Observations about Opportunities and Regrets

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, June 17, 2020

After surviving the “train-off” decade-of-decline in the 1960s, Amtrak’s arrival in 1971 was cause for both concern, and hope.  The former related to the many “last runs” on April 30, 1971, several of which I was able to witness and photograph in Chicago; the latter took some heart from the National Railroad Passenger Corporation’s initial marketing slogan, “Making the Trains Worth Traveling Again”. 

Amtrak’s early years have come to be known as the “Rainbow” era, inasmuch as equipment still painted in their former operators’ colors began to be distributed all over the country, and combined in consists the like of which had never been seen before, routinely, and certainly, once they were repainted into Amtrak’s initial “pointless arrow” livery, not since then, either.

In reality, in a significant part of my railroad world at the time, i.e. the former New York Central’s “Empire Service”, most of the equipment remained the same:  former NYC 3000-series Pullman-Standard postwar fluted-side stainless steel coaches.  Eventually, a modest amount of variety showed up, in the form of the occasional RF&P/SCL coach, but since these also were unpainted stainless steel, they really didn’t provide much visual variety.

During this period, I was commuting to and from Grand Central Terminal in New York City during the week, and would occasionally see the morning westbound Empire Service departure for Buffalo as we neared GCT.  I’m sure that on many occasions I may have missed this while reading the morning newspaper, but I recall being quite startled in October 1973 when I noticed that train 71 was being trailed by an observation-lounge car. 

I’ve always enjoyed seeing, photographing and riding streamlined observations, although the opportunities in the first two activity categories vastly outweighed the third.  The NYC, of course, post-December 1967, when the Twentieth Century Limited was discontinued, had ceased to operate any obs cars. 

Initially, I wondered if this had been a one-time sighting, but soon learned that as of the fall timetable change it was now a daily operation.  Accordingly, on October 28, 1973, I arranged to be at the Croton North Station to photograph this wondrous occurrence, capturing Amtrak 3341, formerly SCL 5841, and delivered as SAL tavern-lounge observation 6001 in July 1947.

At this point, Amtrak had labeled this train with the historic Empire State Express name, since train 71 (and eastbound counterpart 78) operated on a schedule approximating that of NYC 50 and 51 between New York City and Buffalo.  I had ridden the NYC trains in their 1950s heyday, and have memories of the enjoying riding in their tavern-lounge observations on a few occasions; didn’t the current (late 1973) situation offer the opportunity to re-create at least a portion of these memories?

Alas, events (including the usual suspects, time and money, and, for that matter, inertia) conspired to prevent this from occurring, which I’ve long regretted, since the return of observation cars to the Hudson Division didn’t last long.  In the spring of 1969, I had managed to ride the Silver Meteor between New York and Richmond, Virginia (Penn Central and RF&P), and had enjoyed spending most of the trip in one of the former-SAL observations, so at least I’ve had the experience of riding on one of the cars represented in the photo above.

Today, if you want to ride on an observation in regular service, essentially the only option is VIA Rail’s Canadian (assuming that it is operating).  That one I’ve managed to accomplish, although another iteration isn’t out of the question!

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