Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak 40th birthday’

Revelation Video Releases “Amtrak 40′ Program

July 15, 2011

The westbound Lake Shore Limited breezes through Berea, Ohio, behind a pair of SDP40F locomotives in the late 1970s. The SDP40F locomotives did not last long at Amtrak. (Photograph by Richard Jacobs)

Amtrak’s 40th anniversary has received much attention this year, largely driven by Amtrak itself with its repainting of at least four Genesis series locomotives into liveries once used by the company and a national touring train that provides exhibits about Amtrak history. The nation’s passenger railroad partnered with Kalmbach Publishing to produce a book and it has also created a DVD. Trains, Passenger Train Journal, Classic Trains, and Railfan and Railroad have all devoted individual issues to Amtrak’s 40th birthday, but otherwise no other videos or books have been released tied to the milestone.

Filling that void is Amtrak 40 1971-2011, a DVD released in late June by Revelation Video, which is owned by Ron McElrath. The video is billed as a four decade retrospective of Amtrak. Although similar in style to programs that Revelation released for Amtrak’s 20th and 30th anniversaries, Amtrak 40 differs in that it is not intended to be a review primarily of what happened at Amtrak over the previous decade.

Before discussing what Amtrak 40 provides, it would be useful to say what it is not. It is not a documentary. The video provides some factual background, but that is not its strength. The program is also not organized in linear fashion. Although it somewhat starts at the beginning and works forward, there is much jumping back and forth in time.

Amtrak 40 presents a series of vignettes that give a sense of what Amtrak has been about and how it has changed during its 40-year existence. Many of these vignettes are short and some have been excerpted from previous Revelation programs pertaining to Amtrak.

Opening with footage of Amtrak heritage locomotive No. 156 in the red-nosed Phase I livery that lasted until about 1976 bringing the Adirondack into Plattsburgh, New York,  McElrath, who narrates the video, notes that anniversaries are a time of reflection to think of what has been, what failed to come to be and what might yet come to pass.

With that in mind, the program makes a brief review of the 40 years before the coming of Amtrak. This segment uses vintage movie film of various railroads, some of it black and white and some in color. The contrast in image quality between the old films and modern video is quite stunning. Passenger trains are not the only thing that has changed over the past 80 years.

Amtrak 40 features interesting footage of Amtrak trains during the “rainbow era” when consists featured an array of locomotives and passenger cars still wearing the liveries of their previous owners. These images alone make watching the video worthwhile. Although largely unintentional, there are glimpses at freight equipment that no longer exists and indications of how much the railroad infrastructure and operations have changed. I was struck, for example, by now much vegetation was growing between the rails on the tracks leading into Chicago Union Station in the early 1970s.

The 90-minute video contains ample footage shot from locomotive cabs, primarily the Genesis units that Amtrak uses today. These segments include cab rides on the Downeaster, Cardinal and a Northeast Corridor train heading from New Haven to New York’s Penn Station on a snowy night.

Viewers are also shown various scenes aboard Amtrak trains from the coaches, to the dining car to the sleepers to the kitchen of the diner. Most of these were recorded aboard Superliner-equipped trains. One particular highlight is a ride on a former New York Central open platform observation car on the rear of the Adirondack. With a little imagination you can feel the car rock and roll over the former Delaware & Hudson tracks in upper New York State.

Some viewers might find the fast-paced action a bit disconcerting. At the end of the cab ride on the Downeaster, the viewer is whisked way to the Surf Line between San Diego and Los Angeles and then whipped around the country in rapid succession to view various state-supported services. Although some stories are told deliberately – such as those of the development of the Chicago-St. Louis corridor and the Adirondack – others are more fleeting.

There are a few surprises in the video, including a rapper doing a ditty that pays tribute to the California Zephyr while sitting in the train’s lounge car as it climbs the Colorado Rockies.

To be sure, not all trains that Amtrak operated are shown or mentioned. It is amazing how much history that an operation characterized as having branch line density over most of its skeletal network can make so much history in 40 years. But if you look closely enough, you’ll get a good sense of what has come and gone during that time. Amtrak 40 provides for an enjoyable evening of re-living Amtrak’s past.

Amtrak Approaches Middle Age

April 20, 2011

Amtrak turns 40 on May 1 and in human terms that means that it will have reached middle age. Like anyone in the middle years of adulthood, Amtrak is showing signs of getting older. It may not have wrinkles and gray hair, but it has plenty of bridges, stations and pieces of rolling stock that are or soon will be in need of a facelift, if not major reconstructive surgery.

Unlike a person, though, Amtrak began life looking like a senior citizen with its collection of hand-me-down locomotives and passenger cars. The first few years of Amtrak may have been its most colorful with its trains featuring a mix of liveries from a couple dozen railroads. But keeping that equipment in operable condition was a daily struggle until the arrival of Amfleet, Superliners and F40PH diesels. Horizon coaches and Viewliner sleepers later joined the roster in relatively small numbers.  

Some streamliner era equipment remains, primarily baggage cars and diners, with a great dome car thrown in for good measure. The F40 has given way to the P42DC Genesis locomotive. Over the years, other motive power that graced the roundhouse included the SDP40F, the P30CH, the GP40TC and the P32BWH. Some of the latter are still around. Don’t forget the Turboliners, Talgos and California fleet.

That is not a bad history for an operation that began as a skeletal network and remains so today. Amtrak’s inauguration day map bears a strong resemblance to today’s route map. Sure, some routes have changed, a few have been added, and others have vanished altogether. Remember when Amtrak used to have a route across central Ohio via Columbus and Dayton? The National Limited has been gone since October 1979. Remember the North Star? The Lone Star?

 In northeast Ohio where I live, we have four daily trains. Our daily train count has been as high as eight and as low as two. We once had a daytime train, the Pennsylvanian, but it went away after a brief run. Also gone are the Broadway Limited, which ended in 1995 and a successor, the Three Rivers, which ended in 2005.

Ever since the last Penn Central passenger trains between Cleveland and Cincinnati made their final trips on April 30, 1971, there has been talk of reviving service in the 3-C corridor. With four of the Ohio’s largest cities on the route, how could it lose? But the political will or Amtrak management commitment to get the 3-C route rolling has been elusive. Increasingly, it is looking like it will take another generation with a different perspective on public transportation to make 3-C happen. I wonder if that generation has been born yet.

As anyone who has reached middle age knows, as you get older life gets more complicated even as it becomes more settled. And so it has been for Amtrak. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about golden opportunities and expansion, but not all that much has much happened at Amtrak in the past decade.

The carrier in the past year placed an equipment order and is working with a few states to upgrade routes for higher-speed service. But the type of service that rail advocates have long sought remains as stuck in neutral. It has been many years since Amtrak drew a new line on its map. Changes to Amtrak over the past 10 years have been incremental. But considering how many political officials have tried to kill or cripple Amtrak, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Because of Amtrak’s limited presence in Northeast Ohio, its 40th birthday is likely to pass here with little or no ceremony. It will occur on a Sunday. If you are out and about that day, take an Amtrak tour. Start in Canton. Next to the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline downtown you’ll find a forlorn reminder of Amtrak’s past. The station that Amtrak built in Canton sits vacant and unwanted. Many an ARRC member embarked on his first Amtrak trip from that platform, but “all aboard” hasn’t been heard here since late November 1990.

Drive north to Akron on Interstate 77 and you’ll see an equally forlorn former Amtrak station near Quaker Square, but also a hint of what passenger rail could be. Look westward and you’ll see next to the CSX mainline a gleaming new city bus terminal that was designed with the idea of adding a train station if Amtrak or rail passenger service ever returns.

Complete the circle by visiting Amtrak’s Cleveland station near the Lake Erie shore. This is still a working train station, although you wouldn’t know that during daylight hours when it appears to be as abandoned as the depots in Akron and Canton.

 Designed in the 1970s, the Cleveland station reflects what Amtrak has been for much of its life: functional and modest. Some find that hard to embrace, but if you are charmed by the allure of travel involving steel wheels on steel rails, it is the best you can do until that future generation can begin to implement a different vision of transportation policy in America.