Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Illini’

Riding Amtrak Still an Enjoyable Experience

October 3, 2021

The southbound Saluki arrives in Effingham, Illinois, behind an SC-44 Charger locomotive.

Back in July Amtrak sent me an email warning that my Amtrak Guest Rewards account had been inactive for 24 months and my points would expire in mid September.

The email listed ways to keep my account active including buying an Amtrak ticket or redeeming points for travel or Amtrak-branded merchandise.

I filed all of this in my “to do” mental folder. As September dawned I needed to do something.

My account had 21,000 points, which isn’t enough for a spectacular trip, but I didn’t want to lose those points either.

I thought about using points for a day trip to Chicago on the Cardinal. I also considered making a short trip from Effingham to Mattoon, Illinois, on the Saluki, an Illinois Department of Transportation funded train between Chicago and Carbondale.

The distance between those two towns is 27 miles and the trip takes just 24 minutes. That wouldn’t be much of a train ride.

Instead I decided on something I hadn’t done since 1983.

The equipment for the southbound Saluki lays over in Carbondale for 2 hours, 20 minutes before returning to Chicago as the Illini.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I had on occasion ridden Train 391 from Mattoon to Carbondale and returned that evening on Train 392. In those days they were named the Shawnee.

Since I was last in Carbondale, the Illinois Central passenger station has been renovated and received an IC equipment display of a GP11 and caboose. I could photograph that.

Amtrak opened a new Carbondale station three blocks south in October 1981. I have hundreds of photographs of Amtrak trains on the former Main Line of Mid-America but none in Carbondale.

However, instead of leaving from Mattoon, I would depart from Effingham.

I planned to use points for the trip but that changed when I discovered a one-way non-refundable fare of $8. Even if for some reason I couldn’t make the trip I would only be out $16.

I booked it for Sunday, Sept. 12, a mere three days before my points were to expire.

Booking travel on Amtrak is more involved than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

You must click a box agreeing to wear a mask in stations and aboard the train.

Amtrak also tried to get me to buy trip insurance. Did they really think I was going to do that for a $16 ticket?

The afternoon before my trip Amtrak sent me an email directing me to fill out a short form online. Aside from the standard COVID symptoms questions that I’ve become used to answering every time I visit a doctor I also had to agree – again – to wear a mask.

On the day of the trip I arrived at the Effingham station three hours before train time to get in some railfanning before No. 391 arrived.

Effingham back in the day had a station used by the IC and Pennsylvania Railroad. Flanking the passenger station were express depots for both railroads.

Today the passenger station is a cosmetology school and the ex-PRR express depot is used by a catering company as a kitchen.

Amtrak uses half of the ex-IC express depot with the other half used by a tattoo parlor.

I arrived to find work underway to rebuild the Amtrak boarding platform, which complicated my photography due to high construction zone fences and orange fabric barriers.

CSX sent one train through town, an eastbound grain train, while Canadian National sent two northbounds and a southbound past the station.

A CN train working the yard came north of the diamonds for headroom and to clear the block before going back into the yard.

Three of the four CN trains had IC SD70 locomotives wearing the pre-merger IC black “death star” livery.

One of the southbounds had a motive power consist of two IC “death stars” and a Grand Trunk Western geep in its original livery. Talk about a heritage consist.

I also observed the coming and going of the northbound Saluki.

For nearly a year Amtrak has assigned Superliner equipment to its Chicago-Carbondale trains. The Saluki and Illini are pulled by SC-44 Charger locomotives owned by IDOT and leased by Amtrak.

My foray to Carbondale would be my first trip behind a Charger locomotive. Interestingly, my first trip aboard a Superliner coach was a day trip to Carbondale in June 1979 when the then-new cars were in break-service on Midwest corridor trains before being assigned to the Empire Builder that October.

No. 391 was about 15 minutes late. I stood alone on the platform, mask firmly in place, the only passenger to board on this day.

I wasn’t surprised. When I had bought my ticket Train 391 was shown as at 13 percent of capacity.

I presented my ticket to the conductor but he said he had already checked me off. About 10 passengers disembarked.

I was one of just two passengers in my coach. The conductor came to my seat and asked if I had ridden with Amtrak before.

Yes, I have – many times actually – but not since before the pandemic. The conductor noted there was a café car up ahead. I didn’t plan to patronize it but thanked the conductor for that information anyway.

I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching the countryside pass by. It had been more than three decades since I had seen Southern Illinois in daylight from the vantage point of an Amtrak coach window.

As we slowed for the Centralia station, a northbound BNSF coal train passed on an adjacent track. It had a distributed power unit on the rear.

Centralia was once the home of a large IC car shop. As best I could determine, most of that complex is gone.

It used to be that southbound passenger trains went around the Centralia yard complex on the west side. That wasn’t the case today although I could see that track still goes over that way.

We passed the yard on the east side.

The yard had a moderate number of freight cars and some motive power, including the two “death stars” and GTW geep I had seen earlier. A massive coaling tower still stands in the yard.

Our next stop was Du Quoin where Amtrak shares a small modern depot with the local chamber of commerce. It opened in August 1989.

Carbondale used to have a large yard, too, but most of it is gone. The former St. Louis division offices were razed years ago.

All that’s left are a few tracks and the twin coaling towers that stand near where the roundhouse used to be.

Due to schedule padding we arrived at the Carbondale station 15 minutes early and slightly less than two hours after leaving Effingham

It turns out most of the Carbondale passengers had been in other coaches.

Shortly after No. 391 arrived, the crew backed the equipment north to the yard and turned it on a wye track.

I made photographs of the ferry move in both directions passing the former IC station.

It was a warm day and I walked to a Circle K to get a large bottle of Gatorade. I walked around a bit, photographing the old IC station, which houses a small railroad museum that wasn’t open on this day, as well as offices of the chamber of commerce and a non-profit organization that promotes downtown Carbondale.

A statue of an IC conductor pays tribute to the railroad’s long history in Carbondale, which used to be where St. Louis cars were added or removed from trains bound to and from New Orleans and Florida.

A northbound CN tank car train came through during my layover.

I was dismayed to find the Carbondale Amtrak station is only open during the day on Wednesdays. But it’s open seven days a week at night to accommodate passengers for the City of New Orleans, which arrives in both directions in the dead of night.

There were around 50 of us waiting outside the station.

There would be just one conductor on tonight’s Train 392. He opened two doors of the train and stood on the platform.

I was expecting him to come up to the crowd and announce that boarding was ready to begin.

Instead he raised an arm and waved it a bit, which I interpreted as a signal to come out and get on board.

I started walking toward the train and the crowd followed me. Everyone was put in the same car.

We left on time and made the same stops as we had earlier. In Centralia I spotted a young man running from the parking lot toward the train, which was about done boarding.

If the conductor saw him, he ignored him because the train began moving. I expected the conductor to see the guy and order the engineer to stop. But we kept going.

CN and Amtrak have been at loggerheads for years over a number of operating issues including CN’s edict that Amtrak operate with a minimum number of axles to ensure that grade crossing signals are activated.

That is in part why I was riding a train with seven Superliner cars with far fewer passengers than the train’s capacity.

Amtrak and CN also have sparred over dispatching with Amtrak accusing CN of needlessly delaying Amtrak’s trains.

I know from years of experience in riding Amtrak between Mattoon and Chicago that delays due to freight train interference are not uncommon, particularly around Champaign.

But on this day we didn’t meet a single CN freight during on my trip.

I was the only passenger getting off at Effingham. Seven people were waiting on the platform to board.

A woman at the back of the line was not wearing a facial mask and the conductor refused to let her board.

I don’t know why she was maskless, but as I walked to my car I noticed the conductor had placed the step box aboard the train and stood in the doorway as the woman gestured while making her case – whatever that was – for not wearing a mask.

The conductor was having none of it and No. 392 left with the woman standing on the platform.

It had been an enjoyable outing and not all that much different from other trips I’ve made on Amtrak. The number of passengers aboard was less than I expected given that it was a Sunday, which normally is a heavy travel day on this route.

Sometime within the next year new Siemens Venture cars are expected to be assigned to Midwest corridor trains and maybe I’ll do another Carbondale roundtrip to experience them.

A pair of IC SD70s and a Grand Trunk geep pass the under construction Effingham Amtrak boarding area.
The DPU on a northbound BNSF coal train in Centralia.
Disembarking at the Carbondale Amtrak station.
The equipment for Amtrak’s northbound Illini passes the former IC passenger station at it backs down to the Amtrak depot in Carbondale.
A northbound CN tank train passes the Carbondale Amtrak station where the Illini awaits its 4:05 p.m. departure.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Remembering a Circle Trip to Ride 2 Last Runs of Amtrak Trains 40 Years Ago

September 30, 2019

The last westbound National Limited sits in Indianapolis Union Station on Oct. 1, 1979. Amtrak would be absent from Indy for nearly a year before the Hoosier State began service to Chicago.

Forty years ago I found myself driving through the early Saturday morning darkness on Interstate 57 in east central Illinois on the first leg of a three-day adventure during which I would ride two Amtrak trains set to be discontinued the following Monday.

By the time I returned home on the afternoon of Oct. 1, 1979, I had been aboard four Amtrak trains, flown on two airlines and ridden Greyhound. It was an experience unlike any other I’d experienced before or since.

The logistics were complicated. On this Saturday morning, I drove 29 miles to leave my car at the Effingham Amtrak station, walked a couple blocks to the bus station, rode Greyhound for 79 miles to Champaign, walked another few blocks to the Amtrak station, and rode the Illini 129 miles to Chicago Union Station.

In Chicago I caught the eastbound Cardinal, disembarking just before 10 p.m. at Catlettsburg, Kentucky, to be in position to board the last eastbound trip of the Hilltopper when it left at 6:33 a.m. on Sunday.

I got off the Hilltopper in Richmond, Virginia, took a cab to the airport and flew to Indianapolis via a connection in Atlanta to be in position to ride the last westbound National Limited on Monday morning from Indy to Effingham.

What happened on the last weekend in September 1979 was the culmination of a political battle in Washington that had been going on for at least four years and ended in the discontinuance of six long-distance trains, the Floridian, National Limited, North Coast Hiawatha, Hilltopper, Lone Star and Champion.

There would have been more trains killed but for a political free-for-all that saw influential members of Congress conspire to save trains serving their districts or states.

It was a bloodletting the likes of which Amtrak had never seen in its then eight-year history.

The drive to Effingham, the bus ride to Champaign and the train ride to Chicago were routine.

My time aboard the Cardinal would be my first experience trip in a recently refurbished Heritage Fleet coach.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it because its earth tone interior colors were quite a departure from the cool blue shades of Amtrak’s early years.

I struck up a conversation with a guy in my coach as we trundled across Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic train travel advocate who said he took Amtrak every chance he got, including for business trips.

That latter comment struck me at the time as being odd though I rode Amtrak often myself. Maybe it was the fact that he was so open about his love of trains that struck me as unusual. I had never met such an unabashed passenger train fan.

Peru, Indiana, was a crew change stop and I opened a vestibule window to take a look outside.

The inbound conductor, who moments earlier had been a jovial sort, pointed at me and sternly said, “close that vestibule window.”

I might have gotten off to walk around in Cincinnati, and likely ate lunch and dinner aboard No. 50, but those meals were not memorable.

I was one of the few passengers to get off in Catlettsburg where I had seven and half hours to kill in a small 1970s era modular train station.

I passed some of the time talking with the Amtrak agent and two other guys who were spending part of the night in the depot waiting to board the last Hilltopper.

One of them, and maybe both, worked for Amtrak at the Washington headquarters.

The guy I talked with the most wouldn’t be specific about what he did for the passenger carrier.

The Amtrak agent locked the doors to the station because he didn’t want people wandering in off the street. It apparently wasn’t the greatest neighborhood.

At the insistence of the guy who worked in Amtrak headquarters, the station agent pulled the Hilltopper name and arrival and departure times from the train bulletin board as we made photographs.

At least I thought I made photos. I’ve never found those slides. Maybe I just watched.

The Hilltopper is widely remembered as a “political train” that existed because of the political clout of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

It was lightly patronized and lampooned as beginning and ending in the middle of nowhere. There was some truth to that.

The equipment, F40PH No. 278, an Amfleet coach and an Amfleet café car, arrived from the Chesapeake & Ohio yard in nearby Russell, Kentucky, to the west of Cattlettsburg where it had been serviced overnight.

Few people boarded. The conductor was not wearing an Amtrak uniform and told us to give our tickets to the next crew.

The Hilltopper originated on the Chessie System, but at Kenovah, West Virginia, about three miles to the east, it was handed off to the Norfolk & Western.

The two guys I’d met at the Catlettsburg station sat behind me and talked about Amtrak funding and economic theory, which suggested they might work in finance. It was not the typical conversation that you overhear aboard Amtrak.

For the first hour the Hilltopper lived up to its reputation. But then the nearly empty Amfleet coach began filling with passengers.

A woman who sat down next to me sat she was eating breakfast at a local restaurant when someone said Amtrak was making it last trip today.

She and several others went to the station to ride the train, probably for the first time.

They only rode to the next station and I didn’t record where she got on or off.

The Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society had arranged for three of its passenger cars to be attached to the rear of the Hilltopper for a trip to Roanoke.

I didn’t record where those cars were added, but it might have been Williamson, West Virginia.

One of those cars was former Illinois Central observation car Mardi Gras.

I had brought along two cameras. My own camera was loaded with slide film while the other camera, which I used at the newspaper where I worked at the time, was loaded with Kodak Tri-X black and white negative film.

Much to my later chagrin, I never made a single image aboard the Cardinal or the Illini.

The Hilltopper continued to be near capacity as far east as Roanoke. Many of those who rode went a short distance to experience the last passenger train on the N&W.

One of the passengers I met was an N&W management trainee. He used his company ID car to get into the cab and ride between stations. I was envious.

Someone else mentioned that the conductor working east of Roanoke was making his last trip before retiring.

Not only would he retire, but his ticket punch would also be retired. I bought a ticket to Crewe, Virginia, to get a copy of his ticket punch on its last day of “revenue service.”

It was the sort of impulsive action that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Initially as he would announce an upcoming station that conductor would give a little history of that town. But that practice abruptly stopped. Maybe it was too painful for him.

Near Bedford, Virginia, No. 66 met the last No. 67. I was standing in the rear vestibule when the meet occurred with No. 67 having gone into a siding for us.

No. 67 had on the rear the open platform car My Old Kentucky Home.

Passengers aboard that car had been allowed to disembark to make photographs of the meet. It was raining and some had umbrellas.

I was the only passenger aboard No. 66 to photograph the meet from the vestibule. The rain and overcast conditions hindered the quality of those images.

At Petersburg the Hilltopper swung off the N&W and onto the Seaboard Coast Line route used by Amtrak’s New York-Florida trains.

I got off in Richmond, Virginia, and headed for the airport where I boarded an Eastern Airlines Boeing 727 bound for Atlanta with an intermediate stop at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

In Atlanta I connected to a Delta Air Lines DC-9 for the flight to Indianapolis. It was the era when airlines had lower fares known as night coach.

I remember that flight as being smooth and kind of enjoyable.

I landed in Indianapolis after midnight and walked to a Holiday Inn on the airport grounds. At long last I was able to get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I bought a copy of The Indianapolis Star which had on the front page a story about the last eastbound National Limited to depart Indy the night before two hours late.

Trains that originated on Sept. 30 would continue to their destination which is why the last National Limited through Indianapolis would be westbound.

No. 30 arrived 15 minutes early into Indianapolis Union Station. There was plenty of time before it would leave.

I walked around and made several photographs on black and white film.

As I stood near the head end of the train, I noticed a guy with a camera talking with the outbound engineer.

He identified himself as Dan Cupper, a reporter for a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper who was on assignment to ride the last No. 31 to Kansas City.

Dan wanted to ride in the cab out of Indianapolis. I immediately pulled out my wallet, showed the engineer my press card from the Mattoon [Illinois] Journal Gazette and made a similar request.

Engineer Russell Smith Jr. thought about it for a few seconds and then said he’d let us ride as far west as Terre Haute.

We climbed up into the cab of F40PH No. 310 and awaited the highball to leave Indy. It would be my first Amtrak cab ride.

Fireman L.W. Reynolds was still on the platform when it was time to leave, but Smith said “this will get his attention.”

He turned a couple knobs on the back wall of the F40 and immediately the generator creating head end power kicked into high gear, making that screaming sound that many associate with an F40.

As the train began moving Reynolds was standing on the steps to the cab looking backward.

He later explained that a passenger had given him his camera and asked him to photograph from inside of the cab.

Reynolds said about the time the train began to move the passenger had handed the camera back to the passenger, “and he was running like hell” to get back onoard.”

Reynolds said he wasn’t sure if the passenger made it, but he made the photographs anyway.

Maybe it was because he had an audience or maybe it was because it was his last run as a passenger locomotive engineer, but Smith wanted to show off a little.

He had hired out on the Pennsylvania Railroad and pulled the throttle on a number of Pennsy trains out of Indianapolis, including the Jeffersonian.

The top speed on Conrail at the time west of Indianapolis was 70 miles per hour, but Smith often exceeded that, hitting 90 mph shortly after leaving Union Station.

He said was going to reach 100 mph. Somewhere out on the straight away on the old New York Central mainline Smith let ‘er rip.

The speed recorder rose aboard 90 mph. I had my camera ready for when it hit triple digits.

But about 3 mph short of 100 a safety device tripped, a warning siren came on and the brakes started setting up.

“What did you do?” the fireman asked before breaking into laughter. “Russell you run too fast.”

Smith said he thought he had disarmed the device back in Indianapolis, but he hadn’t. Once the train reached a pre-determined speed the safety device kicked in and No. 31 came to a halt.

All of the fast running meant that No. 31 would be arriving in Terre Haute a half hour in advance of its scheduled arrival time.

There were grade crossings by the Terre Haute station and Smith didn’t want to be blocking them for an extended time. So we loafed along at 45 mph into Terre Haute.

Dan and I thanked Smith for allowing us to ride with him and got down.

I found a seat in a mostly empty Amfleet coach and then went to the café car to get something for lunch.

There were three passengers eating in the cafe car when I arrived. None of the four coaches was close to being full and one was empty while another had just three passengers.

After the cab ride, the rest of the trip to Effingham in the coach seemed anticlimactic. In a story I would write for my newspaper I would describe the mood as routine but somber.

Conrail crews were out rebuilding the former PRR mainline west of Terre Haute and there were slow orders for the MOW gangs.

No. 31 had to wait for an eastbound freight train west of Marshall, Illinois.

That put us into Effingham at 2:03 p.m., seven minutes late.

I made a few more photographs as No. 31 departed for the final time.

The first railroad photograph I had ever made had been of No. 31 arriving in Effingham a couple hours late in January 1977. So there was sense of symmetry to the moment.

* * * * *

Although the National Limited, Hilltopper and Champion made their last trips as scheduled, court orders kept the Floridian, Lone Star and North Coast Hiawatha going for a few days before they succumbed.

Forty years later Amtrak might be in a similar position to where it was in 1979 as another battle plays out over the future of the long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s president, Richard Anderson, has been playing up how much money those trains lose and Amtrak management has spoken of transforming the network into a series of short-haul corridors linking urban centers.

Although the 1979 route cuts were implemented in a short period of time, the fight had been going on in Congress for at several years leading up to that.

We don’t know if there will come another weekend when a sizeable number of long-distance trains begin their last trips. But it remains a possibility.

If it does come about, I doubt that I’ll be making a grand circle trip to ride some of those last runs.

It’s also a sure bet that Amtrak won’t be allowing any private cars to be attached and removed in the middle of a run.

It is noteworthy that 1979 was the last year that Amtrak launched a long-distance train, the Desert Wind.

Although portions of the routes that lost service in 1979 regained it in subsequent years, once an Amtrak long-distance route is discontinued it doesn’t come back in the form in which it once existed.

The Roanoke NRHS Chapter added three of its passenger cars to the rear of the eastbound Hilltopper for part of its final trip. The cars are shown in Roanoke.

Amtrak conductor F. M. Thompson gets photographed from both sides as he works the last eastbound Hilltopper at Bluefield, West Virginia.

For its last day at least the Hilltopper has crowds of people waiting to board. This image was made of passengers waiting to board in Roanoke, Virginia.

It’s not a great photo, but it is historic. The westbound Hilltopper waited in a siding near Bedford, Virginia, for its eastbound counterpart to pass. This image was made from aboard the latter.

Locomotive engineer Russell Smith allowed myself and another reporter to ride in the cab of the last westbound National Limited from Indianapolis to Terre Haute, Indiana. He is shown just before the train departed Indianapolis.

The view of the former Big Four passenger station in Terre Haute, Indiana, as seen from an F40PH leading the last National Limited into town. Terre Haute has been without scheduled Amtrak service ever since this day.

The National Limited departs Effingham, Illinois, for the final time. Train No. 31 was the first Amtrak train that I ever photographed and that image was made in Effingham in January 1977.

Amtrak Extends Pets Aboard Program

August 8, 2014

Amtrak’s experiment of allowing pets aboard select trains is being extended on Aug. 11 to the Chicago-Carbondale, Ill., Saluki and Illini.

Trips must originate from a station where an Amtrak ticket office is open. The pets and a customer-supplied carrier must weigh no more than 20 pounds, a flat fee of $25 will be charged for each dog or cat, no more than four pets can be reserved per train, and reservations must be made at a staffed station or with a 800-USA-RAIL agent.

Staffed stations on the route include Chicago, Homewood, Champaign-Urbana, and Carbondale. The Homewood ticket office is only open in the afternoon so passengers can only use southbound train No. 393 and evening train No. 392 (which stops only to discharge passengers).

Passengers with pets are only allowed to ride in one designated car and can’t bring them to the café or remove them from the carrier. They must stay with their animal at all times. The pilot program began in May on the Chicago-Quincy, Ill., Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr.

Amtrak said multi-ride tickets cannot because passengers must pay separately for a reserved seat if they want to bring a pet along. Fewer than 20 dogs or cats have traveled since the program began.

Amtrak has yet to establish rules for carrying pets as checked baggage on trains with baggage cars, part of the yet-to-be-passed “Pets on Trains” legislation originated by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Passengers with pets cannot travel on the City of New Orleans, Southwest Chief, or California Zephyr, which share the routes of the trains in the pet program.

Home Sweet Homewood

July 24, 2014

Looking through the fence towards the water tower. The apparently "headless" man waiting for a Metra electric train is an illusion. He has his head bowed and his white baseball cap blends in with his shirt.

Looking through the fence towards the water tower. The apparently “headless” man waiting for a Metra electric train is an illusion. He has his head bowed and his white baseball cap blends in with his shirt.

“Home Sweet Homewood” is the slogan on the water tower in Homewood, Ill., a Chicago suburb located along the former Illinois Central (now Canadian National) mainline between Chicago and New Orleans.

I’ll take their word for it since I live in Ohio. After a morning at Blue Island, it was off to Homewood to spend a few hours at this former IC location.

The town’s IC heritage is celebrated in a couple of different ways, one of which is a stuffed and mounted ex-IC geep and wide vision caboose.

The geep is fenced in, so I just tried to work the IC logo in with the water tower. One of the draws these days at this location is you’ll see just about anything pass by.

I saw CSX, BNSF, and NS power in the few hours that I was there along with a sample of the CN “family” roads.”

Article and Photographs by Roger Durfee

IC8408homewood02

Amtrak's slightly late southbound "Illini" en route to Carbondale, Ill., is pulling into Homewood.

Amtrak’s slightly late southbound “Illini” en route to Carbondale, Ill., is pulling into Homewood.

A pair of BNSF ACe's haul coal south at Homewood, passing the IC display unit. Sorry about the wire shadows, not much could be done about those. I am on the Amtrak platform; that's the Metra high level platform to the left.

A pair of BNSF ACe’s haul coal south at Homewood, passing the IC display unit. Sorry about the wire shadows, not much could be done about those. I am on the Amtrak platform; that’s the Metra high level platform to the left.

Yard power this day was interesting, a CN GP-40-2W and two EJ&E SD's, seen passing the CSX powered train.

Yard power this day was interesting, a CN GP-40-2W and two EJ&E SD’s, seen passing the CSX powered train.

A closer view of the yard power with the "J-balls."

A closer view of the yard power with the “J-balls.”

Roster view of the 9424. These were some of the original North American "comfort cabs", it was neat to see it still up and running. Many of these were part of 100 CN units Conrail leased during 1976 and 1977 to ease a power shortage. Back then they were a breath of fresh air in an all standard cab world.

Roster view of the 9424. These were some of the original North American “comfort cabs”, it was neat to see it still up and running. Many of these were part of 100 CN units Conrail leased during 1976 and 1977 to ease a power shortage. Back then they were a breath of fresh air in an all standard cab world.

CSX power up front- including CSX 5000 with it's "Diversity in Motion" decal 2nd out. In the background a CN former LMS/BCOL pair wait with an NS unit back in the yard.

CSX power up front- including CSX 5000 with it’s “Diversity in Motion” decal 2nd out. In the background a CN former LMS/BCOL pair wait with an NS unit back in the yard.

I shoot a lot of CSX in Ohio, but not with electric MU's a few tracks over.

I shoot a lot of CSX in Ohio, but not with electric MU’s a few tracks over.

A mural on a building close to the pedestrian underpass highlights the railroad heritage of Homewood. Steam, Green Diamond, CN, and Amtrak fill the “roundhouse.”

A mural on a building close to the pedestrian underpass highlights the railroad heritage of Homewood. Steam, Green Diamond, CN, and Amtrak fill the “roundhouse.”

Smaller painting on the wall leading down the underpass stairs; again, the Green Diamond is the subject.

Smaller painting on the wall leading down the underpass stairs; again, the Green Diamond is the subject.

Closer view of the Green Diamond door.

Closer view of the Green Diamond door.

Although faded, this Illinois Central Gulf grain car's lack of major tagging required a photo.

Although faded, this Illinois Central Gulf grain car’s lack of major tagging required a photo.

The caboose on display features the mid-1960s IC split rail "I ball" logo.

The caboose on display features the mid-1960s IC split rail “I ball” logo.

Train Time at Mattoon, End of an Era for Me

July 19, 2014

Amtrak Train 390, the northbound Saluki, arrives at the former Illinois Central station in Mattoon, Ill., on March 10, 2014.

Amtrak Train 390, the northbound Saluki, arrives at the former Illinois Central station in Mattoon, Ill., on March 10, 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.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

The waiting room of the former IC station looks much as it did in IC days. However, back then all of the benches were perpendicular to the ticket office at left.

The waiting room of the station looks much as it did in IC days. However, back then all of the benches were perpendicular to the ticket office at left.

My dad is the man in the middle of the bench wearing gloves and carrying a cain.

My dad is the man in the middle of the bench wearing gloves and holding a cane.

The City of Mattoon purchased the IC station a few years ago and the local historical society worked with a preservation group to renovate it and restore it to its early 20th century appearance. The historical society now has offices in this depot and plans to open a museum.

The City of Mattoon purchased the IC station a few years ago and the local historical society worked with a preservation group to renovate it and restore it to its early 20th century appearance. The historical society now has offices in this depot and plans to open a museum.

Gathering on the platform to await the arrival of the train. If you attended Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston and rode Amtrak to and from school, you would have stood on this platform.

Gathering on the platform to await the arrival of the train. If you attended Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston and rode Amtrak to and from school, you would have stood on this platform.

The northbound Saluki approaches the Mattoon station. It would depart five minutes late, but arrive at Chicago Union Station 22 minutes early on this day.

The northbound Saluki approaches the Mattoon station. It would depart five minutes late, but arrive at Chicago Union Station 22 minutes early on this day.

Aboard the Saluki later that morning. This train always seems to be full or nearly full whenever I've ridden it.

Aboard the Saluki later that morning. This train always seems to be full or nearly full whenever I’ve ridden it.

The View from Centralia in August 2012

March 9, 2014

Amtrak's northbound Illini approaches the Central station on Aug. 4, 2012. A Genesis unit just doesn't match the grace of the E6 or even E9 units.

Amtrak’s northbound Illini approaches the Central station on Aug. 4, 2012. A Genesis unit just doesn’t match the grace of the E6 or even E9 units.

When I rolled into Centralia, Ill., about mid-afternoon on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012, it was not, strictly speaking, my first trip to the city in Southern Illinois named for the Illinois Central Railroad.

I had passed through Centralia numerous times riding on Amtrak and I have a hazy memory of having gone to Centralia at least once to cover a high school basketball game.

But I had never photographed a train in Centralia and it had been one of those things on my “to do” list for quite some time.

I had a video of train action in Centralia recorded in the late 1990s or early 2000s and I had seen it several times.

So on a trip to Illinois to visit my dad, I decided to spend a couple of days railfanning the former Mainline of Mid-America.

Yes, the former IC. It has been owned by Canadian National since 1998 and signs of IC ownership are fading fast.

In a perfect world, I would have spent all day in Centralia. But I had only one day and it began with my photographing trains in Effingham. After the passage of the Amtrak’s southbound Saluki I begin to work my way south to Centralia.

I ended up spending more time en route than I expected. I stopped in Edgewood to capture a northbound CN manifest freight and in Tonti to photograph the site of Amtrak’s first derailment that involved fatalities.

I also photographed a CSX train on the former Baltimore & Ohio line to St. Louis and the CN-CSX crossing in Odin.

And this doesn’t take into account the various other sites that I photographed, including a restored wood water tower next to the ex-IC tracks and a monument near Mason that marks the completion of the “Chicago Branch” as it was called in the 1850s.

I pulled into the parking lot of the Centralia Amtrak station and waited for trains to show up.

I would have a long wait and in some ways it was a disappointing outing. It would be well over an hour before Norfolk Southern sent a train through.

BNSF had a track maintainer out on the line, but no trains. Likewise, CN never sent any freight trains through Centralia during my time there, either.

My tally for the day would be three NS trains and the northbound Amtrak Illini.

The railroad demolished the Centralia IC station many years ago, replacing it with a small brick structure.

But as I studied the photos that Bob Farkas sent me and compared them to my own, I was amazed to see that some things about Centralia have not changed, notably the existence still of large telecommunications or radio antennas. Also, a grain facility visible in one of Bob’s photos can be seen in one of my going away shots of the Illini.

I would like to get back to Centralia this summer. This time I’m going to get their earlier.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Passengers wait on the platform as the Illini arrives. The IC station used to be located here.

Passengers wait on the platform as the Illini arrives. The IC station used to be located here.

Heading out of town for Chicago, the Illini passes a large telecommunications tower that was here in 1970 and a grain facility (visible above the bridge) that Bob Farkas would also would have seen. The bridge, though, did not exist more than 40 years ago.

Heading out of town for Chicago, the Illini passes a large telecommunications tower that was here in 1970 and a grain facility (visible above the bridge) that Bob Farkas would also would have seen. The bridge, though, did not exist more than 40 years ago.

An eastbound NS manifest bends around the curve and is on a joint tracks that is shares with BNSF. The foreground tracks are CN (ex-Illinois Central).

An eastbound NS manifest bends around the curve and is on a joint tracks that is shares with BNSF. The foreground tracks are CN (ex-Illinois Central).

A westbound NS train is about the enter the joint track with BNSF and then will cross the CN mainline.

A westbound NS train is about the enter the joint track with BNSF and then will cross the CN mainline.

Another NS manifest cruises through downtown Centralia. The track to the left connects with the CN and is used to interchange coal trains.

Another NS manifest cruises through downtown Centralia. The track to the left connects with the CN and is used to interchange coal trains.

Amtrak Trip Report–Part 1

June 9, 2013

The Capitol Limited calls at Cleveland in the dead of night on Monday, May 20.

The Capitol Limited calls at Cleveland on the night on Monday, May 20.

It was the dead of night when I called Amtrak Julie to inquire as to the status of Train No. 29 at Cleveland. “Train Number twenty nine is expected to arrive into Cleveland train station on time,” Julie replied.

So far, so good. The agent at the station, though, hedged a bit saying that the westbound Capitol Limited was expected to arrive close to on time. She noted it had been a few minutes late at Alliance.

I was en route to downstate Illinois to visit my dad and I would connect in Chicago to the southbound Illini where I would get off in Mattoon.  It is a trip I’ve been making once, sometimes twice, a year since 1994. Back then the Capitol Limited had heritage fleet coaches and dome cars.

I sat in my car and monitored the Norfolk Southern road channel used in Cleveland. In my experience, this is the best way to know when the train is getting near because I can hear it call signals several miles away.

In the meantime, the eastbound Capitol Limited arrived just over an hour late. No. 29, though, would arrive three minutes early.

I was the first to board and the conductor scanned my “ticket” on the platform. It was my first trip on Amtrak since it instituted this system last year.

In what may have been a first in all of my years of riding No. 29, it arrived at Elyria early and had to wait for time to depart.

I managed to catch a few winks in my coach seat in Superliner coach No. 34044, but didn’t get much in the way of restful sleep. Up front were P42 Nos. 39 and 131. The consist included a baggage car, three sleepers, diner, Sighterseer lounge and three coaches.

Shortly after sunrise, I went to the rear coach to try to photograph the sunrise (Photo 2). I should have been there a few minutes earlier when it the sun had been more red in color, but I was not on the sunrise side of the train.

I then made my way to the diner for breakfast. I was seated promptly and a server came around soon thereafter to take my drink order, which was water and orange juice. Both came out right away and were served in glass, not plastic.

I opted for the Chef’s Good Morning Special, which was described on the menu as a toasted wheat biscuit with grilled tomato slices topped with a crab cake and hollandaise sauce. I also got the potatoes and a side order of bacon.

The meal arrived on real china, but the plate holding the croissant was plastic. The utensils were metal and we had cloth napkins. I suppose this is the enhanced dining service on Nos. 29/30 that is advertised in the timetable.

I thought it appropriate that I was having a crab cake because that had been a specialty dish on the original Capitol Limited when the Baltimore & Ohio ran it. I never rode that train.

Amtrak menus also list the calories for each item and I got the highest calorie entrée on the breakfast menu. Indeed, it was the highest calorie entrée on the entire menu.

The guy at the table with me was returning home to Oregon after a cross country trip. He had taken the Coast Starlight from Klamath Falls to Portland and ridden the Empire Builder to Chicago. Then it was on to Washington, D.C. aboard the Capitol Limited. He would catch the California Zephyr later this afternoon and said he was looking forward to crossing the Rockies tomorrow. His wife would pick up him in Reno.

My breakfast came out shortly after I placed my order. There were three servers in the car plus the lead service attendant or whatever they are called these days. I’d rate the quality of the service as quite good.  The crew was friendly and helpful.

The car was mostly empty when I arrived, but began filling as I ate. The server sent one woman back to her room to get her shoes when she arrived in stocking feet.

I spent some time in the lounge car after breakfast before returning to my seat for the duration of the trip into Chicago.

We got hung up in northwest Indiana by construction zones and freight traffic. One of the crew noted on the intercom that we were late, but that he expected an on-time arrival. Left unsaid was that the schedule padding would make that possible.

However, we pulled to a stop at the Union Station bumping post eight minutes down. It had been an enjoyable trip.

I stowed my luggage in a locker and spent the layover walking around downtown Chicago and the lakefront taking photographs. I also rode to the top of Willis Tower (nee Sears Tower) before having a late lunch at the Berghoff.

Then it was back to Union Station to wait to board the Illini, one of two pairs of state-sponsored trains between Chicago and Carbondale.

There was a new wrinkle in the boarding procedure from years past. As always, business class, seniors, active duty military, families with small children, and the physically challenged got to board first.

But then the gate agent let through small groups of coach passengers, having one group sit on one side of the departure lounge and another group sit on the other. And I do mean sit. If you were standing, the agent would tell you to have a seat.

Those not in the two initial groups cooled their heels in the waiting area. We boarded in the order that we had been let into the departure lounge.

I took a seat in Horizon coach No. 54503 on the left side of the car.  On the point was P42 No. 26. The car was not full upon leaving Chicago, but that had changed by the time we departed from Kankakee when nearly every seat had been taken.

Shortly before we were to depart from Chicago, I heard a commotion in the car behind the one in which I was sitting. The assistant conductor had found a woman smoking and was putting her off. I heard him tell the conductor on the radio that the “whole train smelled like smoke.” That was an exaggeration, but I later heard him tell a passenger in my coach that all of the coach in which she had been sitting smelled like a cigarette.

The AC told that passenger that the woman claimed not to know that there was no smoking allowed aboard the train and that she tried to hide from him before he found her. The incident did not cause us to be late leaving Union Station.

Usually, trains bound for the former Illinois Central back out of Union Station, but today we pulled straight out, proceeding to the bridge over the Chicago River and then backing up to the BNSF Raceway and the Union Avenue interlocking to reach the St. Charles Air Line. I noticed that a Metra locomotive had derailed.

This may have cost us a little time because we arrived in Homewood four minutes late. There was no freight train interference or track work, but we still managed to be 10 minutes late into Champaign. Some of that was due to having to take the “slow track” through Champaign Yard to go around a CN freight that was on the other main.

In my experience, the area around Champaign is where the southbound Illini is most likely to incur delays. There always seems to be freight traffic in the area and often we meet our northbound Amtrak counterpart at Tolono.

Today was no exception. After departing, we took the siding at Tolono to wait for the northbound Illini. It took several minutes for No. 392 to show up. There were no more delays after that and we arrived in Mattoon just over a half hour late.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

Daybreak from the last coast of Amtrak No. 29.

Daybreak from the last coach of Amtrak No. 29.

A crab cake for breakfast. An Amtrak first for me and a Capitol Limited tradition.

A crab cake for breakfast. An Amtrak first for me and a Capitol Limited tradition.

The dining car eventually began to fill up.

The dining car eventually began to fill up.

Passing a stack train in Elkhart, Ind., as seen from the Sightseer lounge.

Passing a stack train in Elkhart, Ind., as seen from the Sightseer lounge.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the St. Charles Airline.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the St. Charles Airline aboard the Illini.

The end of the journey is the platform in Mattoon, Ill. I boarded my first Amtrak train here in November 1972.

The end of the journey is the platform in Mattoon, Ill. I boarded my first Amtrak train here in November 1972.

Heading south for Carbondale.

Heading south for Carbondale.