Posts Tagged ‘Illinois Central Railroad’

Efforts to Save Ticket Offices Will Fail

May 12, 2018

The outcry in some places following the news that Amtrak plans to close 15 ticket offices nationwide between now and late June took me back about 40 years to when the carrier planned to close its ticket office in my hometown in Illinois.

I was a young reporter for the newspaper in Mattoon, Illinois, when I got a phone call from one of the Amtrak ticket agents assigned to that city’s station telling me about the plans to not only close the ticket office, but the station itself.

Mattoon is a stop on the former Illinois Central between Chicago and New Orleans and the station there once housed various railroad offices. But all of those had closed by the time I got that phone call.

In Mattoon, as in countless other cities, Amtrak was the sole user of a facility that was a relic of another era and had more space than the passenger carrier would ever need.

The plan in Mattoon was to build an “Amshack” at the north end of the Illinois Central Gulf yard next to the only grade crossing in town on the ICG’s Chicago-New Orleans mainline.

The agent had spoken to me on what reporters call “deep background” but the public might know as “off the record.”

I took the news tip and ran with it, calling Amtrak’s PR person in Chicago and getting confirmation that, yes, indeed, my information was correct.

The story I wrote for the newspaper prompted city officials to protest the move. I wrote subsequent stories about meetings, phone calls and letter writing campaigns and in the end Amtrak backed down.

An Amtrak official claimed that business had improved in Mattoon, but I suspect there was more to it than that. Political pressure can be a powerful thing in motivating Amtrak’s behavior.

Also, I found during my journalism career that organizations seldom like to acknowledge the so-called power of the press.

The Amtrak ticket office in Mattoon remained open for several more years and I got to know all three agents who worked there. They were a valuable source of information about Amtrak.

I moved on in my career in 1983 and a few years later Amtrak closed the Mattoon ticket office. No, there is no correlation between my leaving the ticket office closing.

Organizations have a way of doing sooner or later what they want to do.

The Mattoon ticket office was not the first to close on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans route.

Offices at Kankakee, Rantoul and Effingham, to name a few, had closed before Mattoon did.

Today, the only intermediate ticket offices still open on the former Mainline of Mid-America are in Champaign-Urbana, Carbondale, Memphis, Jackson and Hammond. The latter, though, is among those slated to close by late June.

Officials in some of the 15 cities where Amtrak ticket agents are set to be pulled are waging campaigns not unlike the one that played out in Mattoon many years ago.

I predict that none of those efforts will ultimately succeed.

It will be difficult to prevail in the face of Amtrak’s argument that nine of every 10 tickets are sold online. Who needs a ticket agent?

I also wonder how many political officials will take seriously the arguments being made by some rail passenger advocates trying to save the ticket offices.

Sure, letters will be written, resolutions passed and phone calls made. But in the end the offices are going to close because it’s tough to thwart the religion of cost cutting.

Amtrak is closing these offices to save money. It is not part of a plot by a former airline CEO to kill long-distance trains as some rail advocates are contending.

Amtrak has been closing ticket offices for decades and the majority of stations served by long-distance trains do not have a ticket office and haven’t had one for many years.

Whatever political pressure that officials might bring against Amtrak to keep the ticket offices open will fade quickly in the face of the “nine of every 10” ticket sales argument and assurances by Amtrak officials that a caretaker will open the station waiting room at train time, keep it clean, and assist passengers.

The latter is significant because if there are people who may need assistance it is the elderly and physically challenged.

The closings may also cost 22 people their full-time jobs.

But I wonder how long it will be until the caretakers that Amtrak says it is hiring at the 15 stations losing their agents will themselves face the budget knife.

In Amtrak’s ideal world a unit of local government owns the stations it serves at intermediate points and underwrites most of the cost of maintaining them. All Amtrak does is stop there and impose certain minimum standards.

Otherwise, Amtrak will put up a bus shelter-type facility that receives minimal, if any, maintenance.

I understand the angst over loss of ticket agents because there is something of value being lost. It is just that those who need or benefit from that are a small minority of Amtrak passengers.

Mattoon may have lost its ticket agent back in the late 1980s, but it kept its station. The city eventually bought it and spent millions to restore it.

Today it houses the Coles County Historical Society and an Amtrak waiting room.

I’ve passed through that station dozens of times in the past 20 years while  traveling to and from Mattoon by train to visit my Dad.

I’ve never seen evidence that not having a ticket agent has depressed ridership in Mattoon.

If you need to know where the train is, you can call Amtrak Julie on your cellphone. If you have a Smartphone, you can even go to the Amtrak website and see for yourself where the train is at any given moment.

Mattoon learned to live without an Amtrak agent as have hundreds of other places. So will 15 other cities that are about to have the same experience.

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3 Generations in Champaign

May 8, 2018

There are three railroad depots lined up along the west side of the former Illinois Central Railroad tracks in Champaign, Illinois, and Amtrak has used all three, sort of.

In the foreground is the oldest IC station still standing. Opened in 1899, it was not the first IC station in Champaign. That would have been a facility that burned in 1898 at what was once called West Urbana.

Although Amtrak never used it per se, in the early days of the Chicago-Champaign Illini, the train would be parked on a track next to this station.

This station used to be located 114 feet further south, but was rolled northward to make way for a larger station, the one seen in the middle above.

The middle station is probably the one that most people over a certain age remember the most. The Beaux-Arts structure was dedicated on Aug. 9, 1924.

At the same time that the station was being built, the IC raised its tracks through Champaign between St. Mary’s Road and Washington Street in order to alleviate congestion at grade crossings.

The third station is Illinois Terminal, which opened in January 1999 and hosts Amtrak, intercity buses, and buses of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. It seen above jutting out to the right the distance.

Traces of Amtrak on the Side

February 23, 2018

If you look around you sometimes find traces of Amtrak in unexpected places.

Often a former Amtrak passenger car will be stored at a or near a museum or tourist railroad that hopes to restore it some day.

The exterior paint may be fading, but the markings and the interior unmistakably say Amtrak.

I was riding an excursion train back on Sept. 27, 1997, on the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway when I spotted this former Amtrak 56-seat coach in the yard in Brewster, Ohio.

It has an interesting history. It was built in 1947 by Pullman-Standard for the Illinois Central Railroad, where it had roster number 2640.

It later was sold to the Auto-Train Corporation, which numbered it 560 and named it Prairie Rose.

After Amtrak acquired it, the car was renumbered 5688 and named Roaring Camp.

When I photographed it, the car was apparently en route to the Mad River & NKP Museum in Bellevue, Ohio, where it apparently is today.

The St. Charles Air Line

January 19, 2018

Since March 1972, Amtrak trains going to and from the Illinois Central mainline between Chicago and New Orleans have plied the St. Charles Air Line to gain access to Chicago Union Station.

At some point a train arriving or leaving Union Station must do a backup move to get into or out of the station. All of this adds to the running time and for years there has been talk of creating a more direct connection to the IC mainline and the route into Union Station.

But that has yet to come to fruition so six Amtrak trains a day use the St. Charles Air Line.

In the Illinois Central passenger train days, varnish going to and from the Iowa Division used a portion of the St. Charles Air Line.  Of course, freight trains use the Air Line, too.

Some Chicago officials and land developers would like to see the Air Line abandoned because it traverses territory that in the past decade has seen rapid grown of high-end residential housing. The former site of Central Station has been converted to a housing development.

But for the foreseeable future Amtrak and freight trains will continue to use the Air Line at all hours of the day.

I made the image above from the last car on Amtrak Train No. 393, the Illini, to Carbondale, Illinois, back in June 2010.

In a few minutes No. 393 will round the curve at South Wye Junction and gain the Mainline of Mid America. The train will accelerate as it passes beneath McCormick place and heads southward.

CN to Rebuild St. Charles Air Line Bridges

January 12, 2018

Canadian National plans to begin renovating bridges on a rail line in Chicago used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans trains. These include the City of New Orleans, Saluki and Illini.

CN said that it will begin renewing the St. Charles Air Line in Chicago, which is used by Amtrak trains to get from the CN Chicago-New Orleans mainline (former Illinois Central) to the BNSF Chicago-Aurora raceway at Union Avenue interlocking.

Amtrak trains generally back up from Chicago Union Station to reach the Union Avenue interlocking and they back up from Union Interlocking into Union Station.

The St. Charles Airline is also used by CN freight trains, including those going to and from Glenn Yard on the former Gulf, Mobile & Ohio and the former Iowa Division of the IC. Some transfer runs of other railroads also use the St. Charles Airline.

Some bridges on the St. Charles Air Line were built in 1899. In total, CN plans to spent $85 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2019 on bridges.

There have been proposals over the years to build a connection at Grand Crossing in Chicago from the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline — now Norfolk Southern — and former IC line in order to avoid the backup moves that use of the St. Charles Air Line entails.

However, no funding source for the connection has yet materialized.

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.

Tunnel Being Built at Memphis Station

September 6, 2017

Work has begun to develop an underground walkway beneath the platforms at Memphis Central Station.

The pedestrian tunnel will link Main Street with a farmers market on Front Street. It is expected to open in summer 2018.

Alex Turley, vice president of real estate for developer Henry Turley Company, said the tunnel is part of a Central Station redevelopment project that includes a 124-room boutique hotel, a seven-screen Malco cinema, 182 residential units, the Memphis Farmers Market, and retail and restaurants.

Amtrak will continue to use the depot, which was built 113 years ago by the Illinois Central Railroad and serves the City of New Orleans.

The station project is being funded by a $3 million grant. “The idea is that this becomes a transit hub to a larger neighborhood, not just South Main and the South End but also South City,” Turley said. “We want this to be a demonstration of how transit can work in Memphis.”

Further up the line of the City of New Orleans the city of Newbern, Tennessee, will celebrate its 25th Newbern Depot Days on Sept. 16.

The festival will feature music, food, prizes and operating model train layouts.

Proceeds from the event are used for maintenance of the Newbern depot, which was built in 1920 saved from destruction 27 years ago.

Among the prizes are Amtrak tickets for two aboard the City of New Orleans to Chicago or New Orleans (winner’s choice).

Amtrak to Operate Special Train for Solar Eclipse

August 7, 2017

Amtrak will operate a special sold-out train offering passengers the opportunity to make a day trip to Southern Illinois to view the solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

The Eclipse Express sold out within 24 hours, Amtrak said. The train will depart Chicago Union Station at 3 a.m. and arrive in Carbondale, Illinois, at 8:30 a.m. after making an intermediate stop in Champaign-Urbana at 5:05 a.m.

The return trip is scheduled to depart Carbondale at 5:15 p.m., stop in Champaign at 7:55 p.m. and arrive back in Chicago at 10:45 p.m.

The Eclipse Express will not carry pets or bicycles. There will be a café car although it won’t have business class seating.

Due to the middle of the night departure, Amtrak said the overhead lighting in the coaches will be turned off.

Amtrak said it conducted protracted negotiations with host railroad Canadian National to schedule the special, which will operate as Nos. 399 and 398.

Although the eclipse will affect much of the United States, its longest duration of totality will be over Makanda, Illinois, which is located south of Carbondale on the former Illinois Central mainline between Chicago and New Orleans.

The first phase of the eclipse begins at 12:52 p.m., reaching totality between 1:20:07 p.m. and 1:22:44 p.m., with the partial phase ending at 2:47 p.m.

Tickets for the Eclipse Express went on sale in the Amtrak reservation system on Sunday.

Amtrak operates three daily trains between Chicago and New Orleans, but the first of those, the southbound Saluki is not scheduled to arrive in Carbondale until 1:45 p.m.

No. 390 has arrived in Carbondale more than 30 minutes late half the time during the past two weeks.

The travel time of the Eclipse Express is the same as the Saluki even though the special train will make eight fewer station stops.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the special was scheduled so as to not affect the operation of other Amtrak trains serving Carbondale.

Among the events being held in Carbondale is an “Eclipse Day” festival at Saluki Stadium on the campus of Southern Illinois University.

There will also be a Family Fun Zone area and Shadowfest held in Carbondale within walking distance of the Amtrak station.

Many eclipse watchers are also expected to ride the northbound Illini from Carbondale to Chicago. No. 392 has been sold out for several weeks and will have an extra coach.

Passengers riding the southbound Eclipse Express will be given special glasses that are needed to prevent permanent eye damage from viewing the sun in its partial eclipse phase.

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

January 13, 2017
ic-timetables

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.

Amtrak First Day Timetables

December 6, 2016

009

One of the many forgotten footnotes from Amtrak’s early years is how on May 1, 1971, many of Amtrak’s contract railroads published timetables just as they had done for decades.

But what was different is that these folders had notices on the cover that the trains shown were being operated under contract for the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which is Amtrak’s formal name.

I have in my collection 10 timetables issued by the following contract railroads on May 1, 1971: Burlington Northern; Illinois Central; Penn Central; Chesapeake & Ohio; Seaboard Coast Line; Southern Pacific; Union Pacific; Louisville & Nashville; and Richmond, Frederickburg & Potomac.

I do not have a first day timetable published by the Santa Fe, although I do have schedules/travel guides published by the AT&SF for Amtrak trains that the Santa Fe operated. Likewise, I do not have a first day timetable published by Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, although I have one dated Sept. 27, 1971.

I’ve never seen an Amtrak timetable published by Missouri Pacific even though MoPac handled the St. Louis-Kansas City leg of a New York-Kansas City train.

Some railroads that joined Amtrak did not host any trains and had no need to publish a timetable. These included the Baltimore & Ohio, Chicago & North Western, Central of Georgia, Delaware & Hudson, Grand Trunk Western, Norfolk & Western, and Northwestern Pacific.

The railroad-published Amtrak timetables generally used the same design and style as those published by those roads in the immediate years before Amtrak. But some were bare bones products that did little more than show timetables and were printed on newsprint.

Some railroads published a timetable on May 1 and that was it. But other railroads, IC and PC being notable examples, continued to publish their own Amtrak timetables well into 1972.

Shown above is a portion of my collection of first day Amtrak timetables. These railroad published timetables might be found at railroad flea markets and shows oriented toward timetable collecting, but I’ve seen few of them at general railroad collectible shows.

The railroads probably did not publish that many of these timetables and most of those printed have long since been discarded.

Nonetheless, these folders are among the most prizes pieces in my collection of Amtrak memorabilia. You can click on the image to enlarge it.