Amtrak's rainbow connection

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, April 29, 2021

In a dazzling display of equipment from at least six railroads, Amtrak's Silver Meteor is northbound at Sanford, Fla. (beside Auto-Train's terminal) in September 1972. Walter A. Peters
People who love passenger trains are hearkening back 50 years to May 1, 1971, the day Amtrak, created by Congress nearly out of whole cloth the previous year, began operations. It was an inaugural both anxious and auspicious, the former because this brand-new railroad would inevitably have its fits and starts, the latter because there was so much at stake. We all remember red-letter days like May 10, 1869 (needs no introduction) and April 1, 1976 (Conrail Day), but Amtrak’s big debut ranks right up there. As of that midnight, America’s railroad world would never be the same. 

Looking back that far, I can’t help but surrender to a fair amount of nostalgia, thanks to one of the essential facts of Amtrak’s birth: its fleet of cast-off passenger cars inherited from nine different railroads. From the perspective of a half-century, the challenge Amtrak faced in building a fleet seems almost impossible. Somehow, they did it, buying 1,190 cars, mostly from Western carriers, including 441 from the Santa Fe alone. For all this, Amtrak paid a grand total of $16.8 million. That’s about $14,000 per car (or $93,000 today).

The Lewis & Clark lounge in an ex-Northern Pacific Traveller's Rest car (pictured in the 1950s) was an incongruous surprise on an Amtrak Michigan train in 1973. William D. Middleton
What Amtrak got was a fantastically varied collection of remnants from the great postwar streamliner era, most of them the products of the Budd Company and Pullman-Standard. The emphasis was on the stock stuff — coaches, sleepers, and baggage cars — but there were enough diners and domes and lounges to make things interesting. Even the occasional observation car made the cut.  

Suddenly we were in the Rainbow Era, when nearly every passenger train was a jumble of car types, carbody finishes, and color schemes. Photographers had a field day recording the kaleidoscope. Like Forrest Gump, you never knew what you were gonna get.

I learned this firsthand on a cold winter’s night in 1973, when I boarded Amtrak 354, the St. Clair, the evening Chicago–Detroit train. Ready to encounter the usual mix of mundane Budd-built stainless-steel coaches and perhaps a snack-bar lounge of some lineage, I was stunned to push through the vestibule door and find myself inside the so-called “Lewis & Clark” lounge of one of Northern Pacific’s “Traveller’s Rest” buffet-­lounge cars, rebuilt for North Coast Limited service back in 1955.

Another exotic holdover from pre-Amtrak times: a Southern Pacific three-quarter-length dome, with 11 feet of clear space at one end. Classic Trains collection
One of several former coach-lounge-buffets rebuilt by NP, that Traveller’s Rest car was just about the most exotic thing this Michigander had ever seen on rails. Many of its design characteristics are credited to Raymond Loewy, but to me the real hero of the car was the Chicago artist Edgar Miller, whom NP had commissioned to create nearly full-length murals along the interior. Painted on what appeared to be buckskin, these illustrated maps depicted key moments in the 1803–06 explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, including their storied Montana campsite that gave the cars their name. I recall sitting in the lounge, tracing the great explorers’ trek through Montana and Idaho and Oregon, even as Kalamazoo and Battle Creek passed incongruously out the windows. 

Then there was the time I rode to Denver in the spring of 1972 for an early meeting of the Tourist Railway Association, known as TRAIN. Several friends gathered at Chicago Union Station, boarded our sleepers, then discovered to our delight that the train included one of the celebrated ex-Southern Pacific three-quarter-length domes, kitbashed in SP’s own shops back in 1954 and ’55 for use on various Daylights and other trains. David P. Morgan called it one of his favorite lightweight cars, and it was easy to understand why as we cruised across the Illinois prairie, settling in for a drink beneath the lounge’s lofty dome glass, approximately 11 feet above us. 

There were so many other surprises in those early years: New York Central observation cars on the Chicago–Dubuque Blackhawk; the combined Empire Builder/North Coast Hiawatha rolling along the Yakima River, flying the flags of (count ’em) five different railroads; the B&O sleeper-lounge-obs cars Metcalf and Dana on the Broadway Limited; SP sleeping cars in Florida service; and NP dome sleepers on the Floridian.

Ex-Baltimore & Ohio observation car Metcalf brings up the rear of Amtrak's Broadway Limited departing Chicago in 1972. Robert P. Schmidt
The fun — if that’s what you want to call it — couldn’t last, and gradually Amtrak transitioned to a uniform look, partly through the slow but steady repainting and renovating of its inherited cars, more so with the sudden influx of the first Amfleet cars in 1975 and Superliners in 1979. All of that modernization was to the good: the railroad couldn’t survive on the old cars, despite the relative success of Amtrak’s later Heritage Fleet project.

But we lost something in the transition. For the National Association of Railroad Passengers and other members of the Amtrak lobby, the Rainbow Era was best left behind, but I came to miss it in the inevitable march toward uniformity. As a frequent passenger between Milwaukee and Chicago in those first few years, that meant resting your head on GM&O antimacassars, grabbing a snack in an old Seaboard Coast Line diner, and watching the signals blur past at Rondout through Burlington dome glass. It was a brief but blessed bit of chaos.  

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