Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Illini’

CN Increases Speed Limit for Amtrak in Illinois

February 8, 2020

It might look like the City of New Orleans but this is actually the southbound Saluki racing through Pesotum, Illinois, on Feb. 2, 2020, with Superliner equipment.

Canadian National is allowing Amtrak trains to operate at higher speeds in some locations between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

An online report said CN increased the speed limit for passenger trains between Homewood (MP 23.5) to MP 3 from 65 mph to 79 mph.

The speed was increased on Main Tracks 3 and 4 south of Homewood to Stuenkel from 40 mph to 79 mph.

The report said this has reduced the delays incurred by the northbound Illini meeting the southbound City of New Orleans south of Homewood, which it sometimes does when the Illini is running late.

Nos. 59 and 392 should pass each other north of Homewood if both trains are on time.

On many occasions the trains have met near Kankakee or farther south.

Amtrak also has assigned a set of Superliner equipment to the train set that makes up the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini.

One report is that the set has four coaches and three sleepers although the latter are unoccupied and designed to enable Amtrak trains to meet a CN-mandated minimum axle count.

In the meantime, the train set covering the northbound Saluki and southbound Illini continues to use single-level equipment that CN requires to slow for grade crossings.

Superliner equipment reportedly has no such speed restrictions at crossings.

The Tennessee Passenger Expansion Waltz: A Serious Proposal or Just a Talking Point for Public Consumption?

January 18, 2020

The news this past week that an Amtrak executive spoke to a Tennessee legislative transportation committee is being seen by some as the first tangible step that Amtrak is moving to seek to implement a vision that CEO Richard Anderson has been articulating for more than a year.

Anderson and Amtrak senior vice president Stephen Gardner have spoken in interviews and occasional appearances about transforming Amtrak’s route network to one more focused on corridor service between urban centers, particularly growing metropolitan areas.

They repeatedly have hammered home the point that many of the nation’s fastest growing cities are unserved by Amtrak or underserved by trains arriving at inconvenient hours.

Such talk has alarmed many rail passenger advocates who see is as code language that means dismantling the carrier’s long-distance routes.

Indeed Anderson and Gardner have been bad mouthing long-distance trains, saying they lose money and could be restructured into the type of corridor services they have described in principle.

Amtrak’s aborted efforts to truncate the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief by creating a bus bridge between western Kansas and Albuquerque is often cited as Exhibit A of Anderson’s plan to kill long-distance passenger trains aside from one or two “experiential trains.”

Waltzing in Tennessee

The appearance of Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, at a meeting of the Tennessee House Transportation Committee was significant for a number of reasons, but two in particular stand out.

First, it was the first time Amtrak has named a specific route that fits the criteria that Anderson and Gardner have been talking up.

That route would link Atlanta and Nashville, but Lang also talked about extending a pair of Midwest corridor trains to Memphis.

Second, it offered concrete proof that Amtrak expects state and local governments to pay for its vision of the future of rail passenger travel.

It is not clear why Amtrak chose Tennessee as the opening act for what promises to be lengthy process.

Perhaps Amtrak has quietly sounded out other states on their interest in ponying up money for new rail passenger service and we just haven’t heard about it.

Or perhaps Amtrak projects the Tennessee routes as among the most likely to succeed.

The news reports out of the Volunteer State generally portrayed a favorable reception to Amtrak’s proposals with some legislators speaking well of the prospect of rail passenger service where none exists now.

Atlanta and Nashville have never been linked by Amtrak and Tennessee’s capitol has been off the Amtrak route network since the Floridian makes its final trips between Chicago and Florida in early October 1979.

Amtrak probably viewed its road show in Nashville as a first step. It might also have been seeking to gauge the interest of Tennessee lawmakers in funding the service.

An Amtrak spokesman and CSX executive said as much.

“We are also talking to current state partners regarding how additional frequencies might be implemented,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari to Trains magazine.

“This is the first we’re seeing of this,” CSX State Government and Community Affairs VP Jane Covington said during the committee hearing.

Covington said it was her understanding that Amtrak was trying “to simply gauge the state’s interest.”

Whatever the case, nothing is imminent and there is no assurance that the routes discussed will ever operate.

There are numerous hurdles the service needs to clear starting with the willingness of Tennessee legislators to spend the money to underwrite the operating losses of the trains, which have been estimated at $3 million annually.

State and local governments also will likely be asked to advance money for capital expenditures on such things as stations.

Warning Shots Fired

Other players in the process will also play a role in whether the trains operate.

Chief among them is would-be host railroad CSX.

CSX’s Covington fired a warning shot across the bow in saying, “introducing passenger trains to heavily used freight lines will be a complex, costly process.

“And I understand that you guys are hearing from your constituents about the crowded roads, and you’re obviously looking for solutions to that. But we want to make sure you do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t backfire and divert freight off the rails and onto the highways.”

That’s another way of saying that CSX will demand some very expensive infrastructure improvements as the price of agreeing to host the trains.

More than likely the price tag for those projects will be more than state lawmakers are willing to pay for a service that Amtrak said will lose money.

Another player will be the Illinois Department of Transportation, which funds the trains now operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, that Amtrak has proposed extending to Memphis.

Amtrak spokesman Magliari said it would be relatively easy to have the southbound Saluki and northbound Illini serve Memphis because Amtrak already has crews based in Carbondale who operate the City of New Orleans on host railroad Canadian National between Carbondale and Memphis.

But what looks easy or even possible on paper may not be so in practice. IDOT will want assurance that its interests won’t be harmed in any rescheduling of the trains.

An unknown about the additional service to Memphis is whether the state of Kentucky would be willing to help fund trains that run through their state.

Looming in the background is the Sept. 30 expiration of the current surface transportation act that authorizes Amtrak funding among other things.

No one in Congress has yet released to the public a draft surface transportation bill and details about what those drafts will ultimately contain have been scarce.

“It’s going to take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to redo the surface transportation bill,” said Amtrak’s Lang in the legislature hearing.

He reiterated the rhetoric that Anderson and Gardner have been using in suggesting that without a restructuring of its route network Amtrak will wither away.

“We think this presents us an opportunity to really transform the company,” Lang said.

Magliari echoed that theme in his interview with Trains when he said the passenger carrier is engaging in outreach efforts to enlist future support from states now underserved by outlining what routes might be viable.

History Lessons

At the time that Amtrak began in May 1971, the only intercity passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta was the former Georgian of the Louisville & Nashville.

That train operated with single coach between St. Louis and Atlanta and had a travel time of seven hours between Nashville and Atlanta.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Florida route served Nashville but not via Atlanta.

The planners who set up Amtrak’s initial route network considered operating between Nashville and Atlanta but declined to do so due to difficult operating conditions, including a top speed of 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta.

Another complication was that Amtrak would need to build a station in Georgia’s capitol city.

The Floridian was one of Amtrak’s most troubled trains and then Amtrak President Paul Resitrup said in 1977 that its future was hopeless unless it could be routeded via Atlanta.

In April 1978 Amtrak announced a preliminary plan to route the Floridian via Atlanta, but it fell apart when L&N refused to host the train, citing freight train congestion.

The Southern Railway demanded $20 million in track improvements as its price for hosting the Floridian to Atlanta.

The Floridian never made it to Atlanta before its 1979 discontinuance.

In October 1989 Congress directed Amtrak to study resuming service between Chicago and Florida via Atlanta.

That plan has the support of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which hosted a conference at which then Amtrak President W. Graham Claytor Jr. said the train would only become reality with financial support from the states along the route.

That never materialized and opposition from CSX and Norfolk Southern torpedoed a demonstration route during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Claytor was involved in another effort to revive passenger service to Atlanta in the early 2000s.

That proposal was to extend the Kentucky Cardinal to Nashville from Louisville and a test train ran over the route in December 2001.

Amtrak told CSX it wanted to extend the Kentucky Cardinal over the 181-mile route once owned by L&N and used by the Floridian.

Claytor told a congressional committee he was bending over backwards and making every effort to get passenger service to Nashville.

Apparently Claytor couldn’t bend far enough or do enough because Amtrak still hasn’t returned to Nashville.

Political Strategy

All involved have been careful to emphasize that the proposed Nashville-Atlanta service is still in the idea stage.

Much needs to happen to make this train a reality and a best case scenario is it will be four to five years – or more – before the Music City Peach or whatever name it is given appears in the Amtrak timetable.

You have to wonder just how serious Amtrak is about its vision of bringing frequent daylight service to unserved or underserved corridors linking growing metropolitan areas.

Lang said this week in Nashville, “Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all.”

Those make for good talking points, but Amtrak management must know based on its experience in working with host railroads how obstinate and demanding they can be.

It also must know that asking states for money is one thing but getting it is another. Remember the Hoosier State?

The Rail Passengers Association commented on its website on Friday, “CSX is required by law to host Amtrak trains, but has the ability to price state DOTs and Amtrak out of the market if it so chooses.”

RPA, Amtrak and anyone who has paid any attention at all to the behavior of Amtrak’s host railroads knows how they have wielded that power on multiple occasions.

Rail passenger advocates by nature must put on an optimistic face so RPA also said this about Tennessee service expansion proposal: “State officials will have to act accordingly, and work to bring all stakeholder groups onboard.”

That is much easier said than done particularly given that Tennessee has never funded Amtrak service and it is not know how committed state policy makers are to seeing through what Amtrak has proposed.

Has any else noticed that no one is talking about whether the Nashville-Atlanta service will need funding from Georgia, another state that has never funded Amtrak service?

This is not to say it can’t be done, but it won’t be easy and going into this process the odds are stacked against the prospect.

Amtrak’s top management probably has convinced itself that it really can have the type of network that Anderson and Gardner keep harping about.

But are they serious? Or is this just another talking point to be used to strategic advantage to provide political cover as management goes about scuttling the long-distance trains?

Amtrak could offer its plan to, say, carve up the route of the Capitol Limited into a Chicago-Pittsburgh service funded by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When that funding fails to materialize, Amtrak can say it tried to “save” service to those states but their elected lawmakers declined to pay for it.

Don’t blame us, go talk to the folks in Harrisburg, Columbus, Indianapolis and Springfield because they’re the ones who made the decision.

It remains to be seen if Amtrak is actually going to release a master plan that spells out what specific new services it envisions.

That plan, if is exists, will look impressive and get a lot of people excited just as the Amtrak road show in Tennessee did this week.

But I can’t help but wonder if it will be just another plan that winds up sitting in a drawer somewhere as Amtrak shrinks to a company with service in the Northeast and a few other state-supported corridors.

Amtrak Trying to Talk Tennessee Into Funding Service

January 17, 2020

Amtrak officials were in Tennessee recently to talk up the prospect of establishing new intercity rail passenger service there.

That would include a route between Atlanta and Nashville via Chattanooga and possibly daylight service between Chicago and Memphis.

The latter could involve extending operations of the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, Illini and Saluki to Memphis.

Those trains are currently funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Chattanooga has never had Amtrak service and Nashville has been off the Amtrak map since the Chicago-Miami/St. Petersburg Floridian was discontinued in October 1979.

Tennessee House Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Howell said the state is interested in the proposed services but said at this point they are just proposals.

“Amtrak came to us so there’s interest there,” he said. “But there’s a lot of moving parts. It’s like putting a puzzle together.”

Howell said he discussed the proposal with Gov. Bill Lee and has met with Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright and TDOT staff as well as Senate Transportation Committee Chair Becky Massey.

Amtrak is seeking to talk Tennessee into funding the service, which might also include cross-state service between Memphis and Nashville.

In his presentation to the House Transportation Committee, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs, Ray Lang, said if a train costs $100 to operate and makes $75 in revenue the state pays the difference.

Lang said the expected deficit for Nashville-Atlanta service would be $3 million annually.

Rep. Jason Powell said he will introduce a bill to study the feasibility of Amtrak service in Tennessee.

“While discussions are still very much in the preliminary stages, the potential of a possible Nashville to Atlanta train is obvious,” Powell said. “Easing the way to get back and forth between these two major cities could be a game-changer for both and all of the potential stops in between.

Powell said the study he has proposed would examine feasibility, costs and infrastructure.

“I do feel this plan has promise, but I recognize it is a long-range goal and greatly depends upon Congressional approval of the upcoming [federal] surface transportation bill,” Howell said.

Even if Tennessee were to agree to provide funding, the proposed service is four to five years away.

Intercity rail passenger service in Chattanooga ended on May 1, 1971, when Louisville & Nashville Nos. 3 and 4, the former Georgian, between Atlanta and Evansville, Indiana, were discontinued with the coming of Amtrak.

This train operated between Evansville and St. Louis as Nos. 5 and 10 but was shown in timetables separately. At one time the Georgian also operated to Chicago.

Nor was there any discussion about what demands the host railroads would make to agree to handle the trains.

One news story referenced high capital costs to restart passenger service between Nashville and Atlanta but didn’t give any cost figures.

Memphis is the only major Tennessee city with intercity rail service. It lies on the route of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.

Nos. 58 and 59 are currently scheduled for overnight operation between Chicago and Memphis.

The Tennessean of Nashville polled its readers about which cities they would want to travel to by train.

Chicago received 25 percent of the votes with Atlanta getting nearly 18 percent.

A story published by the Tennessean indicated that Amtrak is eyeing the Nashville-Atlanta route because the carrier is seeking to serve metropolitan areas that are growing.

“Our route map doesn’t really reflect where the nation’s population has shifted to — places like Nashville, Louisville, Columbus and Las Vegas that we don’t serve at all,” said Lang during the meeting with Tennessee lawmakers. “We have to do something to change the Amtrak network. Otherwise we’ll just wither away.”

Lang said Amtrak is proposing twice-daily service between Nashville and Atlanta that would have a six-and-a-half hour schedule.

Intermediate stops would include Nashville International Airport, Murfreesboro, Tullahoma and Chattanooga.

Lang also floated the prospect of starting a route between Nashville and Memphis.

Amtrak’s current five year plan makes providing service to Nashville a priority.

“The Nashville, TN metropolitan area is ranked the seventh fastest growing city yet Nashville is only served by Thruway bus, generally in the middle of the night,” the plan states.

Parley Held to Discuss Lateness on Carbondale Route

November 27, 2019

Poor timekeeping in the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, corridor appears to correlate with falling ridership at Champaign-Urbana, Amtrak officials recently said at a conference to discuss the route.

“There is a correlation between poor on-time performance and reduced patronage at Champaign, and that affects Illinois taxpayers who help support the service,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The conference was held Nov. 22 and involved representatives of Canadian National, Amtrak and officials from communities along the route.

Amtrak officials gave a PowerPoint presentation showing how delays to trains at Champaign seem to be correlated with ridership peaks and valleys over the past decade.

The chart shows that on the whole ridership from Champaign-Urbana, home to the University of Illinois and the largest metropolitan region on the route south of Chicago, has been growing since 2008.

However, the chart also shows that delays have been declining since 2013 when about 60 percent of the trains serving Champaign were late.

Delays fell to about 30 percent in 2015. Since then the percentage of trains arriving late at Champaign has varied between 30 to 40 percent.

In the period 2008 to 2013 delays were in the 50 to 60 percent range.

The corridor is home to the State of Illinois funded Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale, and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.

Between 2008 and 2019 ridership crested at 190,000 in 2013 before starting a steady descent that bottomed out at 160,000 in 2018.

However, in the past year, ridership has sharply rebounded to near its 2013 peak. The ridership low point was 2009 and 2010 when the lingering effects of the Great Recession might have had an influence. Ridership in those years was around 140,000.

The on-time performance has not affected all of the six trains in the corridor the same. The Saluki has borne the brunt of the delays, arriving at its endpoints on time just 26 percent of the time in fiscal year 2019, which ended on Sept. 30.

The City of New Orleans has performed better in part because it has more scheduled padding than the state-funded trains.

“Because the distance from Champaign to Chicago is relatively short [129 miles], we are much more vulnerable to leak ridership from there when taking the train becomes unreliable,” Magliari said.

The conference was not open to the news media or the public, but officials held a news conference afterward. The CN representatives did not participate in the news conference.

Amtrak and CN are currently involved in a case before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board regarding the passenger carrier’s contention that CN gives Amtrak trains poor handling.

The host railroad has required Amtrak trains since 2014 to have a minimum of 32 axles to ensure a proper shunt of signals and crossing gates.

CN has said this is necessary because Amtrak’s Amfleet and Horizon equipment might not otherwise activate grade crossing protection devices in a corridor where the top speed is 79 mph.

Amtrak contends that CN track maintenance procedures and not its equipment is to blame for instances in which safety devices failed to activate.

Another source of delay has been CN’s edict that the Saluki and Illini slow to 60 mph over any highway crossings protected by electronic warning devices between University Park and Centralia.

Those trains carry Amfleet and/or Horizon equipment whereas the City of New Orleans is assigned Superliner equipment.

“The schedule for each train has more than a half-hour of buffer – time added in addition to running time – but the delays still occur,” Magliari said.

He disputed CN’s contention that schedules need to be lengthened, saying the trains arrived early 11 percent of the time.

A Trains magazine report about the conference noted that former CN CEO E. Hunter Harrison, sought to prevent Amtrak from instituting the Saluki in 2006 but backed down after U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) intervened.

Harrison was once CEO of the Illinois Central, which owned the tracks before they were acquired by CN in 1998.

Trains observed that delays to the Saluki have been prevalent in each direction since the train began service.

Durbin recently said he is ready to introduce legislation to give Amtrak a right to sue a host railroad for failure to give passenger trains preference.

But one member of Congress from Illinois, Rodney Davis, believes it is too soon for that.

Davis, who sits on the House committee that oversees Amtrak said giving the passenger carrier a right to sue a host railroad would prolong a solution to on-time performance issues.

He attended the news conference that followed the Nov. 22 conference.

“At this point, I want to try and solve (the on-time performance) problem without going to litigation,” Davis said. “When litigation is involved, it will prolong the final solution.”

Just 2 BUILD Grants Will Benefit Amtrak

November 17, 2019

Only two of the rail projects that recently received federal BUILD grants that were awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation will directly benefit Amtrak service.

Both involve Amtrak stations in Illinois.

A $14 million grant was awarded for building an underpass at the station in Normal, Illinois, that also serves nearby Bloomington.

The federal funds will pay for design and construction of a pedestrian, bicyclist, and passenger underpass and a second boarding platform at the station.

Normal is served by Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln Service trains as well as the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

The other grant was $14 million for design and construction of a new multi-modal transportation center in downtown Carbondale.

That station will replace a modular facility Amtrak opened in the 1980s.

Carbondale is the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Illini and Saluki as well as an intermediate stop for the City of New Orleans, which operates between Chicago and New Orleans.

USDOT handed out $900 million in BUILD grants for 55 transportation-related infrastructure projects in 35 states,

Half of the funding went to projects in rural areas of the country and the lion’s share ($603 million) went to highway projects.

Rail projects received $48.3 million or 5 percent of the total. Transit projects received $84.6 million or 10 percent of the total.

Florida received the largest amount of grant funding followed by North Carolina, Maine, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana.

California received two grants while Michigan, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut received no grant funding.

No Extra Amtrak Service to Michigan for Thanksgiving

November 1, 2019

Think Thanksgiving and images of turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie come to mind along with football games on TV and extra Amtrak trains to Michigan.

Well, you can scratch the latter from this year’s list of Thanksgiving traditions.

Amtrak will not be operating extra service to Michigan this year as it has in recent years.

The carrier said this week that rather than operate additional trains on its Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids) and Wolverine Service (Chicago-Detroit) routes, it will instead assign additional coaches to existing trains.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Trains magazine that Amtrak made the decision to scrap the extra trains after reviewing ridership data from last year that found travel demand is spread out more evenly across more days than it has been previously.

The passenger carrier also decided to drop additional holiday service to Michigan because of poor on-time performance on host railroad Norfolk Southern in Chicago and northwest Indiana.

NS freight train interference accounted for 58 percent of the 20,143 delay minutes incurred by Amtrak trains traveling on the NS Chicago Line between Chicago and Porter, Indiana, where the routes to Michigan peel off.

About a quarter of the delays have been incurred by Wolverine Service No. 352, which departs Chicago at 1:20 p.m.

“If we try to put additional trains on those tracks and delays occur, this could have a cascading effect delaying outbound trains because inbound equipment didn’t arrive on time,” Magliari said.

So Amtrak will add an additional coach to all Wolverine Service trains operating between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1.

Other trains operating before and after that time period will also gain additional coaches.

Amtrak plans to add a coach to two Lincoln Service between Chicago and St. Louis round-trips, the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, Illini, and all Chicago-Quincy, Illinois, trains.

Extra trains will operate between Chicago and Quincy, and Chicago and Normal-Bloomington, Illinois, on Nov. 27 and Dec. 1.

But falling by the wayside are the additional Chicago-Holland, Michigan, and Chicago-Ann Arbor, Michigan, Thanksgiving holiday trains.

Durbin Seeks to Hold RRs Accountable for Amtrak Delays

October 26, 2019

An Illinois Senator says Amtrak’s host railroads could do more to operate Amtrak trains on time.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in letters sent to the passenger carrier and the Federal Railroad Administration that he wants to work with them on the issue.

Durbin said he acted after the Amtrak Office of Inspector General issued a report that concluded report Amtrak could save $42 million annually if its trains operated on time more often.

The report was created under the direction of an amendment that Durbin won approval of last year during the appropriations process.

Of particular interest to Durbin is the poor performance of State of Illinois-funded Amtrak trains operating between Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois, on tracks of Canadian National.

The report found that Amtrak must make penalty payments to crews as a result of poor on-time performance of the Illini and Saluki trains.

“As a firm supporter of passenger rail, I stand ready to continue working with Amtrak, as well as with the FRA, to push Canadian National to improve Amtrak’s reliability for Illinois riders,” Durbin wrote Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson.

In his letter to FRA had Ronald Batory, Durbin called on the agency “to take a more active role in ensuring improvements to Amtrak’s [on-time performance], particularly along its Chicago-Champaign-Carbondale routes.”

Durbin is calling for CN to be held accountable for repeated freight interference and speed restrictions imposed on Amtrak trains in the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, corridor.

“As you are well aware, freight railroads continue to ignore their statutory obligation to provide Amtrak with preference on their tracks,” Durbin wrote to Batory.

“As a result, freight interference has hampered Amtrak’s financial stability as well as reliability for riders — and it caused roughly 60 percent of Amtrak’s delays in FY2018.”

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.

Passengers Describe Being in Illini Derailment

August 7, 2019

Passengers who experienced a derailment of Amtrak’s southbound Illini on Sunday afternoon described themselves as shaken but otherwise all right.

Five cars of the train derailed after striking a truck at a grade crossing in University Heights, Illinois, that killed the truck driver, Richard E. Millette, 77, of Frankfort, Illinois.

Two passengers suffered minor injuries. The derailed cars remained upright.

“They were up to 70 mph and there was a loud bang. There was metal scraping. You could see metal parts flying by our window – a truck hood, tires and things like that,” said Scott Mayer of Windsor, Illinois.

“The cafe car looked like a tornado went through there,” said Mayer who along with his wife were seated in the business class section. “Everything in the cafe car was on the floor. People who were standing in the cafe car ended up on the floor on impact.

“The (train’s) cars started going into the rocks and we stopped pretty fast,” said Mayer. “The gates were down. I don’t know what happened, but (the driver of the box truck) pulled out in front of the train just before it got there at that crossing. There was nothing the engineer could do. He set the brakes and that was all he could do.”

The train was carrying 300 and they were evacuated shortly after the derailment.

Mayer said most passengers handled the incident but some were panicked and upset.

“A lot of people came together and helped one another,” Mayer said.

Jim Myers of St. Elmo, Illinois, said it was difficult to describe the experience.

“It’s hard to explain, but we could feel the train derailing,” he said. “You could feel every tie that we ran across. The car rocked back and forth a little bit. I never wanted something to stop so fast in my life. It felt like an eternity, but it was like only a minute.”

Myers said he could smell diesel and saw a lot of dust floating in the air.

“There was terror in people’s eyes,” Myers said. “People were panicked, but at the same time, they were calm. It was two emotions mixed into one. It was like something you only see in the movies.”

Myers said Amtrak personnel told passengers to leave their things behind during the invacuation, but he said he grabbed a bag.

On the ground the passengers were instructed to move swiftly and walk to a nearby gas station about a half-mile away where they would wait for buses to take them to Governor’s State University.

“Survival mode kicked in,” Myers said. “We made sure all the kids and women got off first.

“I used to ride the train a lot. But I’m not planning to ride anytime soon.”

Megan Sherman, 24, of Bourbonnais, Illinois, said an Amtrak crew member had just stopped by their seats before the train collided with the box truck about 5 p.m.

“It felt like a lot longer, but it was probably just minutes before this all went down,” she said.

Sherman said she felt their train car shudder and saw plywood fly past their window.

She then felt a second shudder as she realized the train was derailing into gravel.

Sherman said the passengers exited the train calmly and in an orderly fashion.

Some passengers were crying but were checking on the well-being of others. Sherman and her husband helped an elderly woman seated in front of them with her bags and helped her get off the train.

Track Work to Affect Carbondale Line Service Aug. 2

August 2, 2019