An article written by Akron Railroad Club President Craig Sanders about the decline of Illinois Central Railroad intercity passenger service has been published in The Mid-American, the quarterly magazine of the Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association.
The article, titled “Into the Arms of Amtrak: IC’s Steady Retreat from Intercity Passenger Service,” focused on on the period 1969-1971. Like most other railroads, the ICRR trimmed money-losing trains and routes during this period. Unlike other railroads, however, IC made an effort to continue to market its service, particularly in the Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois, “Mini-Corridor. The IC was one of the few railroads in the late 1960s that still purchased advertising time and space in newspapers and broadcast outlets.
Fueled by the growth of three state universities located on or near the Chicago-Carbondale route, IC experienced ridership growth in the middle to late 1960s. However, the railroad said that much of the growth was college travel that was episodic, occurring on weekends and when schools were beginning or ending a term or vacation. During the week, the trains were far less crowded.
In his article, Sanders noted that the creation of the Mini-Corridor had earned the IC much positive press. Donald Stefee, author of an annual train speed survey in Trains magazine, described the Mini-Corridor as among the few bright spots in American passenger railroading in 1968.
But this meant little to IC Chairman William B. Johnson. “Our railroad receives no over-all benefit from handling sudden short surges of passenger traffic,” Johnson told a Senate committee in September 1969. Much of the time, the coaches used to handle that traffic sat idle. IC’s intercity passenger trains had an average load factor of 39 percent, or about 100 passengers per train.
Marketing campaigns, refurbished dome cars and relatively stable patronage were not enough to overcome the challenges facing IC’s intercity passenger service in its final years, Sanders wrote. Federal and state regulators might have delayed some train cuts for a while, but the IC would have continued to make the case for allowing these and other trains to die.
Sanders wrote that it is anyone’s guess as to how long it would have been until the IC prevailed in ending the trains it wanted to remove, but one thing is certain. The Illinois Central was unlikely to be in the intercity passenger business much longer without public assistance. If not Amtrak, then someone else would have to step in if service was to be preserved.
IC executives expressed a willingness, if not a requirement, to continue operating intercity passenger trains if the railroad received public funding. “On a private enterprise basis, I can’t see why the railroads should be forced to underwrite the cost of a public service,” said IC President Alan Boyd. He would later become the third president of Amtrak.
Two other Amtrak presidents also worked at the IC during the late 1960s. These included Paul Reistrup, who was IC’s vice president of passenger services, and David Gunn, who just beginning his railroad career. Since mid-July 2004, Amtrak has operated a train called the City of New Orleans longer than did the IC.
For more information on the Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association, click on the link below.