Classic, or Hybrid?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, October 30, 2018

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

There is a tendency in the railfan community to think of the early years of Amtrak as a sort of 'restoration' of the fondly-remembered postwar streamliners.  Certainly Amtrak's initial marketing mantra, "Making the Trains Worth Traveling Again" did little to disabuse fans, and for that matter, potential patrons.  With few exceptions (Santa Fe and Seaboard Coast LIne in particular), the remaining intercity passenger trains in the U.S. by April 1971 were at best, "shadows of their former selves".

Many of the postwar streamliners had simply vanished, the Twentieth Century Limited being a particularly poignant example.  Others had been truncated and consolidated to a fare-thee-well: while the service on Union Pacific's remaining service between Chicago and points on the west coast was well beyond adequate (although the dome diners had departed the scene by the spring of 1971), what once had been a fleet of "Cities" streamliners was now down to a single consist on its eastern end, and had been dubbed the "City of Everywhere" by fans, which certainly was an accurate appellation.

At the other end of the spectrum; I had the chance to see several Penn Central trains with previously famous names in the last day or two prior to Amtrak in Chicago.  The Broadway Limited, essentially the General, still had a modest amount of sleeping car space, a diner and lounge in addition to its coaches, although the pea-green color applied to some of the passenger equipment did nothing to lift an enthusiast's spirits. Terming this entity "First Class" would have strained credulity..

The final eastbound Admiral consisted of a pair of baggage cars, a former NYC smooth-side coach and a former N&W sleeper converted to a coach, including a snack bar for the journey east to New York City.  PC train 356, running on what was approximately the Twilight Limited's time slot could in no way have been confused with its ancestor, with a tired-looking E7 for power, followed by a single snack-bar coach.

Accordingly, when Amtrak arrived and began fixing up and repainting equipment, as well as introducing a nationwide reservation system and allowing the use of credit cards, these moves were greeted with a mixture of hope and enthusiasm by the passenger train faithful. In the east, rectifying the fairly abysmal train that I'd seen in April 1971, the Broadway was selected as the first eastern long-haul train to receive a complete makeover.

On the equipment side, however, with the exception of motive power, in the form of EMD's SDP40F, the cars remained the same.  Amtrak also realized clearly that even attempting to return "classic-era" decor and service standards would have created difficulties in attracting customers who were often either unaware of the niceties of classic rail travel or worse, had endured the bad old days of the glide slope to oblivion prior to May 1, 1971.  Lucius Beebe in his early-1960s book Twentieth Century complained about the New York Central repainting the interior of a sleeper that he rode in a relatively bright yellow hue; one wonders what he would have thought of Amtrak's 1970s bold, vibrant color palette, particularly the purple.

So, when you look at the picture above, of Amtrak train number 5 east of Truckee, California, ascending Donner Pass on its journey west to the San Francisco Bay area, it's tempting to think that things hadn't turned out too badly, after all, by December 29, 1977 when the photo was taken.  Roomettes and Double Bedrooms are there for passengers to enjoy, as well as leg-rest coaches (all former Santa Fe, in this instance).  And while the dining probably could not have been described as "Lucullan", it was food actually cooked on board for the most part, and could be enjoyed while Winter Wonderland scenes rolled by outside.

However, if you considered the reality of the situation, while it was possible to conjure up memories of the glorious past of the American passenger train, it also was easy to see that this was no longer the case.  The SPD40Fs up front certainly lacked the streamlined grace of an E or F unit (or, for that matter, a set of PAs, which might have been seen on this run a little over a decade earlier), although it was hard to argue with their relative brawn, compared with their predecessors.  It was possible to walk through the cars, and either recall or guess which prestigious assignment they may have held down "back in the day", but this clearly wasn't the case now.  That was then, and this is now; "the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on"; I wonder if passengers on today's Amtrak California Zephyr think back fondly about the late 1970s version?

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