Trains and Routes
Amtrak is many things, but it begins with a network of routes and trains. Look at the map in the current timetable and the word that comes to mind in describing it is skeletal. There are many places in America that are hundreds of miles away from an Amtrak station. Thousands of Americans have gone for years without seeing an Amtrak train in person.
Yet if you look at an all-time map of Amtrak routes and an all-time roster of Amtrak trains, the picture is more complex. There are many places that Amtrak has been that it no longer serves. In many instances that is because the train that used to serve that route is gone. In other instances it is because a train had to take a different route because something happened or was about to happen to render service on the existing route unsustainable.
Elsewhere on this weblog are pages devoted to individual trains and their routes. The trains profiled served the Heartland region of America, although in a few instances a train was included because it touched the Heartland and/or was a forerunner or successor to a Heartland train. You will find such basic information about routes and trains as when service began, how the train/route came to be operated by Amtrak and how the service changed over time. Many of the trains and routes described no longer exist.
Some former Heartland trains are quite obscure today. Remember the Campus? It was a Friday and Sunday only Chicago-Champaign, Illinois, train that ran for a little less than four months. How about the Niagara Rainbow? It began in Detroit and spent a good chunk of its time running through Canada before emerging in New York state and terminating in the Big Apple. What about the Lone Star? Perhaps you member that it began its Amtrak life as the Texas Chief and offered very fine Santa Fe service between Chicago and Houston. But that wasn’t enough to save it.
And then there is the National Limited. On paper this train should still be running today. It served such cities as Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. Yet it was a troubled train from the beginning. It fell during the 1979 route restructuring that many today call the “Carter cuts.”
Lost with these trains was intercity rail service to such places as Bloomington, Indiana; Duluth, Minnesota; Streator, Illinois; and Columbus, Ohio. Some of these places may yet see service returned, but others will not. There is a long list of cities in the Heartland that would generate a respectable if not good level of patronage if they had a train or two still serving them.
Many of the trains profiled here no longer operate because they were discontinued during one of Amtrak’s many budget shortfalls. There have been many of those throughout Amtrak’s tenure. Some trains have come back, but that has been the exception rather than the rule.
Another factor that has brought just as many changes to the Amtrak map has been route rationalization by the host railroads. Take a look at a railroad map of Indiana, circa 1950. There were three railroads offering, collectively, fast and frequent service between Chicago and Indianapolis. Amtrak used all of parts of all three of those routes during its first decade of operation.
Yet none of those routes is intact today. Portions of all three have been abandoned. Credit or blame route rationalization. Much of that occurred after Conrail took over the bankrupt Penn Central in 1976 and began pruning redundant or lightly used lines. But all class 1 railroads have engaged in route rationalization, which has kept the Amtrak planning department busy.
Former Amtrak President Paul Reistrup once told Congress that track is basic. Amtrak can’t run where there are no tracks or provide a viable service on track that is in such poor condition that the top speed and the ride quality leave a lot to be desired. Amtrak has endured such conditions at times — remember the Kentucky Cardinal’s route between Indianapolis and Louisville? — but usually not for long.
Beyond budget cuts and route rationalizations are a host of other factors that have influenced where Amtrak goes and where it no longer goes. Political clout is prominent on that list. Remember Congressman Harley Staggers and his “Harley’s Hornet?” It was actually called the Potomac Special and later the Shenandoah. It doesn’t run anymore, but Staggers and other Congressman played prominent roles in drawing the Amtrak route map.
For all of the changes that have occurred, some routes have been remarkably stable. The present day California Zephyr has served the same route and most of the same stations between Chicago and Denver since it began its Amtrak life as the Denver Zephyr/City of San Francisco on May 1, 1971. Although the number of trains service the Heartland since 1971 has risen and fallen, in the overall scheme of things Amtrak’s network has not changed much in its scope. Contrary to what many believe, Amtrak has a lot of history to explore. The pages on this weblog are mere summaries, but provide enough information to give you a good idea of what has happened and why.