Amtrak’s Turboliners vs. winter

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, February 19, 2021

Amtrak train 350 makes a pretty sight skimming through the snow at Parma, Mich., in 1979, but it belies the RTG Turboliners' unreliability in winter conditions. Doug Leffler
I’ll admit I’ve been fortunate this week, watching the disastrous cold weather play out across most of the U.S. as I sit here in relative comfort along the South Carolina coast, where we’re spending a few weeks away from Milwaukee. I almost feel guilty about it. 

The view from here is striking as the national news unfolds a drama of freeway crashes, power outages, even water shortages. The news also has underscored something else: railroads are not always the vaunted “all-weather mode.” The headlines say it all: Amtrak cancels dozens of trains; Union Pacific shuts down its intermodal network; Austin’s transit agency halts all rail service; South Shore terminates its commuter trains east of Michigan City. For railroads, this will be a winter to remember.

So was the winter of late December 1977 and early January 1978, at least for me. That’s when a stretch of heavy snow led to an inauspicious encounter with one of Amtrak’s celebrated French-built Turboliners. You might recall the gas-turbine speedsters that romped along major Midwestern corridors back in the 1970s.

Built by the French firm ANF and ushered into service beginning in 1973, the six new RTG Turboliners offered passengers a sleek vision of what Amtrak could be. Soon, the Turbos were fixtures on trains running out of Chicago to Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Detroit. (The French RTG trains were distinct from the later RTL versions, a set of seven trains built under license by Rohr Industries and used in New York’s Empire Service.) 

In an all-too-common scene, passengers transfer from a dead Turboliner to a conventional train at Albion, Mich., in January 1976. Doug Leffler
Each five-unit RTG trainset consisted of a pair of power cars, each with a 1,140 h.p. Turbomecca turbine; two coaches; and what was called a bar/grill. These were fixed-consist trains, so they had very little operational flexibility, something that would come back to bite them later. But they offered a smooth, fast ride, with huge picture windows that contrasted sharply with the rifle slots of an Amcoach. I liked the Turboliners, especially the way they sounded like a Learjet when they went whining past my apartment, leaving a trail of kerosene scent lingering in the air. 

My story begins in the late morning of December 31, 1977. My wife Alison and I were living in Niles, Mich., where I was working for the South Bend Tribune and moonlighting as managing editor of Passenger Train Journal. We had arranged to meet friends that evening in Detroit for a New Year’s Eve celebration. The schedule was perfect: take Amtrak train 350 out of Niles at 10:35 a.m. and arrive in Detroit at 2:25 p.m., with plenty of time to make our dinner reservation at the Fox & Hounds restaurant in Bloomfield Hills. 

What we didn’t plan on was a heavy snowstorm. The French trains had already demonstrated they had problems in the Midwestern winter when snow clogged their air intakes, as evidenced by Doug Leffler’s photo here of a dead Turboliner at Albion, Mich., the year before. We had read news accounts of Turboliners breaking down in heavy snow, and that afternoon the forecast called for more. In a brilliant burst of foresight, Alison packed a couple of blankets for our trip. 

Detroit–Chicago train 355 stands at Jackson, Mich., in January 1976, five years before nightfall for Amtrak's Midwest Turbos. Doug Leffler
We were rolling along at 60 mph somewhere west of Marshall, enjoying the snow flying past our window, when the turbines suddenly began to wind down and the train came to a stop in the middle of frozen cornfields. Before long the crew announced that train 350 was unable to be revived. We were told we’d have to wait for train 352, following some three hours behind us out of Chicago. There was no way, apparently, for Amtrak to get buses to us.

So, there we sat. It became an ordeal. With the engines down, the batteries gradually faded, along with the lights. It didn’t take long for the interior to get uncomfortably cold, although thanks to our blankets we were in better shape than our fellow passengers. As I recall, the train was crowded; I’m sure Amtrak’s crew was getting an earful from a lot of people. I tried to roll with it, but as a PTJ staffer I found the whole thing embarrassing.

Finally, with the late afternoon light fading across the barren countryside, we heard an approaching train come up alongside. Thank goodness this stretch of Conrail’s former New York Central remained double-track territory. It was train 352, equipped with conventional coaches and a trusty E unit. Steam-heated equipment never looked so welcome.

Within a few minutes the crew began transferring us to the other train. One by one all of us began stepping down into deep snow in the trench between the tracks, then hoisted ourselves up into the vestibules. We must have looked like war refugees as we trudged down the aisle of the nearly sold-out train, looking for places to sit. But at least we were warm. It only took 10 minutes or so before 352 whistled off and we left our cold Turboliner behind.

We tried to rescue our evening as best we could. Our friends had the presence of mind to head west to Ann Arbor, where they alerted the crew and tracked us down via the p.a. system. Safely off the train, we headed out into the night to find a less memorable alternative to the Fox & Hounds; we’d blown past our reservation long before.

That was my last ride on a Turboliner. It didn’t take long for Amtrak to give up on the RTGs, plagued as they were with not only their aversion to snow but also the high cost of fuel, plus those fixed consists. They were taken out of Midwest service by 1981, although three RTG sets were later modified at Amtrak’s Beech Grove Shops to basically match the Rohr-built RTL’s. All of the original RTG trains subsequently were scrapped, even those rebuilt to Rohr specs. 

Amtrak was always good at publicity in those days, famously calling the 1973 debut of the Turboliners “the greatest travel advance since the 747.” But as we hauled our shivering selves up into Budd vestibules in a dark Michigan cornfield, that boast sounded hollow.

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