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NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/14/24 12:26 p.m.

Some other photos showing the ongoing trackwork at the East Broad Top, showing how really dilapidated this track is. And it should be. It hasn't received any roadbed work since at least the mid-'50s. They used untreated ties, which have completely rotted away, and there's not much in the way of ballast either, since they likely used cinder ballast instead of stone. There are some people who seem to think that "The tracks are still there, just cut some trees, clean out some brush and it should be ready to go", but the reality is that it had gotten beyond that point even by the 1980s. There's also been some folks from the area that mention that there's at least one spot where someone cut and dragged the rails out of the way to put in a (possibly illegal) road back to their camp. And there was also another person who said that at one spot, someone in the '70s or '80s filled in and graded a section of a cut to build a driveway back to their McMansion. When I went down last May, the thing that was kind of strange to see was some of the grade crossings, where there would be a crossing with fresh concrete and rubber seals, and then on either side of the road, the tracks immediately vanished into the woods.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/14/24 12:46 p.m.

The big projects as they head south are the bridge and two tunnels. At Milepost 13.5, there is the Pogue Bridge, the biggest bridge on the East Broad Top. According to Brad Esposito, General Manager of the EBT, it's in good shape, all things considered, but the ties for the deck have rotted away and its piers are badly spalled and have been battered by the two major floods from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and Fran in September 1996

Fortunately the two tunnels are past Saltillo, so they aren't an immediate problem, but when they begin their eventual extension to Robertsdale, they will have to be handled. At Milepost 22.5 is the Sideling Hill Tunnel, which is the better of the two, but still full of water and has plenty of rock slides. At the end of operations the inner manual door was left closed and the motorized door was left open but at about 2000, the outer motorized door and its wood frame toppled outward from the portal onto the track. The manual door later fell directly down onto the track

The Wrays Hill Tunnel, at Milepost 25.2, is much worse, and the south portal is pretty much closed off from rock slides.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/14/24 3:25 p.m.

Fortunately there is no interest of going north of the Colgate Grove wye because the one concrete bridge over the Aughwick Creek is in pretty rough condition. I'm no bridge expert, but that looks like a "tear it down and replace it with one of the same design" situation. Just north of this bridge is where the East Broad Top Foundation's ownership of the trackage ends and the Mount Union Connecting Railroad/East Broad Top Preservation Association takes over. Yes, very confusing, you have the East Broad Top Foundation, Friends of the East Broad Top, and East Broad Top Preservation Association all in the same area. And from what I can tell, the EBTPA doesn't play ball with the EBTF and FEBT.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/14/24 3:25 p.m.

East Broad Top "big" Mikado #17 crossing the Aughwick Creek concrete arch bridge some time post-WWII

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 9:54 a.m.

The #15 at Robertsdale with what appears to be a fantrip, judging by the white flags denoting it as a special, and the pure passenger car consist. The EBT, in it's common carrier days at least, didn't really offer regular passenger service. Most of it's "passenger" ridership was miners riding out to the mines, so usually the trains had a bunch of hopper cars with a passenger car or two tacked on the end. The EBT didn't even really have cabooses, they used a passenger car as a caboose essentially. The building to the left of the tracks is the depot, which is still there, restored by Friends Of The East Broad Top and operated as a museum. The building at center right still exists, I believe, and to the right of the tracks is the two-stall enginehouse, which is gone but the foundations still remains. There was also a wye behind the buildings at the center of the building. The eventual plan is to reach Robertsdale, and restore the wye, as well as rebuild the two-stall engine house. Having a wye at Orbisonia, as well as one at each ends of the line (Robertsdale and Colgate Grove) allows them to turn the whole train and not have to run tender-first. There was also a wye at Saltillo, which they plan to put back in service when they make the first step of the southern line restoration to Saltillo. The #15 is also planned to be the next engine to return to service. Originally they inspected #14, #15 and #16 and found #16 to be in the best shape (it hadn't run since 1956, so it had 5 less decades of wear and tear) and was restored first, with #14 to be restored next. Once they got into #14, it was found to need a lot more work than expected, and so #15, which had been the last engine to run in 2011, was moved ahead of it.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 10:29 a.m.

The #16 taking on water at the Robertsdale water tower

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 12:37 p.m.

On the topic of abandoned stuff, here's a fascinating one. A pair of urban explorers went to China and explored this abandoned underground steam locomotive facility, the 701 Factory, near Jinzhou, Liaoning, China. The factory was built as a military hardened facility by the army, which it was built underground, up in the mountains, with it's own power-generating facilities and even living quarters. Pretty risky stuff to go exploring there to begin with, locomotive shops are full of lots of pits that you could easily fall down, and I'm not sure I'd want to go exploring too much in China, especially as a non-Chinese national. Seems like a good way to end up jailed as a "Western spy". Still, a pretty fascinating look; all the machinery and paperwork is there, and there's even a complete JS class 2-8-2. According to those who have been there, the facility was closed in 2007, and at that point there had been two complete QJ class 2-10-2s, QJ1830 and QJ1675, from the power plant at Mudanjiang that were present for an overhaul, which was never completed when the facility was closed. They were scrapped sometime shortly after it was closed, approximately 2007.

There have been some Americans that actually got access to the plant when it was still operational. One gentleman went over there as a representative for RJ Corman when the three QJs that ended up in the US, one for Corman and two for Iowa Interstate, were being overhauled to meet FRA compliance. He said he was the first Westerner to get access to the facilities and possibly the only one to ever actually get to work on locomotives there. According to him, the boiler and machinery work done on the engines was good, appliance work was fair to poor and appearance work was rough railroad functional standard.

 

 

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 12:55 p.m.

While not that facility, Ross Rowland said that in the 1985 he got to go to the big Datong engine factory during the ACE 3000 project to build modern steam locomotives as a response to high oil prices. Since there was no place in the US that still had the capacity to produce steam locomotives, and China was still churning out 2-8-2s and 2-10-2s, they entered talks with the Chinese Ministry of Railways to construct the ACE 3000s there and ship them to the US. The project died when the world price of oil sank from $32/barrel to $9/barrel and the two big railroad investors (CSX and BN) pulled out. At that time the Datong plant was turning out 2 brand new QJs a day 6 days a week.

 

Another wild story about the Datong facility comes from a gentleman who knew a rather wealthy gentleman who had had a battered Lionel NYC Hudson as a kid. The guy wasn't a player in the railfan preservation community, wasn't even really a railfan. He just had had a Hudson as a kid, wanted a real-life one, and since there are none to be had, was willing to commission Datong to build one. The storyteller and a mutual friend told him of Datong, and this unnamed guy paid someone to get a full set of plans and go to China. They apparently came up with a price he agreed to for a new operational NYC J1e Hudson and on the way out the door, his assistant related a comment they'd made as he was leaving that once they tooled up and built the first one, the factory would be able to buy a second or third for a fraction of the cost. He heard the comment, threw a fit over the idea that other people would also be able to buy a Hudson, and canceled the whole thing right there. Had that Datong employee not made that remark, there's a strong possibility that there would be a recreation J1e Hudson today.

 

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 4:43 p.m.

I purchased two tickets for the June 22nd Reading & Northern Iron Horse Rambles, from Nesquehoning up through the Lehigh Gorge to Pittston and then east to Tunkhannock. My father's 65th birthday is March 21st, and he's retiring this year, and then the excursion is the week after Father's Day, so I figured I'd take him on the trip as a combination birthday/retirement/Father's Day gift. We did the Reading-Jim Thorpe fall trip behind #425 three years ago, and we also rode behind the the #425 from Jim Thorpe to Penn Haven and back four years ago, but he hasn't seen the #2102 in action.

EvanB
EvanB GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/15/24 7:31 p.m.

Something interesting going past my house today. First time I have seen one in the 8 years I've lived here.

 

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/15/24 9:36 p.m.

In reply to EvanB :

I see "The Brick". It's an old SD40 frame and trucks, with a weird blocky body, that is a geometry unit. Chock full of sensors, which it relates to computers (running on Windows 7!) in the passenger car. The passenger car has sleeping quarters and a kitchen for the crew that rides around behind The Brick as they travel over the system.

EvanB
EvanB GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/15/24 10:10 p.m.

In reply to NickD :

Interesting, I figured it was just a passenger car being transported but I had no idea why. I'll have to do some more research on it.

volvoclearinghouse
volvoclearinghouse UltimaDork
3/16/24 8:44 a.m.

Mrs. VCH got stopped at a crossing in Westminster, MD last week as this went by. It appears to be a B and P locomotive, though what it was doing this far south was a mystery.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/16/24 12:20 p.m.

In reply to volvoclearinghouse :

Genesee & Wyoming had to scrap 88 locomotives across all their systems last year under EPA mandate, largely older power, so they might be shuffling stuff around to plug gaps on some of their systems until new power arrives.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/18/24 10:03 a.m.

The state of New York announced grants to fund fund more than $110 million in rail improvements. There's some interesting stuff in there:

  • $2 million to the Arcade & Attica Railroad Corp to complete the Arcade & Attica Rail Rehabilitation Safety, Capacity, and Reliability project, "preventing closure of the rail line." That last part of the sentence sounds pretty extreme. I didn't realize that things were that dire.
  • $283,000 to the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum for track rehabilitation.
  •  $4.7 million to the Mohawk, Adirondack & Northern Railroad Corp. for construction of a transload warehouse in Utica, NY. Sometimes I look at the MA&N and wonder how it really keeps running; the olive oil plant in Rome generates quite a bit of traffic, but other than that, the other customers are pretty infrequent and their other big customer, Worthington Industries in Rome, stopped shipping by rail. Business must be good to warrant this though, and the ongoing yard expansion, or there's something coming that the public doesn't know about.
  • $2.9 million to the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society: $1.6 million for fleet enhancement and modernization to meet Federal Railroad Administration regulations; $804,379 for completion of a Utica shop facility; $549,550 for track capacity optimization. I'm kind of curious what the first and third items are. Also, nice to see the state giving the Adirondack Railroad a big grant after yanking up the line between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. What a difference a change in administration makes. It makes me wonder if they'd still have the line to Lake Placid if Andy Cuomo had been run out earlier. 
  • $1.2 million to the Mohawk, Adirondack & Northern Railroad Corp. for bridge and culvert work to restore service on the Newton Falls Branch. A real headscratcher there, because the last I knew, there were no customers on the Newton Falls line on the northern end of the MA&N after the paper mill closed and Benson Mines shut down. I know the state rehabbed that line after those closures in hopes of wooing new industries into the area. Is this part of the same initiative, or is there actually some business moving in and the public just doesn't know yet?
eastsideTim
eastsideTim UltimaDork
3/18/24 10:19 a.m.

In reply to NickD :

I had no idea the EBT had deteriorated so much.  Wanted to check it out when I was a kid, but never made it there.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/18/24 12:41 p.m.

In reply to eastsideTim :

Well, that's the southern end of the line, which hasn't seen any trains since 1956. Until the end of common carrier status, the mines were active in Robertsdale, and everything had to go to northern end of the line to the Mount Union transfer yard, where they interchanged with the PRR. When they shut down in 1956, the whole thing was sold to Nick Kovalchick and the Kovalchick Corporation, which was a big scrapyard in Indiana, PA. For whatever reason, Kovalchick decided not to scrap, or even sell off, anything at the East Broad Top. He restarted it in 1960, as a tourist line, but only ran about four miles north, constructing a wye and a picnic grove in Shirleysburg in 1961 (The first year they had a steam engine at either end of the train, one facing in each direction, and ran push-pull). But they never ran any of the southern end of the line, other than the single trip down to Saltillo and back with the M-1 doodlebug in 1961 to prevent construction of the high school from wiping out the right of way near Pogue. They also ran speeder cars down that way during the first decade or so, but as brush grew up and the track conditions got worse and a couple of washouts occurred, those pretty much came to a stop.

The line north to Colgate Grove was kept in okay shape, but the EBT in the tourist era lived pretty hand-to-mouth. There weren't any derailments or anything like that, but the tracks were pretty wavy. The rolling stock wasn't unsafe but the locomotives were always kind of scruffy and had a bunch of quick fixes and as time went on, it the number of active engines dwindled, while the passenger cars got increasingly swaybacked. They never bothered to try and expand south, or run north of Colgate Grove to Mount Union, because there just wasn't the money available to be able to put the tracks back in service.

The fascinating thing is that Kovalchick never sold off any of the other stuff. He was in the scrap business, and the unused rails and bridges headed south weren't earning any money but were having to have taxes paid on them. He could have easily lifted the rails from Rockhill Furnace to Robertsdale and yanked down the bridge at Pogue and sold off the land, and you really couldn't have blamed him. Same with the locomotives. Really, the operation only needed one or two locomotives, and the #16 and #18 never even ran during the 1960-2011 period, so he totally could have sold them off if he really wanted. And I've heard that more than once, White Pass & Yukon tried to dislodge a couple of the EBT Mikados from the Kovalchicks to ship up to Alaska, since they were about on par with a WP&Y 190-series Mikado. But he held onto everything.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/19/24 9:17 a.m.

The tankhouse at Coles, waiting 68 years for a locomotive to stop and replenish it's tender. This was one of 5 tankhouses on the East Broad Top (the others were at Mount Union, Shade Gap, Saltillo, and Robertsdale, and there was also a water column at Orbisonia) and is the only one still left. The one at Mount Union was burned by arsons in the early '70s, the one at Saltillo was burned down by children playing with a lighter in 1986, and the ones at Robertsdale and Shade Gap are noted as "disappeared sometime after the end of operations". Considering the Shade Gap Branch was abandoned before 1956, I would guess that the EBT may have torn it down. Coles was a company town for the Leas and McVitty Tannery and was just five miles south of Saltillo. When the Leas and McVitty Tannery factory in Saltillo closed in 1911, it had become outdated and the company had built other more modern plants elsewhere, the town of Coles dried up and blew away as well, leaving just the siding and the water tower and the junction to the Coles Valley Branch to service a mine at Joller. It is interesting that there was a water tank in Saltillo, and then this one just five miles south of Saltillo.

The tankhouse has stood unused and unmaintained since 1956 and has fared well relatively well until recently but has become one of the EBT's "Endangered Artifacts". In the winter of 1997 the tankhouse pump was stolen by person who damaged part of the wall to remove it.  Water damage also caused the front beam to partially fail causing the front of the tank to drop nearly six inches. Some repairs were made by third parties including shoring up the front beam, but termites have taken hold in the beam and more catastrophic failure of the beam may occur if more shoring is not done, as well as installation and painting of the new roof on the back wing, window covers and padlock. Also, the once perfectly-preserved tongue-and-groove cedar plank water tub was damaged when someone pried loose several planks with EBT branding on them and stole them.

 

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/19/24 11:26 a.m.

The East Broad Top never owned any diesels of their own, the only internal combustion-powered equipment being Brill doodlebug M-1 and a veritable armada of oddball homebrew speeder cars. During the tourist era though, an issue arose, which was that any time they needed to move some cars around or a locomotive in and out of the shop, they had to fire up one of the steam locomotives. But Nick Kovalchick was in the scrap business and in the '70s and '80s, a lot of the steel mills in PA were going out of business and a lot of them had insular 3-foot gauge railroads. So one of the mills would fold up, Kovalchick Corp. would go in and be yanking up the rails and scrapping the cars, but would move the locomotives to Orbisonia. There they would be either parted out, kept for operation at the EBT or resold to another user, which resulted in the East Broad Top becoming Nick Kovalchick's Wayward Home For Industrial Locomotives. Of those, there was the particularly bizarre M-5A and M-5B, acquired from Bethlehem Steel in 1986. These were a cow-calf set of Plymouth diesel-hydraulic locomotives with a rigid 2-axle wheelbase on each unit. There was actually a second one of these, but they were resold immediately and never wore East Broad Top paint or numbers. The M-5A and M-5B themselves were rarely used, since the rigid wheelbases and 40-ton weights per unit made them very hard on the track, and after moving M-7 inside in 1993 to be repainted, the M-5A/M-5B were both sold off. The M-5A is reportedly at a zoo and still in use, while the M-5B was converted to some sort of stationary generator at a marine facility.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/19/24 11:49 a.m.

One of the really weird machines picked up by Kovalchick is this machine, informally known as "Dumbo", which never received an EBT number, nor has it ever operated on the property. Presumably the plan was to resell it, but that materialized and it has spent decades hiding in the car shop, along with the unusual gasoline-mechanical 2-axle Plymouth visible behind it, which is nicknamed "Ghost" because of it's silver paint.

"Dumbo" was a 50-ton 2-axle Davenport diesel that was built for US Steel's Clairton Coke Works and featured twin 160hp Hercules engines and a strange low-profile center cab. The locomotive was also set up for remote control and typically operated in that fashion to work the open-hearth furnace. It arrived on the property in 1992, and was never operated, since the extreme weight on a rigid 2-axle chassis would have made it a serious track destroyer. Presumably the extremely unusual nature of it made it a hard sell, and even recently the East Broad Top Foundation has had it up for sale with no bites.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/19/24 12:38 p.m.

The M-7, which has become the workhorse of the EBT, hauling all the passenger trains of the EBT when it reopened and the #16 wasn't operating yet as well as a lot of the MoW work, was another Kovalchick score. Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie had 6 of these GE 3-foot gauge center cabs for moving the ladle cars. The actual classification of them is a bit murky, since they were originally around the 44 ton range but have the heavier adjustable-gauge trucks and were ballasted up near the 50-ton range. They also have a slightly different carbody than the regular standard-gauge 44-tonner, and even a different running gear. While a standard-gauge 44-tonner had twin Caterpillar D17000s, these ran twin Detroit 6-71s, kind of an interesting choice since Detroit Diesel was a GM company, and GM was competing against Alco-GE with EMD. Kovalchick grabbed four of the six narrow-gauge engines (Algoma Steel did also have two standard-gauge 440-tonners as well) and moved them, and a supply of spare parts, to Orbisonia. They combined the best trucks and carbody from across several of them to build one unit, which became M-7, and then sold off the remaining three to Durango & Silverton in 2002. D&S had one operational but sold it off to Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad in Fish Camp CA, and has another as a parts donor for a similar Arkansas Lime GE that they own, and the third was sold to Colorado Railroad Museum. There are those that say that the EBT probably should have held onto two of the GEs instead of the one, since they've proven to be quite useful.

 

Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter)
Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/21/24 8:57 a.m.

The EBT really seems like a 1:1 scale model railroad. 

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/21/24 9:58 a.m.

In reply to Pete Gossett (Forum Supporter) :

I think it basically was to Nick Kovalchick. And likely the same to Wick Moorman and the other well-heeled financiers of the East Broad Top Foundation.

For me, it was more like a time warp. I'd read so much about it and seen so many photos, old and new, that when I got there last year and rounded the corner to see that famous depot at Orbisonia, and watch the #16 come rolling up through the yard, surrounded by all the old shop complex without any new buildings in site, it was basically seeing it as it would have looked in 1933, even though it was 2023.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/21/24 12:11 p.m.

Stumbled across an article on one of Amtrak's stranger and more short-lived passenger trains, the Hilltopper, yesterday. I'd never heard of that one, and, boy, was it a weird one. It lived just two years, had the lowest average speed of the Amtrak fleet in 1979, the lowest average ridership, and spent 30 miles of it's trip running backwards in either direction.

First, there's some strange backstory, involving another short-lived Amtrak train, the Mountaineer. When Amtrak took over passenger service in 1971, two of the trains they inherited were New York Central's Chicago-Cincinatti James Whitcomb Riley and the Chesapeake & Ohio's Cincinatti-Washington DC/Newport News George Washington. Amtrak merged the two of them into a single Chicago-DC train that used the James Whitcomb Riley name for the westbound run and the George Washington name for the eastbound run.

After Amtrak's formation, West Virginia senator Robert Byrd began pitching a fit over the fact that there had been no passenger trains serving his rural constituents in West Virginia since the N&W's Pocahontas had been discontinued in 1971 and began pushing for Amtrak service over the N&W mainline from Cincinatti to Norfolk. Byrd pressured the Department of Transportation to add a route over this line, and in March of 1975, Amtrak guaranteed two years of operation of this new train, known as the Mountaineer, while warning that the train would "habitually lose money." Amtrak president Paul Reistrup projected costs of $4.5 million a year while only taking in $900,000 in the first year. To make the run viable the Mountaineer would need to carry 150–300 people daily between Norfolk and Cincinnati. The Mountaineer would depart from Chicago as a section of the George Washington, then split off at the C&O yard in Ashland, KY and swing south across the lower area of West Virginia and Virginia to Norfolk. The consist was a baggage-dormitory, two coaches, a grille diner and a 10-roomette 6-bedroom sleeper car, and when available, one of the coaches was a dome car. In January of 1977, the train was reconfigured to use just three Amfleet cars, two coaches and one cafe car, losing the dome car and sleeper car. Ridership on the Mountaineer over its two-year probationary period was disappointing: 58,991 in 1975 and 53,400 in 1976. Monetary losses were far higher than expected: $5.7 million in 1975 and $14.9 million in 1976, and as a result Amtrak discontinued the Mountaineer on May 31, 1977 after the 2 year probationary period ended.

Amtrak's termination of the Mountaineer caused another temper tantrum from senator Byrd, as well as West Virginia senator Harley Staggers, that their constituents weren't being served again, and in 1977, Amtrak rolled out what was dubbed as "to as "the poster child of pork-barrel passenger trains" and "an example of everything that was wrong with Amtrak". This was the Hilltopper. It would operate south out of Washington DC on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac/Seaboard Coast Line to Petersburg, VA, and then hop on the Norfolk & Western to head west to the bustling metropolis of Catlettsburg, Kentucky, where it would offer a connection to the James Whitcomb Riley/George Washington. Again, this still had the issue of serving a lot of rural areas with minimal ridership, and now it no longer served Suffolk or Norfolk except by a bus connection.

It also had another issue. The N&W/SCL diamond at Petersburg lacked a connection at the northwest corner or southeast corner. There were only connections at the southwest and northeast corners, so the train would have to run past the diamond into SCL's Collier Yard and then reverse up the connector at the southwest corner and onto the N&W, which would have the train running backwards for the east-west leg. Amtrak's solution was a jury-rigged affair; 30 miles north of Petersburg the train would be turned at RF&P's Acca Wye in Richmond, Virgina and run 30 miles south backwards to Collier Yard and then it would be aimed the right direction when it got on the N&W. Except that Amtrak lacked cab cars, and reverse-running on the main was prohibited unless the cab signal pickups were set up for bidirectional running, and the ones on the GE P30CHs were not. So, the RF&P had GP7 #102 on standby, which would hook onto the back of the Hilltopper and tow the train in reverse from Acca Wye to Collier Yard. And, this had to be done in reverse on the eastbound run as well.

Like the Mountaineer, the Hilltopper was an immediate loser. In 1978, Amtrak tried merging it into the DC-Boston Night Owl, in hopes of bolstering ridership. The train averaged 33 passengers per trip in 1978, dropping to between 2 and 15 per trip in 1979, and many of the train's riders were former N&W employees with lifetime passes. . Its trip of 1,674 miles took an average journey time of 26 hours 35 minutes resulting in an average speed of 37.1 miles per hour, the lowest on the long-distance system. Farebox recovery was a dismal 25%, with the train losing $200,000 per year. The Hilltopper was one of five routes cut on October 1, 1979, as part of a reorganization by the Carter Administration , and the only of the five where no federal injunctions were obtained to keep service running.

Realistically, a Budd RDC set likely would have been a better use than a GE P30CH and a GP7 towing around a single Amfleet coach and an Amfleet dinette, but Byrd had insisted that his constituents get new Amfleet equipment. Also, Amtrak didn't have a lot of RDCs, most railroads held them onto for commuter service and then they were conveyed to whatever commuter agency took over for those. Also, by 1977, the newest RDCs were 15 years old, and the oldest were pushing 30 years old, and the big RDC owners were B&M, NYC and New Haven, so a lot of them had lived rough lives. Removing food service also would have stemmed the financial bleeding, but pork barrel spending and logic don't go hand-in-hand, and I'm sure Byrd and Staggers were insisting that it also offered food service.

The end of the Hilltopper spelled the end of intercity rail service along much of its route in southwest Virginia and West Virginia, although there are still occasional pushes for restoration of service to the route.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
3/21/24 3:31 p.m.

This of course led me down the rabbit hole of some of the more obscure, short-lived Amtrak trains. None of them were quite as weird as the Hilltopper, but there were some that were more short-lived.

For example, the Prairie Marksman. Inaugurated on August 10, 1980, it was dead by October 4, 1981, lasting just barely a year.

The Chicago-East Peoria Prairie Marksman was intended as a sort of spiritual successor to the Rock Island's Peoria Rocket, which had just been discontinued in 1978. Rock Island had chosen not to buy in to Amtrak, since it only operated two trains, both of which were entirely within the state of Illinois and, with state subsidies to offset them, generated annual losses that were less than the price to hand them over to Amtrak. By 1978 though, equipment shortages (the Rock's last dining cars had developed cracked frames that knocked them out of service, resulting in them being parked at the station in Chicago and used as a stationary diner) and the Rock's financial woes, coupled with declining ridership, allowed them to be discontinued as well.

When the Peoria Rocket bit the dust, Peoria's nearest passenger train connection was Chillicothe, which was 20 miles north, and the only two trains serving Chillicothe were the Southwest Limited and the Lone Star, with the Lone Star biting the dust in 1979. The state of Illinois persuaded Amtrak to provide service to Peoria and provided partial funding, and the Prairie Marksman was born. Ironically, despite replacing the Rock Island's Peoria Rocket, the Prairie Marksman did not use any Rock Island trackage, instead using the Illinois Central Gulf's ex-GM&O mainline from Chicago to Chenoa, and then using the Toledo, Peoria & Western from Chenoa to East Peoria. The name Prairie Marksman was derived from the name of an old TP&W business car, which itself was derived from TP&W billing themselves as the somewhat cryptic "Route Of The Prairie Marksman". I guess all the cool names like "Route Of The Zephyrs", "Route Of The Rockets", and "Route Of The Chief" were already taken.

You might notice that I've mentioned that the train went to East Peoria and not Peoria. The state had studied numerous options to preserve service to Peoria in previous years and favored a route that involved using Santa Fe tracks between Chicago and Chillicothe and then the Rock Island into Peoria. The Santa Fe portion of this route already hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles and Chicago-Houston trains, after all. But Santa Fe management opposed hosting a third Amtrak train in this region, and no one wanted to pony up the money needed to build a new connection at Chillicothe between the Rock Island and Santa Fe. The existing connection was in the wrong quadrant for Chicago-Peoria operation. The state suggested operating the train in push-pull mode, but Amtrak reportedly was not interested in doing that.

A major downside to the ICG-TP&W route was that the terminus would not be in Peoria but on the edge of a TP&W freight yard in East Peoria. The TP&W bridge over the Illinois River that linked Peoria with East Peoria had long been out of service after being struck by a barge. Due to a circuitous routing and freight congestion, an alternative route via the Peoria & Pekin Union would have taken an estimated 40 minutes to reach downtown Peoria once the train left TP&W tracks. Also the connection between the TP&W and ICG at Chenoa was not remote controlled, so the train had to stop while a crewmember got out to throw the switches. The southbound Prairie Marksman also had to receive train orders at Chenoa because the TP&W was a “dark” railroad (no automated block signalling) and the top speed on the TP&W initially was 50 mph. There was also considerable finangling with the unions beforehand, since Amtrak did not want the train to change operating crews when switching from ICG rails to TP&W rails. The unions eventually agreed to a pact whereby TP&W crews handled the train between East Peoria and Chicago on one of every three trips. The consist of the Prairie Marksman typically was an F40PH locomotive, two Amfleet coaches and a food service car. Periodically, a high-density Heritage coach would substitute for one of the Amfleet coaches, or a baggage car would be included in the consist.

Between the weird routing, lack of a proper station at East Peoria (it was a prefab shelter lacking bathrooms, located in the middle of the freight yard), failure to reach Peoria (it was a $7 taxi fare from Peoria to the station), and fairly leisurely schedule (3 hours, 15 minutes to cover 150 miles with only one intermediate stop), the Prairie Marksman was basically dead on arrival. Many who rode a publicity special from Chicago to East Peoria two days before service began openly predicted that the Prairie Marksman would fail. As if that wasn’t enough, the state had given the Prairie Marksman only 14 months to prove itself. Revenue had to cover at least 49 percent of the cost of operating the train by the end of its trial period.  To meet its financial goals, the Prairie Marksman would have needed to average 150 passengers a day, but even the publicity special only managed 123 riders. In the first week of service, patronage averaged nearly 60 passengers per day, which was below the projected average of 75. Ridership did grow, peaking at 85 per day. But on many days the train averaged 30 or fewer passengers.

A survey sponsored by the state found that many Peoria area residents were aware of the train and the location of its station, but did not find it to be a practical means of travel to Chicago. Only a fifth of those who rode the Prairie Marksman were bound for downtown Chicago. Most travelers between Chicago and Peoria were destined for the suburbs. Other critics cited high Amtrak fares, noting that the bus was cheaper and offered more frequencies. Amid losses of $120,000, Illinois withdrew its support for the train, and the Prairie Marksman made its last run on October 4, 1981. Interestingly, Prairie Marksman seldom had problems with on-time performance. In its early months of operation, the train was often 15 to 30 minutes early, and in its last days of operation, it posted a 100 percent on-time performance on the TP&W. Of course, that didn't matter when no one was riding it.

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