Fiftieth Anniversary

Posted by George Hamlin
on Saturday, May 1, 2021

In some respects, perhaps that should be plural, as in “anniversaries”, because there were two related, but different events.  On April 30, 1971, a significant portion of the privately-operated intercity passenger trains in the U.S. began their final journeys (although the longest of these, including Chicago to and from California and the Pacific Northwest, wouldn’t be completed until two days later), following which a number of individual railroads were no longer operating these conveyances; something which had been coming incrementally for many years  (the Maine Central, for example, had achieved this status as of the early 1960s), but now was final and complete.

On the next day, May 1, 1971, the U.S. government-sponsored National Railroad Passenger Corporation took over operating the smaller national system that would operate intercity passenger trains (as opposed to commuter runs) going forward.  Initially referred to as “Railpax”, it quickly became “Amtrak” in public and marketing parlance, and has now been operating as this entity for fifty years.

Yesterday, Amtrak provided, via live-streaming on its website, a view of its celebration of this event, including remarks from its CEO, President and Board Chairman; historical images; views of equipment honoring the occasion, plus a new Avelia trainset; and words from prior executives, including Paul Reistrup and Wick Moorman, along with industry suppliers, organized labor, government transportation agencies, and politicians.

Putting political preferences aside, perhaps the most unique part of the presentation involved the current President of the United States, who spoke both about his personal use of Amtrak (which would put many railfans to shame) and his views on transportation policy and other matters.  In these divisive times, I suspect that there were people pleased with his thoughts and otherwise, but for the person holding this office to spend as much time as he did on Amtrak’s behalf is noteworthy, to say the least.

From my perspective, all of this would have been impossible to imagine fifty years ago.  In early May, many of us were still mourning the losses of trains like the combined City of Los Angeles/San Francisco/Portland/Denver, which was run on a quality basis until the last day, but were now gone, forever.

Still, however, the trains that made the cut, and were included in Amtrak, were out there to be seen, and photographed.  Living in Chicago at the time, there continued to be a number of opportunities, so eight days later, I drove to Glenview, Illinois to see something that hadn’t been there on April 30, specifically Amtrak’s Empire Builder

While the schedule was similar to the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha, which was among the trains lost after April 30, it had been a decade since the MILW had provided service to the Pacific Northwest from Chicago via the Olympian Hiawatha.  As seen in the photo above, its motive power (owned now by the Burlington Northern, itself formed the previous year) hailed from the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, as seen slightly north of the Glenview station; Chicagoland residents can marvel at what looks like open countryside in this vicinity as of 1971.


As seen directly below, much of the equipment did in fact emanate from the Great Northern’s finest, albeit in the GN’s more recent “Big Sky Blue” livery. The sign on the platform shelter provides confirmation that the Builder is no longer on the BN as it nears Chicago; this may not have pleased patrons trying to get to Aurora, Illinois, but the addition of Milwaukee as an intermediate point on the way to and from Oregon and Washington likely improved traffic prospects. 

At the rear of the train, still clad in the traditional green and orange, a former GN sleeper provides a nod to history, along with a Budd Slumbercoach from the NCL.  The eggs are in the process of being scrambled, and what will become known as Amtrak’s “rainbow” years is beginning.  


Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Amtrak!


To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy