Winter January Saturday at Effingham in 1977

The first photograph of an Amtrak train that I ever made. The westbound National Limited is coming into the station at Effingham, Ill., in January 1977.

The first photograph of an Amtrak train that I ever made. The westbound National Limited is coming into the station at Effingham, Ill., in January 1977.

I received my first 35 mm single lens reflex camera as a Christmas present from my parents in 1976. It was a heady time in my life. I had just landed a fulltime job as a newspaper reporter in my hometown of Mattoon, Ill., and now I had a camera.

Of course, I wanted to get out and start taking photographs of trains, but due to weather conditions and other factors it would be a couple weeks before I was able to do that.

My camera was not quite what I wanted even if I wasn’t sure of what that was. It was a Vivitar camera body with a Vivitar 55 mm lens. It also came with a case. It was a package deal and that probably was why my parents found it an attractive buy.

One of the store owners had convinced my parents that such well-known camera brands as Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax, Konika and Minolta were overpriced. Vivitar was, at the time, better known for its lenses than camera bodies.

One Saturday morning in early January 1977, I called the Amtrak toll free telephone number and learned that westbound train No. 31, the National Limited, was running about three hours late.

Scheduled into Effingham, Ill., at 9:05 a.m., No. 31 would arrive closer to noon. The National Limited ran between New York and Kansas City, with a spur to Washington, D.C.

I worked a four-hour shift for the newspaper that morning, but after I got done I drove to Effingham to photograph my first Amtrak train.

The weather that year was not unlike what we’ve experienced of late in 2014. There was in 1977 bitter cold and some major snowstorms that tied things up.

I got to Effingham ahead of No. 31 and took up a position west of the Illinois Central Gulf tracks so I could photograph the train coming into the station.

I used Kodak color negative film that I later had developed at a drug store or some such place. I don’t recall the exact time that the National Limited arrived.

I just remember that these were the first photographs that I ever made of an Amtrak train.

The former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline had been under Conrail ownership for less than a year and still showed much of its PRR heritage.

As I look at my images of No. 31 some 37 years later, I realize just how green of a photographer that I was. It never occurred to me to step over to the other side of the tracks where the lighting would be better and I’d get a better image of the train.

After No. 31 departed for St. Louis, I didn’t have too long of a wait until the southbound Shawnee from Chicago arrived en route to Carbondale, Ill.

I don’t recall seeing any freight trains on either railroad during my time in Effingham. I had come to see Amtrak and that’s all I cared about.

As No. 391 rolled into the station, I made my first major rookie mistake by botching the photo of the oncoming train. All I got was a sliver of the top of the cab of the F40 and a lot of sky.

Much has changed since I made these photographs. The National Limited was discontinued in 1979. Nos. 391/392 have since been renamed the Saluki (391) and Illini (392). Amtrak operates six trains a day on the former IC route through Effingham with four of them largely funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The PRR-style position signal visible in the top photo is gone, having been replaced by a modern signal located father east. These tracks are now owned and operated by CSX.

The SDP40F locomotives assigned to No. 31 on that January 1977 day have long since been scrapped.

Not long after these photographs were taken, Conrail made it known to Amtrak that it didn’t want SDP40F locomotives operating on its property and Nos. 30/31 were assigned E units.

I wish that I knew more about photography on that January day then I did at the time. I could have made much better photographs. But I didn’t and this was the best I could do with what I knew.

It was a special time in Amtrak’s history. The railroad was straddling a fault line that divided what passenger railroading had been for decades with what it was becoming in the future. Steam heated equipment was on its way out and head-end power cars had begun to enter service across the country.

Superliner equipment was still two years away, but in the works. Plans were also afoot to rebuild some “heritage” equipment for HEP operation.

Given how much has changed since I made these images, I’m fortunate that I was able to document railroad practices that would soon slip away.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

No. 31 crosses the tracks of the Illinois Central Gulf as it arrives  more than two hours late.

No. 31 crosses the tracks of the Illinois Central Gulf as it arrives more than two hours late.

Waiting during the station work at Effingham.

Waiting during the station work at Effingham.

Steam billows from the rear car of No. 31 as it departs for St. Louis.

Steam billows from the rear car of No. 31 as it departs for St. Louis.

Boarding and unloading of the southbound Shawnee at Effingham.

Boarding and unloading of the southbound Shawnee at Effingham.

Today's No. 391 is pulled by an F40. The Phase II livery was only a couple of years old.

Today’s No. 391 is pulled by an F40. The Phase II livery was only a couple of years old.

Amfleet equipment had been assigned to the Shawnee for just over a year. Note that the term used them was Amcafe.

Amfleet equipment had been assigned to the Shawnee for just over a year. Note that the term used them was Amcafe.

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