A Continuing Conversation

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, January 15, 2019

As of October 17, 1971, when this shot of what is now Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” was made at Morton Grove, Illinois, the “Builder” had been moved to the Milwaukee Road east of the Twin Cities by Amtrak, away from its classic/heritage routing on the Burlington, and more recently, the Burlington Northern down the Mississippi (“Where Nature Smiles 300 Miles”). But, at least the “Builder” had been ‘saved’ by Amtrak.

Not so, however, for the Milwaukee’s sole remaining “Hiawatha” as of April 30, 1971, which the re-routed “Empire Builder” has replaced.  And even less for the “North Coast Limited”, which had been dropped entirely west of the Twin Cities, although NP equipment continues to show up on the remaining train between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, which used the route of the “North Coast’s” old competitor, the former Great Northern, between Minneapolis and Portland/Seattle. 

In reality, except for those preferring Armour Yellow-liveried equipment, local passengers between the Twin Cities and Chicago continued to have full dining service, and, for that matter, not only a full-length dome like that on the “Hiawatha” but “short” Budd domes as well.  No parlor cars, but a daytime seat could be booked in a sleeper, if so desired.

Over the next few years, Amtrak would engage in “Making the trains worth traveling again”, although partisans of the train shown here, as well as those representing the Santa Fe and Seaboard Coast Line might have argued about the necessity for this, even as of late 1970.  In any case, improvements were made: a national reservations system was established; credit cards became widely acceptable in payment for rail transportation; equipment was repainted and re-decorated.

Eventually new equipment was acquired, first, motive power, and then passenger equipment, in the form of Budd-built Amfleet cars, which continue in front-line service today.  Later, Superliners replaced ‘conventional’ equipment for the western long-haul trains (and eventually for some use in the east, as well.)  Turbine-powered trainsets entered the picture relatively early in Amtrak’s life, but didn’t pan out in the long run. 

Further down the road, new electric locomotives were ordered and installed; Amtrak is now on its third generation of this type of motive power.  A (relatively) high speed service, in the form of the Acela equipment replaced the multiple-unit Metroliners that Amtrak inherited from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Penn Central.

To the amazement of observers, some routes came back to life.  One, the “North Coast Hiawatha” actually restored service on the former NP route to the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Milwaukee Road’s flagship name to the route it traversed from St. Paul to Chicago.  Following the demise of the privately-owned Auto-Train, Amtrak restored this popular service, which effectively did not exist before the Amtrak era; many believe that it is one of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation’s most successful moves.

Still, not all the Amtrak news has been positive.  A number of long-haul services have gone by the wayside, including the rejuvenated “Hiawatha”, among others.  Today, there is considerable debate about where Amtrak should place its emphasis, generally under the assumption that it will be lucky to retain the Federal funding it has, much less be able to obtain money to expand. 

Which causes me to wonder: will it be possible to duplicate this photo two years hence, when Amtrak will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary?  And if it isn’t, will there be similar sadness and nostalgia for the Superliner consists that make up today’s train number eight, as there was for the colors of the GN, NP and, for that matter, of the post mid-1950s hues of the Milwaukee Road?  Only time will tell.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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