The Wayback Machine: Amtrak in 1975

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, May 5, 2011

Way back when, if you wanted to know what was happening at Amtrak, you had to read Rail Travel News, a 20- to 24-page, twice-monthly, vest-pocket-sized magazine so poorly printed as to sometimes be almost unreadable. But poor print quality was part of the charm, the price was right ($8 a year for a sub), and it had information you could get nowhere else. RTN was a labor of love begun in 1970 by Californian Ed Malmstrom (using the pen name James Russell), and so far as I can tell, the publication continued in some fashion until 2010. But the mid to late 1970s were its heyday. Those were tumultuous years for the new National Railroad Passenger Corp., and RTN was there to report everything that happened; no rumor went unnoticed. I devoured each issue the day it arrived and debated its contents with friends.

I’m reminded of all this when I venture into Franciscan Hobbies in south San Francisco and on the bookshelf discover a complete, hard-bound set of Rail Travel News issues covering 1975-1979. Of course, I buy the lot — there goes $80 — and have been reliving the past. So welcome to my Wayback Machine. If you think these are interesting times for Amtrak in 2011, you should have been around in 1975. Come with me, please.

As 1975 begins, Roger Lewis is ending his four-year tenure as Amtrak’s first president. His background was aerospace, running General Dynamics. Lewis knew nothing about railroads when he arrived at Amtrak in early 1971 and knows very little when he leaves. The suspicion is that he was as surprised as Richard Nixon that Amtrak didn’t die in infancy. But the first thing you are forced to remember when reading RTN is that before he leaves, Roger Lewis obtains board approval and financing to begin reequipping Amtrak’s inherited and aging fleet of cars and locomotives. The new equipment arrives during successor Paul Reistrup’s tenure, and he gets the credit. But Lewis starts the ball rolling.

Early in 1975 RTN begins a five-part series, “Inside Amtrak Headquarters,” resulting from writer Peter Putnam Bretz’s sojourn there the previous November, interviewing anyone who would talk to him. His host is Jim Bryant, then Amtrak’s No. 2 PR man and today my neighbor in McLean, Va. Pete’s series starts strong, with his impressions of Washington and Amtrak’s offices at L’Enfant Plaza. But although he sticks around three weeks, eventually walking through the building unescorted, Bretz never interviews anyone of importance, and the series sputters to an inconsequential end without your ever learning much.
Almost every issue of 1975 bristles with examples of the defining problem of that era for Amtrak: keeping equipment operable. Cars frequently are set off enroute due to breakdowns, such as the diner of the westbound North Coast Hiawatha at Minneapolis one day, subjecting passengers to a two-day diet of fried chicken put aboard at stops, and the Los Angeles-New York sleeping car at Houston on another occasion. But the real bugaboo is inoperable air-conditioning. Passengers on the southbound Silver Star rebel in Richmond, Va., and refuse to reboard on August 2 when air-conditioning breaks down on five cars in 95-degree heat.

Of particular interest is Paul Reistrup’s reaction to riding the Broadway Limited, contained in an interoffice memo that RTN intercepts in October. The Broadway on May 1, 1972, became Amtrak’s first refurbished train. Just three years later the boss calls it “not a very plush train.” Reports Reistrup: “There were a good many equipment difficulties.... In general, the end doors of the 5200 series, former Seaboard Coast Line cars, are all bad. It is hard to find one that it is in good shape.... It is a mystery to me how we can spent up to $120,000 on a car for heavy shopping and yet have it come out with doors that don’t work.” He goes on: “There were several air conditioning failures.... My general impression is that the crews on this train are demoralized and lack the spunk that they have on many of our operations. I do not feel that it is my job, as President, to go around instructing service attendants to fill out Form 1000-A. To my knowledge, none of the equipment failures had been placed, by the crew, on the form in the appropriate manner.... We need training, discipline, responsiveness, and first of all, pleasant crews when we are handling so many people on a train that lacks so many good features.” One thing that West Point-educated Reistrup can do is inspect a train until you want to beg him to stop.

On a happier note, Oct. 31 marks the startup of the second Lake Shore Limited between New York and Chicago via the former New York Central. The first Lake Shore was Amtrak’s first state-supported, section 403-B train, begun in the summer of 1971 and suspended the following January when those five states never wrote the required checks to Amtrak. The 1975 edition includes a Boston-Albany, N.Y., section. From this modest beginning with nine cars would come Amtrak’s most heavily used train in the East.

Other Wayback events of 1975: Reistrup is on the job a month when, on April 2, Amtrak comes to agreement with Pullman-Standard to build 235 bilevel cars for trains in the West. Later that year, the first Budd-built Amfleet cars begin leaving the factory near Philadelphia at the rate of one every working day. At first there are no locomotives able to supply hotel power to these Metroliner-inspired cars, so each train includes a baggage car outfitted with a motor-alternator. The first P30CH diesels arrive, as do the earliest E60 electrics, both from General Electric; neither series would have noteworthy careers at Amtrak, the Pooches ending their days a decade later fronting the long, heavy Auto Train.

When I finish reading those 24 issues of Rail Travel News, I am reacquainted with the spirit of those times: That things were finally starting to get better for the American passenger train. That indeed was the case. Paul Reistrup would remain at Amtrak for almost five years, becoming to my mind one of its best CEOs, in company with Alan Boyd, Graham Claytor, and David Gunn.
The experience also gives me perspective. Yes, there are those in Congress today who would strip Amtrak of its operating subsidy and deny it the capital needed to replace its 1975-era equipment. But the company has friends in high places, too, including one who lives in the White House. That has never been the case before. These issues of Rail Travel News recall the excitement of a passenger train company in its early years. I’ll settle for the less-exciting Amtrak we enjoy today.

Finally, I should note that Rail Travel News provided a depth of information about the goings on inside Amtrak that is missing today. The internet only provides the illusion that you are well informed. No amount of money today will buy you the knowledge that my $8 per year investment in that era did.

That's what is on my mind this weekend. I'd like to read your memories of Amtrak in that era (and of Rail Travel News). — Fred W. Frailey


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