Amtrak’s latest buzzkill

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 30, 2019

Passengers on Florida East Coast's Florida Special smile from the platform of the train's observation car at Miami in the 1930s. Florida East Coast
I suppose they have their reasons — safety has become a zero-sum game — but I was disappointed to hear of Amtrak’s decision this week to uphold its ban on rear-platform and open Dutch-door riding for private cars. Petitioned by the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, Amtrak reconsidered its earlier ban, then said “no dice.”

I don’t think AAPRCO will get much sympathy. A lot of people think of private-car owners as rich people cruising the Amtrak system with a yacht mentality. But that’s unfair. A lot of car owners struggle to stay in business. Yes, they are generally selling luxury, but only at low margins, and at the price of sleepless nights and endless elbow grease. Many of the best car operators are non-profit organizations; Dover Harbor, operated by the Washington Chapter, NRHS, is a particular favorite of mine. 

Time was, an Amtrak president didn’t feel it necessary to play the safety card to this extreme. Lord knows Paul Reistrup and Graham Claytor knew the joys of the back platform. You could definitely say that about David Gunn, who led Amtrak 2002–2005 and had an infinitely more nuanced view of running a passenger railroad than the current boss.

In 2004, I had the chance join Gunn and Trains correspondent Bob Johnston for a ride from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities aboard Amtrak’s office car Beech Grove. I think Gunn would have scoffed at the idea that riding in the open air was inherently unsafe. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a railroad boss exhibit that much joy as he held on to the railing, a huge smile on his face. 

I’m not a frequent private-car passenger. The family budget only goes so far. But decades of working in railroad publishing has had its rewards, reminding me of what one of my journalism professors at Michigan State told me when I thought about changing my major. “Think of the wonderful things you will do!”

He was right. Editing jobs at Passenger Train Journal and Trains afforded me some amazing platform rides. It would be very hard to top the very first one. It was May 15, 1977, and PTJ had dispatched me to Washington to cover the dedication of Amtrak’s Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935, gleaming in its original PRR paint. I remember a lot about that day: how gorgeous the G looked in Brunswick green and gold pinstripes; the panache with which designer Raymond Loewy delivered his remarks; the fun of watching Mary Reistrup smash a champagne bottle on 4935’s pilot. 

But the highlight of the day came after the ceremony, when members of the news media got a chance to have some time on the platform of George Pins’ Pennsylvania Railroad office car 120 as 4935 flew up the Northeast Corridor toward New York with Amtrak’s Murray Hill. The 120 already had a considerable legacy that included assignment to PRR presidents and Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train of June 1968. It was an honor to squeeze myself out to the edge of the railing, even for a few minutes. 

A BNSF freight sails by the open platform of a business car on the rear of an intermodal train on the Transcon route in May 2000. John B. Corns
Years later, employment at Trains brought other choice platform rides. One night in 1990, I was coming back to Milwaukee from St. Louis via Amtrak’s River Cities, which linked St. Louis with Centralia, Ill., via the ex-Southern. The plan was to head north to Chicago the next morning on train 58, the City of New Orleans.

That night in St. Louis, as I walked up toward my Amcoach, someone yelled from the vestibule of a private car on the rear. It was Cimarron River, the former Frisco sleeper owned by brothers Andy and Tony Marchiando. A couple of guys were overseeing a deadhead move and asked me if I wanted to join them. I didn’t need the offer of a bucket of freshly iced shrimp and cans of Budweiser to make me say “yes,” but that helped. That night we rocketed through the blackness of remote south-central Illinois, and the vestibule was just as good as any observation platform. 

There have been other platform rides, more than this space allows. But I’ll mention one other, probably the best of all. In May 2000, BNSF agreed to allow photographer John B. Corns and me to be on the property over hundreds of miles of Transcon main line between Belen and Kansas City. We were following the former Santa Fe along U.S. 60, for Trains’ November 2000 60th anniversary issue.

The joys of Dutch-door and observation-platform riding are still available on tourist lines like Utah's Heber Valley Railroad. Robert S. McGonigal
John and I had planned to fly to Albuquerque to rent a car one way east, but in a moment of amazing generosity, BNSF public affairs boss Richard Russack called to ask if we’d like to ride to Belen in a business car on the back of piggyback train. I could barely believe what he was saying when I blurted out “yes!” On a warm evening a couple of weeks later, John and I hustled out of Argentine, seated on the platform in deck chairs, watching Sagittarius and Scorpius rise in the darkening southern sky as the Transcon spooled out from under us at 70 mph. 

Train riders hold few experiences more dearly than riding the back platform or surveying the world from a Dutch door. For those who patronize private varnish, it will be hard to give those up. But if Amtrak is a scold, then at least we can be grateful they’re not the only game in town. There are plenty of tourist lines and railroad museums that offer a chance to sample those joys — and find a way to factor common sense into the safety equation.  

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