U.S. and Canada; Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada and Brightline passenger trains: We are thankful for railroaders who work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

It’s Christmas season in Salt Lake City, Utah, December 1970. Union Pacific’s Butte Special sits patiently in the station. Amtrak Day of May 1, 1971 is less than six months away when this photo was taken and the Butte Special would not be part of the original Amtrak System. Wikimedia Commons photo by Roger Puta,

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation, December 23, 2023

It’s Christmas Eve. Passenger trains are running everywhere today, and tomorrow, too. Just because it’s a holiday it doesn’t mean railroaders take a day off.

A post-war, 1948 Pullman Company magazine ad promoting new streamline passenger train equipment for holiday travel. Interesting note is the emphasis is on being home for Christmas morning; in 1948 most businesses were open on Christmas Eve. Internet image.

While, by union contract, many freight trains will not be running on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, all that means is Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada and Brightline trains will “have the railroad” and have a good chance of on-time performance. Something new has been added in 2023: Brightline is now operating a full 16 roundtrips a day between its terminal in Orlando International Airport to MiamiCentral Station in downtown Miami with intermediate stops at West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Aventura.

A full Brightline consist at MiamiCentral Station. Brightline announced an impressive 200,000 passengers a month for its new Orlando to Miami full route service. Brightline publicity photo.
A veteran Penn Central train dispatcher in 1970. Wikimedia Commons photo,
VIA Rail Canada’s perfectly matched and always spotless Canadian consist in Toronto Union Station preparing to depart and head west to Vancouver. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Auto Train conductor walks his train prior to departure at Lorton, Virginia in 2011. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Brightline has a heavy emphasis on passenger amenities, comfort and service. Brightline publicity photo.

The freight railroad dispatchers will still be working, as will any necessary maintenance people be on call. The railroad police, for both the freight railroads and Amtrak, will all be diligently working, too. The bad guys seldom take a holiday off.

The Amtrak Police Department is a fully-functioning law enforcement agency working to protect passengers, employees and company property from bad guys. Included is a K-9 unit as seen here at Washington Union Station in 2020. Wikimedia Commons photo,
Another member of the Amtrak Police Department at Washington Union Station. Amtrak Police Department units are at all major Amtrak stations throughout the country. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Onboard your passenger train, whether it’s a corridor train, long distance/inter-regional train, commuter train or a train zipping up and down the Northeast Corridor, onboard services and train and engine crews will still be reporting to work, whether it’s from their home terminal or from their “away” crew base. It doesn’t matter it’s a holiday, the trains still run.

A smiling Amtrak coach attendant at Los Angeles Union Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Amtrak sleeping car attendant making a bed in a bedroom on the Empire Builder in 1974. Some of the early Amtrak onboard services uniforms, intended to show a stark difference from traditional railroad uniforms of the past, have not held up particularly well as uniform fashion choices half a century later. Wikimedia Commons photos.
An Amtrak chef in 1973 carves prime rib to feed hungry passengers. Retired chefs report they regularly prepared 13 to 14 full prime rib roasts every dinner service on the Southwest Limited in the early days of Amtrak. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The dining car on VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian in November 2022, where every meal is graciously served. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Amtrak cafe car attendant in 2009 displaying her available wares for sale. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Amtrak locomotive engineer at his post in 1972 wearing traditional overalls and engineer’s hat. Guessing his age from the photo, he may have begun his career at the front of a train at the end of the steam era. In 1972 he would still have been an employee of the pre-Amtrak railroad which was being paid to provide train and engine crews to operate trains. The early diesel locomotive cabs did not have a particularly glamorous environment, but was considered a huge improvement in work conditions beyond the cab of a steam locomotive. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A fireman, on the left and engineer on the right in the cab of a next generation Amtrak locomotive in 1975 heading west on the Empire Builder. This generation of locomotives had much friendlier and more roomy working conditions than the inherited E and F units from the pre-Amtrak railroads. The designation of “fireman” remaining from the steam locomotive days would not change until later union contracts designated the position as assistant engineer. In North America, railroads are the only place where the “driver” of the train is in the right-hand position, a tradition remaining from the earliest steam locomotives. All airline pilots sit in the left hand seat, as well as bus and truck drivers. Some passengers will hear an occasional onboard announcement from a conductor to car attendants that an upcoming station platform “will be on the fireman’s side or the engineer’s side of the train,” to avoid confusion about the left or right side of the train. Wikimedia Commons photo.
It’s 1974 and an Amtrak fireman looks back at his Lone Star consist at Ardmore, Oklahoma. The Lone Star was the successor to Santa Fe’s Texas Chief; it operated from Houston/Dallas to Chicago. The Lone Star operated from 1974 until the major Amtrak system cuts in 1979. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak Broadway Limited conductors and trainmen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1974 in the days of paper tickets, conductor ticket punches and the most sophisticated technology available being two-way radios. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Classic railroad photography: A high-seniority Santa Fe conductor gives the highball signal to the engineer in 1965. Wikimedia Commons photo.
By the time this photo was made in 1974, Santa Fe Railway had withdrawn permission for Amtrak to use the Super Chief brand name because Santa Fe determined onboard services and other standards had slipped below Santa Fe approval levels. The former Super Chief, now named the Southwest Limited is shown in Winslow, Arizona with a mechanical department employee making sure the car’s potable water tank is full. Mechanical forces all over every railroad’s system perform many routine jobs which may seem mundane, but contributed to the health and welfare of passengers and crew as well as ensure the safe operation of trains. The cars in the background are not Superliners,but former Santa Fe Hi-Levels built specifically for Santa Fe’s El Capitan luxury coach service from Chicago to Los Angeles. When this photo was taken some of the Hi-Levels were only about 10 years old. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The ever-critical “Men at Work” blue sign. It’s safety and workplace gospel this small sign is ALWAYS recognized and obeyed or workers could be maimed or die. When a blue sign is in place, a train cannot be moved; it’s frozen in place until the sign is removed and everyone is safely accounted for and out of harm’s way. Here, in 1981, a private car is added to an Amtrak train at Southern Pacific’s 16th Street Station in Oakland, California. When trains are running, even on holidays, these folks report for duty and keep things operating properly. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The thirsty locomotives on the southbound Silver Star every morning have their fuel tanks topped off at the Jacksonville, Florida station, 365 days a year. Amtrak often has intermediate fueling locations around the country beyond terminals, allowing the company to take advantage of low fuel prices where available. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Brightline’s primary maintenance facility in West Palm Beach. If trains are running, mechanical forces employees are working on trains, ensuring every car and locomotive is operating optimally, even on holidays. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Amtrak station ramp agent at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (now Los Angeles Union Station) in May 1974. If passengers are traveling, whether it’s just a few or dozens of passengers, station agents keep their shifts, even on holidays. Wikimedia Commons photo.

At terminals where trains launch from or end up for turning, the commissary people are still working as are the cleaning and turning crews. Somebody is pumping fuel into the locomotive while someone else is pumping out the waste-water tanks under the passenger cars.

An Amtrak ticket agent talks with a customer at an Amtrak station in 1974. Gentlemen, if you are over 65 years old, admit it that you had a white belt, too, in those days. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An Amtrak Red Cap at Kansas City Union Station in June 1974 handles baggage on a train platform with a missing overhead canopy. Baggage handlers provide critical services for many passengers, particularly passengers who are unable to handle all of their luggage. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Phones are always answered in reservations centers. The Amtrak electronic voice of “Julie” may always be on duty (unless there is a power failure) to answer your calls, but “she” is backed-up by real, live agents when your needs can’t be handled by “Julie.” Stock photo.

The station ticket agents are working, as are the baggage handlers. The reservations agents, ready to assist when the automated computer voice can’t get the job done, are there, too, working to serve passengers instead of being home with their families and friends.

For over a century and a half, railroads have safely transported holiday revelers, be it in wartime, pandemic time or good times. Weather that keeps cars off of expressways often doesn’t matter to a train; it just keeps eating up miles of track.

On behalf of Jim Coston and all of us at Corridor Rail Development Corporation, we thank those who are working this holiday, away from families and loved ones, keeping our tradition of safe holiday travel alive.

Working Christmas Day can be rough, but the payoff is often seen on the faces and smiles of passengers when they detrain and see loved ones waiting anxiously for their arrival. Holiday travelers have good memories of the moment, and passenger train crews do, too.

Wishing everyone a safe holiday season and a Happy New Year for 2024.

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad 1949 Christmas poster. Internet image.
Pennsylvania Railroad 1955 magazine ad. Internet image.
What says “Christmas” better than a Lionel train running under the Christmas tree? Appropriate for all ages. December 1951 cover of Toy Trains magazine. Wikimedia Commons image.
The Pennsylvania Railroad went to war both in World War I and World War II and wanted everyone to know its patriotism was unmatched as in this 1940s war-time magazine ad. Internet image.
Denver Union Station never disappoints when it comes to holiday season lighting. Wikimedia Commons photo.
This circa 1950s Pennsylvania Magazine ad says it all for those who love trains and believe in Santa Claus, too. Internet image.
Circa 1940s magazine ad for the New Haven Railroad, emphasizing the new streamlined passenger trains were all-weather transportation that ran when other modes of transportation did not. Internet image.

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared December 23, 2022, and has been updated. – Corridor Rail Editor

Please share with others