Friday, July 25, 2014

Confessions of an Inaugural Junkie

My name is Chuck Weinstock and I’m an inaugural junkie. Let me explain. When Amtrak began in May 1971 it had a relatively small number of routes when compared to the passenger rail system that existed before. Over the years Amtrak has added to this initial system, in response to passenger demand and political exigencies.

Adding a route provides benefit to the public along the routes, the communities served, other Amtrak passengers who have additional choices, Amtrak itself, and, of course, the politicians who are always anxious to take credit for the new service – well perhaps not the Governor of Wisconsin.

To maximize the publicity value of the new service Amtrak typically runs a special inaugural train over the route. These one or two day inaugurals travel in daylight and run over the length of the route making extended stops at each of the scheduled stations along the way. At each stop they are greeted by the town fathers and mothers, the local high school marching band, local, state and federal politicians, etc. Many of these people ride the train for one or more stops. Speeches are made, music is played, interviews are given, photos are taken, and good times are had.

As a mileage collector I love to ride routes that I’ve never ridden before. I especially like to do this during the day so that I can see the route I’m traveling. As such I view the “chore” of listening to the speeches and the music on an inaugural as a small price to pay.

I first learned about inaugural trains in 1975 while riding the first run of the PATrain, the Pittsburgh commuter train that ran on the B&O from Grant St. Station to Versailles, PA until 1989. I was riding by myself and overheard a conversation across the aisle between two young men who were talking about riding the Mountaineer inaugural later that spring. (The Mountaineer was a short-lived train from Norfolk to Chicago.) I got into a conversation with them and soon learned that one of them was Henry Posner III who now runs the Iowa Interstate among other railroads, but at the time was a student at Princeton. In subsequent months I became friends with Henry and when we learned that there was going to be an inaugural of the Lakeshore Limited in October we made plans to ride it.

PATrain at the old Grant Street Station
Without getting into how one “makes plans to ride it” let me just say that before long we were in possession of tickets for the two day inaugural of the Lakeshore Limited that ran from Chicago to Boston with an overnight in Buffalo on October 28 and 29, 1975. I don’t recall now if we took the Broadway Limited or flew to Chicago but the evening of October 27 found us in Chicago, or specifically my parents’ house on the North Shore. The main thing I remember about that evening is that my Mom served an angel food cake for dessert and apologized for not being able to find strawberries at the market to go with it.
On the morning of the 28th Henry and I caught an early C&NW commuter train into Chicago and walked over the Union Station where our special train awaited us. As I wrote in the spring 1976 issue of Railfan Magazine, the train consisted of nine cars pulled by a pair of SDP40Fs. There was a diner, a pub, a sleeper, several coaches and the privately owned open-platform observation car DC-1000 owned by the late William Kratville. The passengers were Amtrak personnel, politicians, media, travel agents, and at least two railfans (depending on whether you count the late E.M. Frimbo as a railfan or a member of the media--he was an editor/author for the New Yorker and wrote regularly about trains, but we always considered him one of "us".) The diner served special Lake Shore Limited Inaugural meals and the thing I remember most about those meals is that breakfast that first morning out included fresh strawberries! 

Examples of the kinds of celebrations that awaited us along the route included a fife and drum corps in South Bend, Indiana, and a very large crowd and four bands in Elyria, Ohio where Senator Robert Taft spoke to the crowd about how ridiculous it was that over 80% of intercity travel was by private automobile. In between stops the passengers feasted in the diner, snacked in the pub, and had a generally wonderful time. At one point a bunch of us were singing a somewhat bawdy tune in the pub car with an unnamed famous rail historian accompanying us on the piano. All of a sudden the door to the car opened and a TV crew came in with cameras rolling. Without missing a beat, as one, we started singing “I’ve been working on the railroad.”
The Legs Shore Limited in Elyria, Ohio
That first day the train tied up in Buffalo late that evening and Henry and I went to our hotel, The Hotel Lafayette, for a too short night. The hotel had seen (a lot of) better days, so I did not mind that the night was so short. 

The train departed Buffalo at 7am the next morning and headed on to Boston. During one of the meals in the diner I found myself seated with a representative of EMD (the manufacturer of the diesels pulling the train) who was on board to ensure trouble free operation of the locomotives. One thing led to another and I found myself with an invitation to ride in the cab from Pittsfield to Springfield, MA, a first for me in a diesel locomotive. The train arrived at Boston’s South Station well after dark and we wearily walked across to our hotel, the Hotel Essex. We soon discovered that it was part of the same chain as our Buffalo hotel and that it lived up to that standard. But again it was a short night as we had to get up early the next morning to catch the UA turbo train to New York. There I said goodbye to Henry who was heading on to Princeton, while I caught the National Limited to Pittsburgh.

At this point my thirst for inaugurals was whetted, so when I read about a Pan Am publicity flight around the world inaugurating the Boeing 747SP in April 1976 I tried to get an invitation. I did not succeed and, while I am sure that an inaugural publicity flight then would be much more comfortable than most any flight today, after many hundreds of thousands miles of air travel I am, in retrospect, glad I didn’t.

The Detroit Amfleet Inaugural
May and June of 1976 was a great time for an inaugural junkie. First there was a special inaugural of Amfleet (I) equipment on May 18 on the Chicago to Detroit route. This was a round trip in a day inaugural and it wasn’t nearly as fancy as the Lake Shore’s. Then came the Colonial inaugural from Washington to Newport News on June 13. For this one I drove to Washington from Pittsburgh via Front Royal, VA to meet and chase a Southern 4501 excursion back to Alexandria. After a nice night with friends in the Washington area, I parked my car at a meter outside of Washington Union Station (it was a Sunday), and boarded the special train. This was to be the first Newport News to Washington train scheduled to run the next day so it was essentially a standard consist. We made the usual stops where the usual speeches were given and the usual bands played (how quickly I became jaded) until we reached Williamsburg, VA. Here I had a decision to make. Those riders who wanted to go on to Newport News were welcome to do so. Those who got off at Williamsburg had some time to walk around, were treated to a picnic dinner, and were given a bus ride back to Washington that evening. In the interest of getting back to Pittsburgh in time for Monday morning I elected to take the bus. The bus arrived at about 9pm and I drove four (long) hours to Pittsburgh.

Cake from the Colonial Inaugural
Of course this left me with a mileage gap. I still needed to ride from Williamsburg to Newport News. I managed this in 1978 when, during a business trip to NASA at Langley AFB I took an early evening bus from the Hampton, VA area to Williamsburg, had dinner (Brunswick Stew), caught the Colonial to Newport News, and taxied back to my car in Hampton.

The month the Colonial began service I finished up my Ph.D. in Pittsburgh and moved back to Chicago to begin a new job. On October 29, 30, 1976 Amtrak inaugurated the Shenandoah from Washington to Cincinnati with an overnight at Parkersburg, WV. Needless to say I did not let my new job get in the way of a good inaugural.
The Shenandoah Inaugural
In late 1977 I got married and a few days later, in early 1978, drove west to take a new job in the San Francisco Bay area. It took me a while to get connected to the local railfan and Amtrak community so my next chance to ride an inaugural didn’t come until October 26, 27, 1979 when the Desert Wind began service between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Amtrak was nice enough to invite my wife along as well but with the proviso that we were responsible for our own overnight accommodations in Las Vegas. We had a grand time en-route and somewhere along the way an Amtrak representative told me that they had a room for us after all, at a Holiday Inn (now Main Street Station) just down from the Amtrak station at the Union Plaza (now Plaza). This was my second visit to Las Vegas and we enjoyed the seafood buffet that the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce provided at a welcome celebration at the Top of the Mint hotel (now Binion’s). And the whole thing only cost me a few nickels in a slot machine just before we left town. Amtrak provided us with free return transportation on the first revenue Salt Lake City to Los Angeles run the next day but we elected to fly to San Francisco so that I would not miss any additional work.

The Desert Wind Inaugural
February 4, 1980 found me on the inaugural of a second train on the San Joaquin route from Oakland to Bakersfield. This, again, was a one day round trip and my fondest memory of it is the return trip. The politicians and most of the press had left the train after it arrived in Bakersfield and a few of us spent a great deal of time riding on the rear platform of a SP office car through the cool San Joaquin Valley night toasting drivers at the grade crossings.

The Second San Joaquin Inaugural
In fall of 1981 there were two west coast inaugurals of interest and it took some doing to participate in both. The first was the unnamed second train on the Coast Starlight route from Sacramento to Los Angeles. This was the short-lived The Spirit of California and Amtrak went all out. Invited guests (including a fair percentage of the local railfan community) were invited to ride to Sacramento on October 21 on the Starlight. The inaugural itself ran October 22, 23 with an overnight in San Luis Obispo. Some of us decided to get off at Salinas, and after a short visit in town caught the Starlight back home, again complements of Amtrak. Four of us bought day space in a Superliner Deluxe bedroom to travel north in style.

The next day found me on a Western Airlines flight to catch the inaugural of the Portland section of the Empire Builder to Spokane where it joined up with the Seattle section (as it does today). The main Amtrak public relations crew was still on the Spirit of California, but the short Superliner section was full of invited guests as we rolled our way along the Columbia River and up the old Spokane, Portland and Seattle. Although our arrival in Spokane was late due to celebrations along the way we arrived in plenty of time for me to catch the Empire Builder to Seattle and sleep the rest of the night away in an Amtrak provided economy room (now roomette).

In late 1981 I left California and moved back to Pittsburgh. This marked the start of an extended dry spell in inaugurals, at least those I was able to participate in. In May 1989 I was invited to ride the inaugural of the short-lived Atlantic City Express but was unable to do so because of a prior commitment. However, a few months later found me in Amherst, MA on July 17, 1989 to catch the re-inaugural of the Montrealer to Montreal. This was a one way inaugural and featured the usual hoopala including speeches by Senator Patrick Leahy (D Vermont), with a full complement of Vermont delicacies (e.g., Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, local beers, etc.) served on board. The train ran through to Montreal’s Central Station and I had an excellent French dinner with some Amtrak friends before going back to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (a far cry from the hotels of the Lake Shore inaugural 14 years earlier) and calling it a night. Amtrak’s invitation included a complimentary return trip in coach on the first southbound Montrealer the next day. I checked and no sleeper space was available and I was resigned to breaking my streak of never having sat up for a night on a train when, out of the blue, an Amtrak friend (the late Tom Papadeas I believe) offered me the upper berth in his bedroom. I rode to Philadelphia where I caught a revenue Atlantic City Express to Atlantic City, covering the route I had missed in May. I spent a few hours at a local casino (which led almost directly to the formation of my own business, ConJelCo), and then caught a USAir BAC-111 from the Atlantic City airport back to Pittsburgh.

The Montrealer Inaugural
While not an inaugural, in April 1990 an invitation to ride the Pennsylvanian 10th Anniversary celebration on April 27, 1990 arrived in my mail. This was a one way celebration from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on the regularly scheduled Pennsylvanian. I had missed the inaugural while I was living in California but had ridden the route many times. Never-the-less that morning found my friend Bill Metzger and I catching the Broadway Limited for Huntingdon from the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Amtrak had graciously provided the connecting tickets and the day was beautiful so we did not mind waiting for the Pennsylvanian which that day was a slightly longer than usual Amfleet consist with our old friend office car 10000 (formerly Autoliner DC-1000) on the rear. Since this was the regularly scheduled train the celebration was mostly on board, though there were somewhat longer than normal station stops. I remember the ride back across Pennsylvania mainly for the shoofly pie served to guests. 

The 10th Anniversary of the Pennsylvanian
I almost had to forgo the next pair of inaugurals in November 1990. I had a business meeting in Washington that I could not miss. Luckily I was able to arrange things to ride the re-routed Broadway Limited inaugural from Chicago to Pittsburgh and then the re-routed Capitol Limited from Pittsburgh to Cleveland where I left the train and caught a flight to Washington and made it to my meeting more-or-less on time. The reroute of the Broadway was necessitated by the partial abandonment of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago line it had used throughout its previous history. So I never got to see the line through Crestline in daylight. But this pair of inaugurals allowed me to see the B&O line from Chicago to near Pittsburgh in daylight, and the Pennsy’s line through Alliance in daylight, something I would not have been able to do otherwise. There are two specific memories I have from this pair of inaugurals. One was that one of my traveling companions, Dave Ingles, arranging a delivery to train side from the Fort Wayne Steak and Shake (not that we didn’t have enough good food to eat aboard without it), and the other was that I got to spend the overnight in Pittsburgh in my own bed – a first for me on any inaugural!
Aboard the Broadway Limited
April 1993 found me flying to New Orleans to enjoy a dinner of jambalaya and gumbo followed by the inaugural of the extension of the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Orlando. This was another event well attended by the railfan community and it involved three days of daylight travel with overnights in Pensacola and Jacksonville. Since I did not need the mileage beyond Jacksonville I left there and flew home the next morning.

I didn’t know it at the time but the Sunset extension was to be my last Amtrak inaugural—at least to date. There have been some routes added over the years but nothing that has caught my attention enough to make the trip to attend the event—if indeed there was one. I enjoyed each and every inaugural I rode and especially the friendships I made with Amtrak people over the years, many of which endure to this day. 

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