U.S., Amtrak’s 50th Anniversary; Where Were You On May 1, 1971?

By J. Bruce Richardson, Executive Vice President, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; April 30, 2021

Where were you on May 1, 1971, otherwise known as Amtrak Day?

For two of us, both high school teenagers, living 1,532 miles apart (railroad miles) who would not know either of the other existed for another 20+ years, not meet in person until both testified before the House Railroad Subcommittee in 2002, and then not start collaborating until 2009, it was a similar, yet different type of day.

Jim Coston, Corridor Rail Development Corporation’s founder and Executive Chairman shares his May 1, 1971 experience:

“To understand how this 16-year old high school student approached and experienced May 1, 1971, the first day Amtrak assumed responsibility for most of this nation’s intercity passenger trains, you have to go back almost two years to June of 1969. At the time, which was graduation from 8th grade, my friends and I used to take the Rock Island Suburban Line commuter train from our homes in Chicago’s Beverly Hills neighborhood to LaSalle Street Station to explore the magical wonders of downtown Chicago. 

“On one of those trips, with a larger group, my friend Bill Fahrenwald suggested we have a look at Chicago’s rail terminals and the magnificent trains there. Utterly unaware of what was in store, after lunch we broke away from the main group and headed to Union Station. Once there, I was confronted with the combined North Coast Limited/Empire Builder/Afternoon Zephyr, a magnificent train that was actually two complete long distance trains and several cars for local passengers to the Twin Cities.

“Vista Domes, two dining cars, a Great Dome, a domed sleeper with a lounge up top and two of the coolest cars ever, the Northern Pacific’s Lewis and Clark Traveler’s Rest and the Great Northern’s Ranch Car, both exquisitely unique buffet-lounge cars primarily directed at coach passengers.

“After that, an Afternoon Hiawatha with its Skytop parlor lounge tail car, the California Zephyr, still in all of its glory, the Penn Central remnants of the 20th Century Limited, complete with a classy twin-unit diner-kitchen lounge, the Penn Central’s Broadway Limited, the Burlington’s Denver Zephyr, and the Milwaukee Road/Union Pacific’s massive combined City of Los Angeles/Challenger/City of San Francisco/City of Portland/City of Denver.

“And after recovering from that, over to Dearborn Station to view the Santa Fe’s combined Super Chief/El Capitan. Both trains represented the high point of post-war luxury streamlined cross-country trains.

“When we finished the day, Bill shared with me the dirty little secret about these magnificent trains: Enjoy them now, because they’re all going away.

“Painfully, we watched it happen. We started our own rail organization, the 20th Century Railroad Club, to better appreciate trains and actually start running charters. When the Penn Central petitioned to discontinue of its long distance trains, we testified before the Interstate Commerce Commission against it. When the idea for Railpax was first introduced, we circulated petitions calling for federal support for passenger trains.

“So, when Amtrak was ultimately created, and May 1st was looming, rather than focus on April 30th and the last departures of virtually all of the trains we loved that were still operated by America’s railroads, we instead focused on May 1st – the day the Savior of America’s Passenger Trains would arrive and, voila, create a modern and functional national train network. We wanted to be there at the beginning, not the end.

“In retrospect, we should have paid homage to our fallen heroes: The trains on May 1st didn’t look much different than the ones we were used to. There were just a lot less of them.

“And while the promise of new and exciting developments in U.S. passenger trains was legitimate, it’s been a very long fifty years.”

Jim Coston’s story of a life with trains did not end there. Launched in 1971, the 20th Century Railroad Club exists to this day. Between 1980 and 1986 the club planned and operated more than 50 special excursion trains throughout Midwest tourist and sports event destinations.

As a student, Mr. Coston was employed by Amtrak from 1973 through 1977 during college breaks as a relief station agent and reservations/ticketing agent serving at Chicago Union Station, Joliet, Illinois Union Station and Kankakee, Illinois station.

Mr. Coston ultimately earned a law degree and went into practice, never straying far away from trains. Since 1993 he has testified on passenger rail policy before congressional committees and has addressed public interest and business groups. His guest columns and letters on rail policy have appeared in publications including The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The New Republic and Journal of Transportation Law, Logistics and Policy. He has also made numerous network and local television appearances, including on CNBC’s Kudlow and Cramer where the hosts were fascinated by his private sector approach to passenger train development.

Both in 1998 and 2002 Mr. Coston was considered by the Amtrak Board of Directors as a candidate for the presidency of Amtrak.

In 2000 President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. Coston to the Amtrak Reform Council where he served until the body’s expiration in 2002. From 2005 through 2007 he served as an advisor to Amtrak Chairman of the Board David Laney on policy initiatives.

Corridor Rail Development Corporation’s predecessor Corridor Capital was co-founded by Mr. Coston in 2005 with a vision to provide the nation’s passenger train operators with the requisite capital and assets to expand their fleets and fixed facilities along with a team of managers and strategic partners to develop their train routes and frequencies.

May 2005 brought Corridor Capital concluding its first such transaction when it teamed with Sumitomo Corporation and the Bank of Toyko-Mitsubishi to provide $25 million in lease financing for 11 new bi-level gallery commuter cars for Virginia Railway Express.

Corridor would assemble the Hi-Level Fleet, the bi-level cars originally built by the Budd Company for the Santa Fe Railway’s El Capitan and other routes.

While Jim Coston was admiring trains at Chicago Union Station and elsewhere in the city, along with my parents, I was boarding the last Penn Central/RF&P/SCL Silver Meteor to leave New York Penn Station on April 30, 1971. Across the platform that afternoon was the Meteor’s stable mate, SCL’s Champion, which would board after the Meteor’s departure.

Fortunately for my older brother and I, our parents loved to travel, and they wanted one last trip to New York City on railroad passes from our home in Jacksonville, Florida. My father became the manager of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s Pass Bureau in 1958 in Richmond, Virginia and held that position after the creation of Seaboard Coast Line in 1967.

Known to everyone as Bob Richardson in person, he was more widely known by his railroad-speak signature of R.E. Richardson, Sr. on the tens of thousands of passes railroads issued to their employees and qualifying employees of foreign roads. He knew to take the last trip to New York City and depart on the last train out because at midnight, May 1st would dawn and the new Amtrak pass rules for railroad employees would be in force. He knew this well because he and one of his buddies from the C&O’s Pass Bureau were both asked by the Association of American Railroads to write the new Amtrak railroad employee pass rules.

The Silver Meteor we boarded at New York Penn was decked out with new Amtrak vinyl sticker logos on the side of the cars and all new Amtrak printed materials were on the train.

We left New York Penn on time and headed south, and somewhere in North Carolina at midnight as we were comfortably asleep in beds in a sleeping car, the Silver Meteor became the first Amtrak Silver Meteor into Florida.

Ironically, exactly 25 years later on April 30, 1996, I was sitting in the office of a senior Amtrak vice president in Washington Union Station as he casually said, “you know what tomorrow is, don’t you?” Oops! I had forgotten it was about to be Amtrak’s 25th anniversary. Later that night I boarded the Silver Meteor and again headed home to Jacksonville; the same train, asleep again in a sleeping car, going to the same destination 25 years to the day.

Many of the trains Jim Coston admired in Chicago I had been fortunate to ride in the 1960s. My brother and I were treated by our parents to the North Coast Limited, Western Star, City of Los Angeles, Sunset Limited, Golden State, Lark, San Diegans, 20th Century Limited, Broadway Limited, Capitol Limited, George Washington, Gulf Wind, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Gulf Coast Special, and a host of other trains, all fortunately in Pullman sleeping cars. We were more than fortunate to have the experiences. By the time I turned 21 I had logged over 100,000 miles of train travel.

In 1973 after high school graduation and before college, Amtrak offered me a job in the Jacksonville reservations center. I turned it down; I already was working in the newsroom of the daily Jacksonville Journal and truly loved being part of a newspaper.

Someone introduced me to Austin Coates, the founder of United Rail Passenger Alliance in the late 1980s and he was kind enough to invite me to join. I met such luminaries as Andrew Selden, Byron Nordberg, Dr. Adrian Herzog, Russ Jackson, Randy Schlotthauer, Dr. Bill Hamilton and others. It was a group of passenger rail geniuses determined to influence passenger rail in the United States. It was during this period the editor of Trains Magazine dubbed Andrew Selden the Dean of Pro-Passenger Amtrak Critics.

Nineteen eighty-eight brought a fascinating project in Canada, the opportunity to privatize VIA Rail Canada. The prime minister’s office gave the go-ahead for an exploratory project; a group of us took VIA Rail’s corporate numbers and routes apart on paper and put them back together in a reasonable conclusion. Alas, the tens of millions of private money necessary required by the Canadian federal government wasn’t available to launch the project.

Next, the same group of us with some new additions launched a project to privatize Amtrak. A White House meeting in 1994 encouraged the project, but Amtrak and the unions fought back and the project did not go forward. As with the VIA Rail project, the venture was most instructive for digging into the endless details of passenger train operations and future possibilities.

Austin Coates in 1996 introduced me to the head of Amtrak’s Gulf Coast Business Group, who was looking for some help marketing the Sunset Limited. A deal was struck and a five year relationship with Amtrak began that included the Sunset, City of New Orleans and some projects for the Crescent. Before the end of the relationship, my company, on behalf of Amtrak, formed the Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans Promotional Office, working on a number of projects.

We created travel agent familiarization trips for the Sunset and Crescent, did the planning and execution of station grand openings in Charlottesville, Virginia for the Crescent, San Antonio, Texas for the Sunset and Memphis, Tennessee for the City of New Orleans.

This was the era when the Union Pacific was having severe digestion programs trying to gobble up the Southern Pacific, and the Sunset could regularly run 10 to 15 hours late. We created the Sunset Limited Coast to Coast Adventure to provide passengers some relief from the delays by offering onboard distractions and assurance they would eventually get to their destinations. Other projects included development of a concept for a first class coach, auditing Amtrak’s reservations system for bias against the business group’s three trains, developing incentives for the reservation system employees, programs to work together with local businesses and broadcast stations, and, the favorite, developing the Sunset Limited’s 24 hour dining car experimental program, including helping craft the menus.

After the Amtrak contract, it was founding and writing URPA’s This Week at Amtrak internet column which had readership throughout official Washington and in over 60 countries around the world. After 250,000 words had been written over several years, it was time to turn the column over to others for a fresh perspective.

Other private development projects came along, but it was Corridor’s Hi-Level Fleet which has been the most satisfying and brightest spot for the future. The opportunity to work closely with Jim Coston has provided a wealth of satisfaction.

Fifty years – half a century – after Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971 and there is still a fire burning for the return of a robust passenger rail system in the United States. The question is, what form will it take? We have the vivid future of Brightline here in Florida and the new route between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We have Texas Central Partners working diligently for their dreams of Houston to Dallas. And there is much more out there, working quietly bringing projects to reality. The world holds promise for passenger trains. They just may not look like the ones we know today.

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