Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak history’

Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: The Greatest Travel Advance Since the 747

April 30, 2021

Over the course of five decades, Amtrak has written a lot of chapters in its history, some of which largely have been forgotten or were never widely known.

One of those is illustrated in the photograph above made in Joliet, Illinois, in 1974 by Robert Farkas.

In Amtrak’s early years it was limited as to what it could do to improve intercity rail passenger service.

It could tinker with schedules somewhat, but much of its fate was in the hands of its contract railroads, which employed the operating and onboard personnel associated with the trains. In essence the freight railroads ran the trains and sent Amtrak the bill.

One opportunity to show that Amtrak was doing something to “make the trains worth traveling again” as the marketing slogan went, came in late 1972.

The French company ANF-Frangeco was building 16 sets of turbine-powered trains for the French National Railways.

The latter agreed to lease to Amtrak sets 9 and 10 with an option to buy.

The first Turboliner arrived in Chicago on Aug. 11, 1973. The red, white and blue train was billed by Amtrak in more than a bit of hyperbole as being perhaps the greatest advance in travel since the 747.

An Amtrak advertisement described the Turboliner as “the jet train that glides down the track . . . so smoothly you can hardly feel the rails.”

The Turboliner made a publicity run between Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois, on a rainy Sept. 28, 1973, piloted by Wilton V. Hall, whose father had been the engineer of the first diesel-powered train from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, on the Alton Route in the 1930s.

Revenue service for Amtrak’s Turboliners between Chicago and St. Louis began on Oct. 1.

That month the Chicago Tribune sent three reporters on a “race” from Tribune Tower to the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis.

One reporter flew out of Midway Airport and went the distance in three hours, 15 minutes. A second reporter rented a car and drove to St. Louis, arriving at the hotel in five hours, 20 minutes.

The third reporter took Amtrak. He was delayed leaving Union Station by eight minutes and his train stopped in a siding three times. He arrived at the hotel in six hours, 14 minutes.

The Turboliners received a lot of attention, but also displeased many because of their narrow seats that reclined very little, narrow aisles, and doors that could be difficult to open.

With a fixed consist, some passengers had to stand on days when more people boarded than there were seats and some passengers were turned away.

Capable traveling 125 miles per hour, the top speed on the now Illinois Central Gulf route was 79 p.m., although the Turboliner running time was a half-hour faster than convention equipment on the Chicago-St. Louis route.

The Federal Railroad Administration rejected Amtrak’s bid to operate the Turboliners at 90 mph because of their superior braking ability.

In its decision the FRA said the route lacked an automatic train stop or cab signal system. At the time the FRA made its ruling, a series of grade crossing collisions involving Turboliners had received widespread news media attention even though no one had been killed or seriously hurt in any of those incidents.

Amtrak ordered additional Turboliners and placed them in service in the Chicago-Detroit corridor in April 1975. Unlike the Turboliners used on the St. Louis run, the Michigan Turboliners had drop down tables and more luxurious reclining seats.

The Turboliners were credited with driving an immediate sharp increase in ridership on the Detroit route.

Amtrak President Paul Reistrup would testify at a congressional hearing that Amtrak was fortunate to be able to buy something off the shelf that was flashy, had large windows, and looked like it was going a million miles an hour when in reality it was actually doing 60 on well-worn Penn Central rails.

As occurred on the St. Louis route, the fixed capacity of the Turboliners of slightly less than 300 led to standees on busy travel days.

On the St. Louis route, the Turboliners were replaced for a time with conventional equipment and then Amfleet cars when those became available in late 1975. A similar process played out on the Detroit line although Turboliners continued on some Michigan trains into the early 1980s.

The Chicago-Toledo Lake Cities, which operated via Detroit, had Turboliner equipment in its early days, making it the only Amtrak train in Ohio to ever be turbine powered.

Turboliners also lasted in the Midwest on the Chicago-Milwaukee route into the 1980s. Another generation of turbine trains, built in California under license saw service on the Empire Corridor for several years and would be Amtrak’s last turbine powered trains.

While living in Springfield, Illinois, in the middle 1970s, I often saw and a few times rode the Turboliners. They were nice, but I preferred Amfleet coaches after they came along.

I even rode the Lake Cities when it still had Turboliners and rode on the Milwaukee line once in a Turboliner in 1980, my last time aboard one.

They rode fine, but I could always feel the rails. Nor did they glide down the track as the advertisement claimed. As for the interiors, I liked those large windows. The cafe section, though, was way too small.

I still remember radio jingles for the Turboliner when they went into service with a chorus singing the line, “hitch a ride on the future (pause) with Amtrak.”

The Turboliner may not have lived up to its billing as a high-speed conveyance but it did for a time enable Amtrak to achieve the objective of offering something new that promoted the appearance of the passenger carrier doing something to improve intercity rail travel after years of neglect, benign or intentional.

Turboliners were not Amtrak’s future but a transition step toward the Amfleet era, which is still very much with us today more than 45 years after it began.

Article by Craig Sanders, Photograph by Robert Farkas

Amtrak Anniversary Saturday: Where Were You and What Were You Doing May 1, 1971?

April 30, 2021

Where were you on May 1, 1971? Did you do anything to observe, document or celebrate the transition between freight railroad operation of intercity passenger trains and Amtrak operation?

Maybe you were too young to remember or to have been aware of the day that Amtrak began. Or maybe you had yet to be born.

I was a senior in high school on the day Amtrak started. It was a Saturday just as the 50th anniversary this year is falling on a Saturday.

At the time I was living in Mattoon, Illinois, which would be a stop for Amtrak trains operated between Chicago and New Orleans, and Chicago and Carbondale, Illinois.

I recall seeing from my backyard the first New Orleans-bound Amtrak train from Chicago.

I was disappointed that it looked exactly like the Illinois Central City of New Orleans of the day before with locomotives and passenger cars wearing IC chocolate brown and orange with yellow striping.

Like all teenagers I was naïve about how the world worked. I had read in newspapers about this new Amtrak operation that was to begin on May 1.

Yet I was expecting the trains to look quite different than they had. In fact, it would be more than a year before I saw a passenger car or locomotive that had been repainted into Amtrak’s livery.

Aside from seeing the first Chicago to New Orleans Amtrak train I also saw the last IC passenger train to complete its final journey.

The last northbound City of New Miami had left its namesake city on April 30. Trains that left that day were to continue to their terminus.

Therefore, the last pre-Amtrak train to finish its trip that was not slated to be part of Amtrak would not halt for the final time until May 2.

The City of Miami would not be joining Amtrak. Instead, it passed through Mattoon around 3 p.m. just as it had for many years and rolled into history. The number of trains making their final runs was a major focus of news coverage of the coming of Amtrak.

Sometime that summer cars from other railroads began showing up in the consists of the Amtrak trains that served Mattoon.

It had always been a thrill for me to see whenever I could passenger cars from other railroads. It wasn’t something I got to see often.

That June, I began college although I wouldn’t begin living on campus until late August.

I sometimes saw Amtrak trains during my trips home and during school breaks and made mental notes as to how they had changed or not changed.

My first opportunity to ride an Amtrak train did not come until late 1972.

In looking back I recall having had a sense of something historic occurring but I’m not sure I realized the gravity of it.

I wish now I could have done more – far more, actually – to have experienced and documented those historic days.

But I didn’t have a camera, didn’t have much money, and didn’t have anyone who could have taken me to ride and/or photograph trains in their final hours.

Besides, I was in school and the only time I might have been able to do that would have been on weekends.

So I just followed what was happening by reading about it in the newspapers. I did, by the way, save some of those newspaper stories from April 30 and May 1.

Fifty years later I’ve ridden most Amtrak routes at least once and made thousands of photographs of Amtrak trains and related operations.

More than a decade ago I started collecting Amtrak system timetables and have a nearly complete set.

In fact the last printed Amtrak system timetable still sits on my desk. Dated Jan. 11, 2016, I refer to it often when looking up information for stories I’m writing about Amtrak.

My collection also includes some Amtrak memorabilia, including dining car menus, annual reports, and route guides.

My Amtrak photo collection may be vast, but not nearly as comprehensive as I wished that it was.

I wish I had photographed more or had the opportunity to photograph more widely during Amtrak’s first decade, which I still consider the most interesting one in its history.

Much of my collection of things Amtrak was prompted by my research for a book that was published by Indiana University Press in 2006 titled Amtrak in the Heartland.

I have had a keen interest in Amtrak since it began, probably because I’ve always had a passion for passenger trains.

In many ways, the company that calls itself America’s Railroad and I came of age at the same time and have grown older on parallel tracks.

I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t interested in Amtrak and can’t envision a time in which my interest in the history and current day affairs of the carrier will ever wane.

So, happy anniversary Amtrak; it’s been quite a ride we’ve had together.

Commentary by Craig Sanders

Amtrak Launches 50th Anniversary Website

April 7, 2021

With less than a month to go before it observes its 50th anniversary, Amtrak has launched a website to celebrate the occasion.

The site can be found at https://www.amtrak.com/50th-anniversary

Amtrak describes the site as “a central hub for information about our five decades as America’s Railroad, innovative milestones along the way, and a spotlight on some of the employees that helped make it all happen.”

Each decade of Amtrak’s existence has its own pages of history and photographs that can be reached from the home page.

The site also is being used to sell 50th anniversary merchandise and offer “50 reasons to travel.” Additional content will be added to the site in the weeks and months ahead.