Archive for the ‘Remembrances’ Category

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.

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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.

What the 1971, Coming of Amtrak Meant for Varnish Running on the Main Line of Mid-America

January 13, 2017
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A comparison of timetables shows pre- and early Amtrak service on the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans.

Those familiar with Amtrak’s early history are aware of how on April 30, 1971, dozens of trains began their final runs because they were not included in the new passenger carrier’s initial route network.

Numerous routes lost intercity passenger service, some of them for good.

On routes that kept service, the number of trains often was thinned to no more than one or two roundtrips per day.

One of the little known facts about pre-Amtrak service is that the Illinois Central mainline between Gillman, Illinois, and Du Quoin, Illinois, did not lose a single intercity passenger train between the early 1950s and Amtrak day in 1971.

In part this was due to the strong ridership the ICRR enjoyed on its passenger trains into the 1960s, but other factors came into play as well.

The New York Central used the IC mainline between Chicago and Kankakee, Illinois, for its Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati trains. The IC’s Chicago-St. Louis trains used the mainline between Chicago and Gilman. IC passenger service from St. Louis to the South came onto the mainline at Du Quoin or Carbondale, Illinois.

The IC ended two of its three Chicago-St. Louis roundtrips in the late 1950s and the Chicago-St. Louis Green Diamond was shortened to Chicago-Springfield, Illinois, in the late 1960s.

NYC and Penn Central trimmed service on the Chicago-Cincinnati route in the 1950s and 1960s so that by the coming of Amtrak the only survivor was the James Whitcomb Riley. The last IC train from St. Louis to the South ended in 1970.

Although the IC ended trimmed operation of some trains tween Chicago and the South south of Carbondale in the middle to late 1960s, between Gillman and Du Quoin there was no net reduction in the number of intercity passengers trains for about two decades.

Yes, the IC tried to do away with some of those trains, but met resistance and could not win regulatory approval to end any of them.

On May 1, 1971, Amtrak did what the IC had been unable to do. It cut the number of Chicago-New Orleans trains from two to one and the number of Chicago-Carbondale trains from three to one.

Also ending was the every-other-day City of Miami, but Amtrak’s launched a daily Chicago-Florida train that used the IC as far south as Kankakee. The James Whitcomb Riley also continued under Amtrak auspices.

This comparison of the last public timetable issued by the IC with the first timetable of trains operated by the IC under contract for Amtrak shows how much things changed virtually overnight. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Dining on Amtrak Then and Now

December 26, 2016

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It can be interesting to compare Amtrak timetables, dining car menus and marketing materials across time. Shown above is a comparison of a bar menu from 1971 and a similar offering from 2015.

Aside from the prices having changed, another obvious difference is that in the early years of Amtrak the food and beverage service was still provided by the contract railroads and some of them did little more than take their existing materials and place the Amtrak logo on it.

That is the case with the 1971 bar menu, which looks much as it did when the Milwaukee Road ran its own trains.

Other than the Amtrak logo you might think that you were traveling in the late 1960s with trains being advertised that no longer ran in 1971 when this menu was offered aboard Amtrak.

Although the beverage offerings in 1971 are similar to those of 2015, there are some notable exceptions. Tobacco products are not longer sold on Amtrak and I’m not sure if they also sell decks of playing cards.

Coco Cola has been replaced with Pepsi products and what cost 30 cents in 1971 now costs $2.25. But look at the difference in price between a premium beer in 1971 (80 cents) and a regional craft beer in 2015 ($7).

(click on the image to enlarge it)

 

The National Limited Takes a Detour

December 19, 2016
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The westbound National Limited arrives in the station at Mattoon, Ilinois, in May 1977 on a detour move. The train is using the former New York Central route to St. Louis due to track work on its regular route over the former Pennsylvania Railroad route via Effingham, Illinois.

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The National Limited handled mail from New York to Los Angeles that was interchanged to the Southwest Limited in Kansas City. Note that the former NYC passenger platform is still in place at right nine years after the last NYC passenger train here was discontinued.

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The Amtrak conductor and two other crew members wait in the vestibule of a coach as the eastbound National Limited arrives in Mattoon, Illinois, in May 1977 on a detour move.

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The eastbound National Limited departs from Mattoon, Illinois, on former New York Central rails. It will regain its regular route in Terre Haute, Indiana. A portion of the former NYC passenger station is visible at right.

It was not unusual for Amtrak’s National Limited to detour between Terre Haute, Indiana, and St. Louis.

The scheduled route was via the former Pennsylvania Railroad via Effingham, Illlinois, but the Penn Central dispatcher had the option of running the train over the ex-New York Central route through Mattoon, Illinois.

After Conrail took over Penn Central in 1976, it began rebuilding the ex-Pennsy route used by Amtrak Nos. 30 and 31.

In late April 1977, the National Limited was rescheduled to operate during the afternoon hours between St. Louis and Effingham. That also coincided with the track gang hours.

So, for a good part of May 1977, Nos. 30 and 31 detoured via the ex-NYC route, making the Effingham stop at the former NYC passenger platform in Mattoon

The last NYC passenger train through Mattoon had been discontinued in March 1968, but the platform was still in place on the south side of the tracks.

I was a young reporter for the Mattoon Journal Gazette and I gave myself an assignment one afternoon to cover the detour of the National Limited.

I went down to the tracks, interviewed waiting passengers, and made photographs of both trains using Kodak Tri-X film.

Much has changed since that May 1977 day. The National Limited was discontinued on Oct. 1, 1979, and in March 1982, Conrail abandoned the former NYC tracks through Mattoon. The rails were picked up a year later.

The former NYC station has since been razed. The platforms remained in place for several years after the tracks were pulled up, but were eventually taken out in the early 2000s to make way for a parking lot for the YMCA.

Amtrak Marketing in 1971 and Today

December 16, 2016

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Amtrak’s marketing was pretty simple during its first year of operation. Shown above on the left is a page from the Nov. 14, 1971, timetable.

The full-page advertisement features an Amtrak passenger representative holding an oversize model of a passenger car standing in the middle of a railroad track with the slogan of the time, “We’re Making the Trains Worth Traveling Again.”

Despite the fact that some railroads — the Santa Fe being a notable example — still provided very good service, the public perception in the early 1970s was colored by reports about travel on trains offered by Penn Central and other railroads that were described as dirty and unpleasant. If you read the text of the advertisement above, you will find in talking point No. 2 that Amtrak was pledging to operate cleaner trains.

In the early 1970s, travel by train was in decline and Amtrak claimed to be seeking to reverse that.

Contrast that approach to that taken in the advertisement published in the last system timetable that Amtrak printed early in 2016.

In the second decade of the 21st century Amtrak perceives its primary competitor to be the private automobile. It now sees itself as having long since “arrived” and n ow living an urbane existence. Its advertisements are slicker looking and more stylized.

It was an increasing reliance on private automobile travel that led to the decline of intercity train travel that Amtrak was assuring the public that it was seeking to address back in 1971.

More than four decades later, Amtrak is still battling the convenience of the private automobile. The ways that Amtrak fights that battle has changed, but not the battle itself. (click on the image to enlarge it).

One Day at High Noon in Springfield, Illinois

December 15, 2016
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The technical quality of this image isn’t great but it is one of the few photographs that I have of an SDP40F taken trackside leading a train.

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Looking south from the fireman’s side of Amtrak SPD40F No. 613 in Springfield, Illinois.

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The control stand of an Amtrak SDP40F.

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Engineer Dean Elliot awaits a highball to depart Springfield, Illinois, with Amtrak train No. 21 in June 1977.

It is almost high noon in June 1977 in Springfield, Illinois. I’m standing near the Illinois Central Gulf tracks (former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) tracks awaiting the arrival of Amtrak’s westbound Inter-American from Chicago to Laredo, Texas.

I don’t recall if No. 21 was late or on time, but even if the former, it was not excessively tardy.

Leading No. 21 was SDP40F No. 613. I made a single photograph of it sitting in the station with its train.

The image isn’t that good, a product of harsh light, improper exposure and the fact that I scanned it from a color negative that is almost 40 years old.

I wanted to photograph the Inter-American because it still ran with SDP40F locomotives and those have always been a favorite of mine.

The engineer of the train spotted me and waved. On impulse I asked him if I could come up into the cab.

He said “yes” and up I went and got the other three images  you see with this post.

I would later learn that the engineer was Dean Elliot and that he is now deceased. He was a railroader’s railroader and I can only imagine the stories he would have had to tell about life on the road.

But there was no time for that. I only had enough time to grab a few shots before the conductor gave No. 21 a highball to leave Springfield. I thanked the crew and climbed down.

And off they went to St. Louis where a Missouri Pacific crew would take over to pilot the Inter-American on its continuing journey to Laredo.

Today, Nos. 21 and 22 are named the Texas Eagle and operate between Chicago and San Antonio.