

This included overnight trips on the Panama Limited, Pioneer and Cardinal.

Some Amfleet coaches were equipped for longer distance travel and had fewer seats, leg rests and a foot rest attached to the seat ahead of you.

The lack of the latter had been one of the few amenities I had missed about conventional fleet coaches. But I never really found the leg rests all that comfortable.

In time the Horizon fleet arrived to spell most of the Amtrak coaches used on Midwest corridor trains, particularly the Amfleet coaches.

Horizon cars have a more conventional profile, but their interiors are similar to those of Amfleet.

The arrival of the Horizon fleet didn’t excite me in the same way that the coming of Amfleet had.

I was older then and less prone to getting excited about equipment changes. From a passenger perspective there wasn’t much difference between Horizon coaches and Amfleet coaches.

My reaction to whatever equipment that Amtrak comes up with to replace its Amfleet I fleet is likely to be similar. It will be interesting and I’ll enjoy riding it and seeing it for the first time.

But it won’t be the big deal that the coming of Amfleet was back in 1975.

45 Years Later My Memories of My First Amtrak Trip Still Resonate

November 25, 2017

Forty-five years ago today I stood on the platform of the Illinois Central Railroad passenger station in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, in the early morning hours awaiting the arrival of Amtrak train No. 58.

It would be my first ever trip aboard Amtrak, a day trip to Chicago. It would mark my first experience riding in a dome car and my first experience eating dinner in an Amtrak dining car.

I’ve since ridden Amtrak dozens of times and had a full range of experiences good, bad and indifferent.

But none can quite compare to that first trip, which I still remember in some detail as though it happened not that long ago.

For example, I still remember the sound of the brake shoes being applied every time No. 58 approached a town where another rail line crossed at grade.

I also still remember the rush that I felt when I spotted the headlight of No. 58 a mile or so out of town as I stood on the platform. Train time was at hand.

The Panama Limited was about a half-hour late when it arrived in Mattoon and I was disappointed when I saw that the lead locomotive was painted in Amtrak colors rather than those of the ICRR.

The trailing unit still wore an IC livery as did the two units that pulled No. 59 that evening back to Mattoon.

Amtrak was 19 months old on Nov. 25, 1972, and still in he rainbow era in which cars refurbished in Amtrak colors and markings mingled with cars still in their as-received condition from Amtrak’s contract railroads.

I was impressed with the interiors of the refurbished cars with their blue seats and walls with paisley accenting. They looked modern. Today, when I see one of those cars in a museum or on an excursion train they look so Seventies.

At the time of my first Amtrak trip, I was a college student and my traveling companion was my sister’s boyfriend. He was still in high school.

In retrospect, I’m surprised that our parents let us travel to the big city by ourselves as neither of us really knew Chicago and we had some difficulty time finding Union Station to return home after a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.

We had ridden a CTA bus to and from the museum and back but we had had no idea which routes went where.

I had noticed when the train arrived in Mattoon that morning that it had a dome car toward the front of the train.

By chance it was a car or two ahead of the coach in which we had been seated and shortly after the train left Kankakee I asked the conductor if we could sit up there.

“I don’t see why not,” was the reply.

It was dome sleeper and I didn’t know there were such things. It would turn out to be the only time that I rode in one.

As No. 58 made the turn to get onto the St. Charles Air Line in Chicago, I had a view from the dome of the coach yard of the former Central Station.

It was filled with passenger cars wearing IC colors and markings. By November 1972, passenger cars in the IC livery were uncommon on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans trains that I saw. IC passenger locomotives, though, were still the norm.

An IC employee was sitting in the dome section and had a radio. It was the first time I had heard railroad radio transmissions.

We halted and the engineer said on the radio, “Weldon Tower would you tell them that 58 is sitting here. Waiting. ”

I guess we didn’t have the signal yet from Union Avenue interlocking on the Burlington Northern.

No. 58 was scheduled to arrive into Chicago Union Station at 9:30 a.m. and we backed in shortly after 10 a.m.

Despite our adventures or misadventures in finding the correct CTA bus routes we got back in plenty of time to catch our train.

I remember a station announcement that still sticks in my mind because I’ve haven’t heard a boarding announcement quite like it since.

It came from the booming voice of man who wasn’t so much announcing the train’s pending departure as commanding passengers to get on board.

“Your attention please! Amtrak train No. 59, the Panama Limited, intends to leave at six ten p.m.”

It was the use of and emphasis on the word “intends” that got my attention.

This was a transition time between the era of passenger trains operated by the freight railroads and the Amtrak culture that was still taking root.

My ticket, which had cost $11, was on Amtrak stock and placed inside an Amtrak ticket envelope. But it had been endorsed with an ICRR stamp and issued by an IC employee.

My next Amtrak trip in December 1972 had a ticket issued on former Pennsylvania Railroad stock and placed inside a Penn Central ticket envelope.

Not long after the Panama Limited left Chicago, we made our way to the dining car. It had angled tables and seating, something I’d never seen and have not seen since.

I don’t remember what I ordered but am sure it was one of the least expensive items on the menu.

I was impressed with the efficiency of the waiters and their business-like approach to the job. They were constantly going back and forth from the dining area to the kitchen and doing so with authority as they carried their trays.

These men probably had worked for the IC or some other railroad before Amtrak and everything about them was old school.

There were a lot more of them than is the case aboard today’s Amtrak dining cars.

After dinner, we took it upon ourselves to go back to the dome car, figuring that the “permission” we had received that morning was still good that evening.

It was neat to see the signal bridges ahead as No. 59 rushed southbound. The green signal would turn to red shortly after the lead locomotive passed it.

A couple of sleeping car attendants – they might have still been routinely referred to as porters then – were sitting in the dome section and asked us if we were sleeping car passengers.

We were not.  One of them replied that the dome was supposed to be for those in the sleepers.

He didn’t exactly order us to leave, but we had gotten the message. We stayed for a few more minutes and then went back to our coach seats.

The trip seemed to end all too quickly. It had been slightly longer than three hours.

I stepped off the train in Mattoon feeling awed by the whole experience. I wanted to do it again and often, but it would be a few more years before I was in a position to do that.

By then Amfleet cars had come to the Midwest and Superliners were on the horizon. The Amtrak culture had taken a firm hold. The private railroad passenger service era had faded away.

Between 1994 and 2014 I would ride Amtrak from Cleveland to Mattoon a couple times a year to visit my Dad.

Every time I stood on the platform in Mattoon to wait for the City of New Orleans or the Saluki for Chicago, I would look to the south for the headlight of the approaching train and be taken back to that morning in November 1972 when my first experience with Amtrak was seeing the headlight of a EMD E unit charging northward into my memory.

The Challenge of Penn Central

November 3, 2017

Amtrak faced many challenges in its early years, one of which was operating over track owned by Penn Central.

Years of deferred maintenance by PC predecessors New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad took a toll in slow orders, derailments and greatly delayed trains.

With Penn Central in bankruptcy proceedings, the prospect of things improving were not that great.

What Amtrak could do was to warn passengers of what they were getting into.

Shown above is a schedule for the Chicago-New York/Washington Broadway Limited that was published in 1975. Notice the note about how these schedules are slower than Penn Central is supposed to provide.

A similar notice appears with schedules of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

Earlier versions of this notice warned that Nos. 40/41 and Nos. 30/31 were subject to delay west of Pittsburgh. With those delays unlikely to go away due to poor track conditions, Amtrak simply adjusted its schedules to make them slower.

This Was Once a Big Deal

October 13, 2017

The image above is a newspaper advertisement from 1971. Amtrak was a mere seven months old and just finding its footing.

Now it had something it felt was worth talking about. It was the era when the company’s slogan was “we’re making the trains worth traveling again.”

That, of course, suggests that until Amtrak came along train travel wasn’t something you  wanted to do. That was true in some places, particularly on Penn Central, but not everywhere. Nonetheless, Amtrak recognized the public perception of train travel at the time and that it had to overcome that.

Although not obvious, the timetable that the customer service representative is holding was a major milestone in Amtrak history.

The first two timetables that Amtrak issued were cut and paste jobs with a Spartan design. The Amtrak logo was featured on the covers and nothing else.

But the November 14, 1971, timetable was the first that Amtrak actually designed.

Among other things, the timetable featured airline style city listings. Airlines in the early 1970s were held in high esteem.

If you read the text of this advertisement carefully, you’ll note the effort of Amtrak to market itself like an airline.

Note how the schedule change for the Chicago-New Orleans train is pitched in airline marketing language, e.g., leave after the end of the business day, arrive in the morning in time for appointments.

The claim that some trains were receiving “new” equipment is borderline deceptive. There was nothing “new” about any equipment that Amtrak was using in November 1971.

It might have been refurbished and the type of equipment might have been “new” to that route or train, but the equipment itself was far from new.

But this was where Amtrak was in 1971. It was trying to get attention, trying to build patronage and trying to reframe how the public thought about rail travel.

Sometimes it is helpful to see where you’ve been to understand where you are at today. When was the last time that Amtrak touted giving Chicago better train service? Yup, it’s been a while.

Rocketing Into Joliet

February 6, 2017
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The Peoria Rocket arrives at Joliet Union Station on June 25, 1977, as a handful of people watch.

There was a time when the Rocket name meant very good service on the Rock Island Railroad. But June 1977 was not one of those times.

It is an early Saturday evening in Joliet, Illinois, as the Peoria Rocket approaches Joliet Union Station.

The Rocket is funded in part by the State of Illinois, but that will not be enough to keep it going much longer.

I had boarded the Rocket in Peoria earlier in the day for a day trip to Chicago. I was appalled by the condition of the train and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ride Amtrak’s Lone Star to Joliet to pick up the Rocket for my return leg to Peoria.

The ride aboard the Rocket was rough and there had been few passengers on the trip to Chicago earlier in the day. The equipment was worn out.

In retrospect I wished I had better appreciated the experience that I had, though. The Peoria Rocket was one of the last of its kind.

I also wish that I had better photography skills than I had when I made this image. Namely, that I had waited to snap the photograph until the nose of the locomotive was closer.

But I was young and had much to learn. Today this image reminds me of another time that is never going to come back around, but at least I did make the effort to experience it.

A Station Amtrak Never Saw

January 27, 2017

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For a few years in the late 1970s, the State of Illinois helped underwrite the financial losses of a pair of Rock Island Railroad intercity passenger trains.

The Rock had elected not to join Amtrak in 1971 because it figured it was cheaper that way. So it had to keep operating its Chicago-Rock Island and Chicago-Peoria trains.

They received spiffy names, the Quad Cities Rocket and the Peoria Rocket. Actually, there always had been a Peoria Rocket, more than one as a matter of fact.

I rode the Peoria Rocket to and from Chicago in June 1977. The train was as bare bones as the financially struggling Rock Island could make it. It had two coaches and a single E unit.

At the urging of the state, Amtrak agreed to study taking over the Rockets. But that never happened and the last trips of the Rockets occurred in late 1978.

The photograph above was made from aboard the Peoria Rocket during a station stop in Ottawa, Illinois.

It could have been an Amtrak station, but the price of Amtrak taking over the Peoria Rocket was just too high. Ottawa hasn’t seen intercity rail passenger service since.