Amtrak’s first timetable was a labor of love

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Front page of Amtrak's first full system timetable released Nov. 14, 1971, was a simple, clean design.
Back page of Amtrak's first timetable was an ad that more than hinted at the problems of the railroad's startup.
Of the many deprivations endured over the past couple of years on Amtrak, one that has frustrated me the most has been the disappearance of the printed system timetable.

I can’t begin to count how many system TTs I’ve had on my desk over the years, but it must have been dozens. The darn thing is so incredibly useful, and for so many reasons: confirming the times for Milwaukee’s morning trains to Chicago, figuring how to string together long trips with multiple connections, double-checking distances between stations, even confirming spellings of stations.

No wonder my boss Dave Ingles gave me this advice when he hired me at Trains 34 years ago: “Here’s the latest Amtrak timetable. Make sure you always have a copy handy. You won’t believe how often you’ll need it.” He was right.  

As Trains’ Amtrak correspondent Bob Johnston has reported, the last time Amtrak issued a system timetable with grid schedules for all trains was in 2018, three years ago. Since then, the company has tried to compensate by offering downloadable route-specific timetables, but that ended in March 2020, leaving travelers, especially veteran ones like me, to the laborious and altogether annoying alternative of going down the drop-down-menu rabbit hole on Amtrak’s website. You want a truly contextual, big-picture view of Amtrak’s schedule? Forget it. 

Perhaps there is good news on the horizon. Bob reports that the company’s current “timetable automation project” should be completed sometime by the end of this year, offering not only downloadable and print origin/destination searches, but also the ability to “generate a search based on route.” I’m skeptical this will be a satisfying replacement, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’m nostalgic for the old version. I keep a PDF of the 2018 issue on my desktop and consult it all the time. Amtrak schedules don’t change all that much, so it’s still pretty useful.

What got me thinking about the system timetable this week was an email from my friend and former boss Kevin McKinney, founder of Passenger Train Journal and now a columnist for the magazine. McKinney, you see, is also a timetable true believer, and has the war stories to prove it, including this one from November 1971, 50 years ago this week. 

Amtrak's nonstop Metroliner 120 speeds north through Monmouth Junction, N.J., on Jan. 24, 1972. Tom Nelligan photo
Back then, McKinney was working as the railroad’s manager of scheduling and timetables, having graduated the year before from the transportation program at Michigan State. A big day loomed on the calendar: November 14, the day the first Amtrak-created timetable was issued; earlier ones had come from the publishers of the old Official Guide.

In a June 1991 story for Trains, McKinney remembered what it was like when those first timetables showed up at Amtrak headquarters at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington. 

“Everybody stood by the box like children on Christmas morning. Hal Graham (Amtrak’s marketing vice president) grabbed the first folder from the box and beamed as if Santa had delivered exactly the toy he wanted. Graham raced off to show Roger Lewis (Amtrak CEO) and other executives.”

McKinney had spent months working on the various aspects that made up that first timetable, from the basic graphic design to the schedules themselves to even some new train names. He was especially eager to give the traveling public access to new services, new innovations, and lots more information. Essential to the whole release was quickly getting the timetables into stations, especially along the Northeast Corridor. Not as easy as it might seem.

“We had not been getting a lot of cooperation from Penn Central people — their management was pretty much falling apart,” McKinney recalls. “So, to make sure the boxes of timetables got distributed to each station, instead of the whole batch ending up in Boston, I decided to go along for the ride and made sure each station received their share.” 

Amtrak train 145, the Bay State, behind an ex-NH GP9 and ex-PRR E8, heads out of Boston on Dec. 16, 1971. Scott Hartley photo
McKinney rode up the Corridor on the new Bay State, making his various distributions with an eye toward making a split at New Haven, with boxes off-loaded for New London, Conn., Providence, and intermediate Shore Line stations. Meanwhile, McKinney took the Inland Route via Springfield, because, as he explains, “A) it was a new service, and B) it had the baggage car.”  

That baggage car was McKinney’s home for nine hours. “It was tiring, but a unique and enjoyable experience rocking along the NEC at high speeds in a baggage car, at least it was for a 20-something me,” says McKinney. “And the mission was successfully accomplished.”

One interesting sidelight: to print the timetables, Amtrak had chosen Dittler Brothers, a specialty printer in Atlanta known for working with airlines. Just two years later, Dittler would begin printing the Amtrak stuff on a huge Goss press acquired from none other than Kalmbach Publishing Co., which had closed its printing division in 1973. Thus, Amtrak timetables would come roaring off the same press that previously printed Trains and Model Railroader.

That Nov. 14, 1971, timetable would be a nice collector’s item to have. The full-page ad on the back is an interesting blend of promotion and apologia. More than anything, it reminds me of the dedication of those early Amtrak officials — Kevin McKinney among them — who considered the passenger train a calling, not just a job. 

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