Friday, February 10, 2012


Amtrak is an interesting outfit.

They were born amid the railroad crisis that came to light with the Penn Central bankruptcy of 1968.  A ward of the government, they were generally regarded with disdain by the freight railroads that hosted their trains and by the government itself, as they came hat in hand every year, asking for enough money to live another year.

Amtrak has a split personality.  There are the fast, efficient trains of the Northeast Corridor.  Amtrak owns the railroad there, the track itself.  Half of Amtrak's revenue and passengers are generated there.  The name of the game is fast, frequent service.  Say "Metroliner" or "Acela" anywhere in the Northeast and people know what you're talking about.  The actual "running the trains" part of the business turns a modest profit.

The 20 Acela train sets earn 25% of Amtrak's revenue
The other half of Amtrak is a throw-back to the 1950s. A skeletal network of long distance trains connecting the major cities of the country.
Amtrak in 1971

Amtrak today

Most take a day or two to get where they are going.

Modern-day Crescent stops at Gainesville, GA,
midway on it's 30 hour journey from New Orleans to New York City
California Zephyr negotiates one of many scenic canyons in Colorado on it's two day trip from Chicago to San Francisco.
They are the remnant of the great network of long distance trains that used to connect every point in the country.  War surplus planes, airfields and pilots built and trained during WWII siphoned off all the business travelers.  Auto ownership, suburban migration and highway expansion, fueled by cheap gasoline, took the rest. By the late 1960s, what was left was in sorry shape and sapping the railroad industry of money is sorely needed to stay alive.

Once the premier way for businessmen
to get from NY to Chicago,
the Broadway Limited snakes it's way through
Pennsylvania in the early 1990s.
Old locomotives and old coaches kept things going on the
Hudson River valley in the early 1970s

So, the government formed Amtrak on May 1, 1971 and the railroads were relieved of running passenger trains.  The remaining network was paired down to a cohesive, interconnected network, organized and operated by Amtrak.  The railroads were now merely hosts to the trains and were paid for the cost of running them over their lines. They were still a nuisance to them to have around, but at least they weren't a financial drain.

The National Limited on it's way from Kansas City to New York City
snakes it's way around a Conrail freight train.
There are two prevailing schools of thought about how Amtrak was to turn out.  One was that it was just a convenient interim step before all the trains outside of the Northeast Corridor could be killed off for good.  The other was the some of the worst performing long distance trains would be discontinued and the money saved diverted into developing other money-making corridors around the country.  Neither occurred.

Regional politics took hold and nothing much changed.  Amtrak's routes have changed very little since it's creation and Amtrak has launched only a few new corridor services, mostly with the financial support of a few states like Maine, North Carolina and California.  Amtrak, as a whole loses quite a bit of money per passenger.  Those long distance trains with their sleeping cars and dining cars take in only about 50 cents for every dollar it cost to operate them.
In it's heyday, the Super Chief escorted movie stars to LA.
Here is remnant of this once-great train, the Southwest Limited,
gliding east through Illinois. 
So, here is Amtrak, at 40 years old, no longer trying to figure out what it should be when it grows up - the  "helicopter parents" in the House and Senate have long since killed any initiative Amtrak may have had.  Amtrak gets scolded for losing so much money and then told not to change anything.  With a few notable exceptions, they've had a steady string of leaders who were either ineffective or destructive or both. They have been beaten down so long, they no longer try to find better ways to do things, but merely hope to survive until tomorrow.  Despite all this, the trains still run - and you can ride them and see parts of America that you won't see from the air or highway. But, they are mostly a well kept, irrelevant secret.  Ask most Atlantans about Amtrak and most don't even know that there is a train that comes through town or, if they do know, where it comes from and goes to.

Despite all this, Amtrak still has some pride.  Their shortcomings notwithstanding, they have accomplished things.  They replaced the entire rag-tag fleet of passengers cars they inherited at the start with four standard kinds.  They replace their entire locomotive fleet twice, each generation being a cut above the old.  They've made improvements to the Northeast Corridor in two great steps, each time raising trains speeds and reducing trip times.  They took the successful Penn Central Metroliner and made it a household name.  They replace that with 150 mph Acela, the fastest train in the Western hemisphere. They have partnered with states and are now starting to fulfill their initial promise of fast, frequent service on new corridors.

North Carolina's growing Charlotte to Raleigh Corridor
They have a sense of their history and place in American culture.  They are currently celebrating their 40th aniversary with a special display train showing off their history and accomplishments so that people can learn of the long connection between this country and it's passenger trains..  They have also commemorated the the milestone by painting some locomotives in their older paint schemes from their history.

Amtrak 156 at NC Transportation Museum on 7/3/2012

The other day, one of these commemorative locomotives was leading Amtrak's Crescent north out of Atlanta.  I met it at Buford Georgia.  It was the original paint scheme from the days when Amtrak was new and there was hope for fast, frequent service in regions around the country.  It was bittersweet watching it go by. It's a nice train.  The equipment is in good condition and service is pretty good.  It even runs close to on time most days.  But, by now, Atlanta should have been a hub connecting cities around the southeast with fast, frequent service.  Instead, it's just the Crescent, on it's ancient route - two locomotives, a baggage car, four 60 seat coaches, a lounge car, a dining car and two 30 bed sleeping cars  - making it's slow and steady, daily trek from New Orleans to New York City.

So, here's to Amtrak, frozen in childhood, stuck between the slow and steady and fast and frequent.  Hanging on despite the odds.  Not quite fully alive, but not dead yet, either.

The Crescent rolls through the Georgia night....

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Maine - 1978

It was late Spring 1978.  Late May to be exact.  Classes were over. The snow had melted.  The sun was peaking out from behind the gray blanket of clouds that were so typical for Troy, NY.   The grass was green.  It was time to go somewhere and do something!

There were three of us who lived in our suite in Church II in the Quad dorms at RPI.  Kevin and I were Seniors and had our real-world jobs lined up for June.  Scott was a Junior who had no where particular to go, so we planned a trip.

The Gulf?  Florida?  Don't be silly.  We were all members of the school's model railroad club and spent much of our spare time working on it or going out to watch real trains.  We picked Maine.

Maine was chosen for a variety of reasons.  They had two small regional railroad operating there:  The Maine Central and The Bangor and Aroostook.  Both were hanging on by connecting Maine's forest products and industry to the rest of the US rail network.  The Bangor and Aroostook also still moved some of the potatoes to market during the fall harvest.  The Maine Central still operated a daily train up the steep grade through Crawford Notch, NH. Each also had some unique locomotives that were worth taking a look at.

So we piled into Kevin's 1974 Javelin - he had the nicest car among us - and off we went.  Scott and I traded off sitting in the back.  The Javelin was fine car, but it the back seat was more decoration than a good place to sit.

It looked a lot like this car...

First stop on the trip was Boston - to check out the evening rush hour out of South Station.  At the time the MBTA owed the commuter equipment with Conrail being the operator.  There was a real hodgepodge of equipment.  Ex-New Haven coaches, old PRR P70 coaches and the rusty remnants of the New York Central's Great Steel Fleet. There were even some Budd RDCs.  The locomotives included some leased (?) B&M Geeps and the last hurrah of the D&H PA - on loan from New York.  It was interesting to watch, but not likely much fun for the commuters.  The equipment was old and ratty.  The weather wasn't much better.

After Boston, we headed up to Maine and stopped by the Maine Central's headquarters the morning of the next day.  The headquarters building was right adjacent to Portland Terminal's Rigby Yard in Portland, a location shared by the Boston and Maine Railroad and the MEC. We signed a release so we could take pictures around the yard and enginehouse.  The staff at the headquarters also loaded us up with and armful of MEC propaganda - maps, annual reports, flyers, brochures, etc.  They told us we could go anywhere we wanted, just don't get in the way of anything. They couldn't have been any more accommodating!

We headed to the yard and did, indeed, go everywhere.
Alco switchers in the enginehouse

The last MEC Geep in the old paint scheme - at the time

New B&M GP40-2 takes a ride on the turntable


Alco switcher working the yard
After we had tramped all over the place, we for Bangor, following the MEC mainline along the way.

Spring run-off in Lewiston, ME

We stopped by the Waterville shops and got the same excellent treatment.  They even has some freshly overhauled equipment on display.

At Bangor, we stayed at a hotel near the MEC enginehouse and stopped by for a visit after dark.  

The next morning, we visited the Bangor and Aroostook yard in Bangor (pictures to come later!) and then headed back to Portland to try to find the daily train head for their Mountain Division through Crawford Notch, NH.  We caught the southbound just arriving the Portland area.

And, then found the northbound just past Conway, NH.  We followed him all the way up the grade until the sun set just past the notch.

Into the meat of the grade.

Kevin and Scott catch the train at Wiley House Station

Grinding up the steepest part of the grade.

At the Notch station.  The track to the north is controlled by a register book.  The train stops and the crew signs in.

In the fading light, a pan shot.  Blurry Kevin in the foreground.
From there it was back to the car and across Vermont to New York.  

Much of the paper business in Maine has faded away, so these rail lines are struggling to find useful work. The Bangor and Aroostook is just about completely gone, these days.  The remnant is now called the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic RR.  The Maine Central is now part of Pan Am Railroad which is primarily the old Boston and Maine plus the MEC.   The part of the MEC's old Mountain Division from Conway to Crawford Notch is now run as a tourist operation - the Conway Scenic RR.  The passenger service between Boston and Portland, which was restored in the mid-90s is now being extended to Rockland, ME.

So, it wasn't drunken fun at the beach.  I was never much for drunken fun, anyway. We didn't even stop for a lobster.  I didn't know I liked them back then!  But, it was a fun trip to a great part of the country with good friends at a turning point in life....and I have the pictures to prove it!