Posts Tagged ‘Mattoon Illinois railroad station’

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.

One Foggy Morning in Mattoon

May 11, 2018

It was foggy in the early morning hours in Mattoon, Illinois, as I awaited the arrival of Amtrak train No. 58, the northbound City of New Orleans.

Under normal circumstances I would have been able to see the headlight of the approaching train more than a mile away. But not on this day.

My first glimpse of the headlight was just beyond the Charleston Avenue bridge in the distance.

Nos. 58 and 59 had undergone a makeover earlier that had included retiring the Panama Limited name and reviving the City of New Orleans name.

The trains also received rebuilt heritage fleet equipment, but Amfleet cars continued to be mixed in.

On this day the motive power is an F40PH, but it could have been a P30CH, which were still widely used on this route at the time.

Passing Trains in Mattoon

March 3, 2017

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A northbound Canadian National manifest freight passes the former Illinois Central station in Mattoon, Illinois, as a tardy Illini arrives from Chicago. The CN freight had been working in the Mattoon  yard and with No. 393 in the passing siding the freight has a highball to head out on the single track at North Mattoon.

Down the Steps to the Waiting Room

February 11, 2017

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The Amtrak station in Mattoon, Illinois, has below-ground boarding, a result of an early 20th century project to lower the Illinois Central Railroad tracks through town.

The station used by Amtrak today was built at the same time that the IC tracks were lowered. The depot is now owned by the city, which paid to restore it several years ago.

Countless thousands of people have walked these stairs going to or from their train. They came from all walks of life and were traveling for every reason you can imagine.

One of them was a young man who with his new wife arrived by train in a trip to see her grandmother in a retirement home in nearby Sullivan.

As he ascended these steps he might have been thinking about the idea he’d just had during the journey about how to flesh out a song he had started writing years earlier.

His name was Steve Goodman and the song was City of New Orleans. We know what happened within a couple years after he climbed these stairs.

Anyone Want to Board No. 393?

January 2, 2017

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The conductor of Amtrak train No. 393 looks over the platform in Mattoon, Illinois, to see if he has any more boarding passengers.

The Chicago to Carbondale Illini has discharged all of its passengers at Mattoon and will be underway southbound very shortly.

Most of those who got off here — myself included — got on in Chicago.

The station was built by the Illinois Central and is now owned by the City of Mattoon. The rails are now owned by Canadian National.

Bringing up the Rear

January 1, 2017

For a while in 2011 Amtrak’s Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, trains operated with a locomotive on each end in order to avoid having to turn the train. That practice proved to be short-lived.

The southbound Illini is shown leaving Mattoon, Illinois, on June 1, 2011, with P42DC No. 127 carrying the markers.

Tomorrow, No. 127 will lead the northbound Saluki out of Carbondale to Chicago. The tracks here are owned by Canadian National.

Surprise on the Point of the Panama Limited

September 10, 2016

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Amtrak train No. 58 was late. I don’t remember how late, but it was at least a couple hours.

I had plans to ride the then-named Panama Limited to Chicago for a day trip. Truth be told, my primary desire was to ride the train.

That the train was running late was not unusual back in the late 1970s, particularly in early 1977 when a brutal winter knocked a lot of Amtrak equipment out of service.

It is arriving in Mattoon, Illinois, with Illinois Central Gulf GP 10 No. 8010 leading. Trailing are Amtrak E8A No. 445 (former Atlantic Coast Line No. 546) and Amtrak P30CH No. 719.

It is quite an eclectic consist and not just because of the ICG freight geep on the lead. The passengers cars are all Amfleet, the result of the conventional equipment being removed the previous month due to the effects of severe cold that rendered a third of the Amtrak Midwest fleet inoperable.

The new Amfleet cars were more reliable in cold weather than the steam-heated cars assigned to long-distance trains at the time. The P30 provided head-end power for the Amfleet cars.

I don’t know why the ICG geep was assigned today, but it was removed at Champaign. That suggests that the automatic train stop device on Amtrak 445 was malfunctioning. North of Champaign the ICG had automatic block signals for much of the route with centralized traffic control near and in Gilman

The assignment of Amfleet equipment to Amtrak Nos. 58 and 59 turned out to be permanent and for several months the train operated without sleeping cars until some heritage equipment could be rebuilt for HEP operation.

Train Time at Mattoon; End of an Era for Me

July 23, 2014
Amtrak's northbound Saluki is about to halt at the Mattoon, Ill., Amtrak station in March 2014.

Amtrak’s northbound Saluki is about to halt at the Mattoon, Ill., Amtrak station in March 2014.

I don’t remember when my first visit to the Illinois Central passenger station in Mattoon, Ill., occurred. It probably was the Sunday morning when my mother dropped my dad off at the station to catch the City of New Orleans to Carbondale, Ill., where he attended a one-day seminar.

I remember standing on the platform when the colorful streamliner came to a halt. My dad got a seat at a window facing the station and I waved at him as the train departed. I was probably 8 years old then, maybe slightly younger.

I was 13 when I boarded my first IC train at this station in May 1966 for a day trip aboard the Seminole to the Museum of Science and Industry. I would ride the IC to and from this station 10 times between 1966 and 1968.

My next trip from this station occurred in November 1972 and was my first trip aboard Amtrak. It was a day trip on the Panama Limited to Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry.

Over the next decade, I boarded or disembarked from numerous Amtrak trains here. I really should someday count how many trips that was.

In August 1983, I moved away from Mattoon. Although I would get back there on occasion to visit my dad and stepmother, seldom did I take the train. I drove.

Another decade later that changed. I had moved to Cleveland and in April 1994 began a ritual that would play out over the next 20 years.

At the conclusion of the spring semester, I would take Amtrak from Cleveland to Chicago and connect to the Illini to reach Mattoon. Almost always these trips occurred in mid May or early June. In some years, I’d make another trip by train to Mattoon, usually in August.

I always looked forward to those trips. During the Chicago layovers I’d railfan on one of the busy freight lines served by Metra – the BNSF raceway being my favorite – or conduct research at the Chicago Public Library.

Much can change in 20 years. The Burlington Northern became Burlington Northern Santa Fe and then just BNSF. The Chicago & North Western merged into Union Pacific. The Soo Line became part of Canadian Pacific. And the Illinois Central was swallowed up by Canadian National.

Back in 1994, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited still had Heritage Fleet coaches and dome cars pulled by F40PH locomotives.

Aside from dining cars serving the Lake Shore, and baggage cars on both trains, the Heritage Fleet equipment is gone. F40s have given way to P42s.

Interestingly, the equipment on the Illini remains Horizon coaches just as it was when I began the ritual of taking Amtrak to visit my dad. However, the exterior livery and seat upholstery have changed.

Some changes had a tremendous upside. In October 2006, Amtrak introduced the Saluki, a state-funded Chicago-Carbondale service.

Scheduled to leave Mattoon at 9:31 a.m. for Chicago, it had a far more convenient schedule for me than the previous 5:23 a.m. scheduled departure of the City of New Orleans. Sure the City afforded me more layover time in Chicago and I liked having breakfast in the diner. But, man, it was early when I had to get up to go catch it.

I made countless memories during my trips to and from Mattoon over the past 20 years. I met a lot of interesting people in the dining car of the City. During one of those trips I had the best French toast that I’ve ever eaten.

I  knew that someday this ritual, like all of our life rituals, would end. I just always hoped it wouldn’t be soon.

The winds of change began blowing harder in February 2013 when my stepmother died. My dad was 87 and becoming frail. He had never had to live by himself. He got by all right for a year but my sister convinced him to move to Arizona to live with her.

Last March, I got in one more trip on Amtrak that I knew would be my last trip by train to see my dad in Mattoon.

It was a bittersweet experience that I made sure to document. As usual, there was quite a crowd waiting to board No. 390 in Mattoon on the morning that I departed.

The IC opened this station on Jan. 21, 1918. Thousands of trains and passengers have passed through its doors since then. Presidential candidates have given speeches. In April 1970, Steve Goodman got off here, having just completed the journey that would provide the impetus for him to finish a song about the train they call the City of New Orleans.

Many of the passengers on this March day were younger and probably students are nearby Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. More than likely, they have no memories and little knowledge of the Illinois Central Railroad. They’ve probably never seen photographs of the orange and chocolate brown trains that the IC once ran here that zipped along at speeds up to 100 mph between Mattoon and Champaign.

For most, if not all, of those passengers, it was just another trip. For me, it was the end of an era.

The ticket office at left is no longer used as Mattoon is not a staffed station.

The ticket office at left is no longer used as Mattoon is not a staffed station.

Waiting on the benches has long been a railroad station tradition. My dad is the man in the middle wearing gloves and holding a cane.

Waiting on the benches has long been a railroad station tradition. My dad is the man in the middle wearing gloves and holding a cane.

The former ICRR depot is now owned by the City of Mattoon and was restored to its early 20th century exterior appearance during a rehabilitation project a few years ago.

The former ICRR depot is now owned by the City of Mattoon and was restored to its early 20th century exterior appearance during a rehabilitation project a few years ago.

Waiting on the platform. Thousands have boarded Amtrak and Illinois Central Railroad passenger trains here since the IC began service here in the 1850s.

Waiting on the platform. Thousands have boarded Amtrak and Illinois Central Railroad passenger trains here since the IC began service here in the 1850s.

The conductor is looking ahead for passengers as the Saluki approaches the station in Mattoon.

The conductor is looking ahead for passengers as the Saluki approaches the station in Mattoon.

Aboard Amtrak No. 390 as it made the station stop in Champaign, Ill.

Aboard Amtrak No. 390 as it made the station stop in Champaign, Ill.