INCREDIBLE MISSING AMTRAK MARKETBy Robert Mann
From Coast to Coast, Amtrak provides fast comfortable trains. After 30+ years of bare bones financial support from the US Government, Amtrak has finally secured a veto proof majority to give the system funds to get things up and running, repair the broken pieces and even look at limited expansion. Included in the expansion are plans to assist States and local transportation authorities to secure matching grants, and funding for new trains. Some rules provide for small starts while others allow entire groups of states to band together in massive corridor-like efforts.
To the railroad historian, one of the more mysterious facts of Amtrak, was it's replacement of the once rich Midwest-Florida market with just one train, "The Southwind". Even up until the time of Amtrak in 1971, the railroads had maintained a fairly rich selection of trains in this area. "The City of Miami" was one such train with a record for being sold out. And yes, the "City" was a sister of the famous "City of New Orleans" as they shared about 50% of their route miles. Another little known route was the (Montgomery) "Champion". A tiny connecting train that clicked off the miles over the old Atlantic Coast Line, nee Seaboard Coast Line, between Jacksonville - Waycross - Valdosta - Dothan - Montgomery. In Montgomery it met the flagship of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad's "Pan American" as it raced south from Louisville - Nashville - Birmingham - Montgomery and headed off for Mobile - Biloxi and New Orleans. Never to be confused with the flagship "East and West Coast Champion" trains of the New York - Tampa and Miami market fame, this tiny little train kept the rails polished. It was a nightmare era, a railroading holocaust, a time when through sleeping car first class trains, became coach only. When names that carried meaning, special dining and lounge cars, special services and extra fares, became nameless, numbered and inept endurance tests. The former through patron from Detroit to Miami, might find him or herself wandering across the Midwest on the Penn Central to get to a station in Louisville for a sprint to Atlanta on the Hummingbird. The 23 hour layover in the wrong part of town brought to you by the crash and burn of the industry.
Upon reaching Atlanta, the Dixie Flyer to Jacksonville had just been discontinued, so one would wander over to catch the Central of Georgia Railroad, "Nancy Hanks" to Savannah. The Nancy was at least well kept, even though stripped of her mail contract, she was down to a couple of express cars and a single coach. Finally hooking up with the Silver Meteor, Star, Palmetto, Champion or Everglades for Jacksonville and points south, the railroads assured the return trip would be via National Airlines.
As Amtrak entered into this unstable sinking business, it is said that government teams combed through every route, every ridership number, track capacity, on-time performance, market potential and some such. When the smoke cleared, they chose the "Southwind" route and twisted Penn Centrals arm into running the Louisville - Chicago segment for their new railroad, after all, as the slogan said, "We're making trains worth traveling again..." Sadly they conveniently left off the part about Louisville to Chicago at a gut rocking 15 miles per hour.
No one it seems turned the pages back just a few years prior to Amtrak's rough founding hours. No one noticed their had been a brisk Florida market at one time, not so long ago. In fact in the early 1960's it was possible to book a Pullman room direct on through trains from Jacksonville to New Orleans, Montgomery, Birmingham, Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Cleveland etc. Other railroads, namely The Southern Railway (today's Norfolk Southern) and many other routes had just been cleansed of the passenger train menace just a few years shy of Amtrak. The boys in Washington never heard the words: St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco), or Kansas City Southern, Central of Georgia, or Georgia Southern and Florida. In that oversight they missed entire families of trains and routes. One of the most promising was that of the old Southern Railway, in conjunction with connections north of Cincinnati, that operated an incredible pair of Midwest - Florida trains, apparently never to be considered again.
I'd like to reverse that trend, wake up the United Rail Alliance, and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, as well as Amtrak, FDOT, GDOT, JTA and the cities involved to push for the return of one or two of these three famous flagship trains. The Royal Palm, Royal Poinciana, and Ponce De Leon, gathered cars from throughout the northern Midwest. Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Toledo, Buffalo, Dayton, Indianapolis and herded them into Cincinnati Union Terminal. Usually taking all or parts of 3 connector trains and forming one great streamliner at a time, the process was repeated 3 times daily Southbound and likewise, broken into 3 connecting trains, 3 times daily Northbound. South of Cincinnati, all the way through Lexington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Macon, Valdosta, Jacksonville and all the way to Miami, one great train could cover the schedule. Jacksonville Terminal comes into play if you consider that the train could be broken up again here for both coasts of Florida. One train doing the work of 6, by breaking into, or consolidation from sections en-route. 3 trains doing the work of 18, reaching all across the Midwest, and considering bi-directional operation. That could grow to 3 northbound and 3 southbound trains daily each breaking up or consolidating, equals 6 trains doing the work of 54! Talk about bang for the buck, and this is a route no one has looked back at.
Ponce De Leon, Royal Poinciana or Royal Palm, pick the name you like the best and lets turn up the heat on the "NEW" Amtrak. It's way past time to return the glory to Jacksonville Terminal.
Amtrak took over nearly all rail passenger service in 1971
Illnois Central is part of Canadian National Today
Kansas City Southern remains independent and freight only
St Louis - San Francisco (Frisco lines) is part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe
Georgia Railroad is part of CSX today and freight only
Southern Railway merged with Norfolk and Western to form Norfolk Southern
Atlantic Coast Line is the original parent road of todays CSX
A tale of two cities, by Charles Dickens
Georgia Southern and Florida is part of Norfolk Southern and freight only
Louisville and Nashville was owned by Atlantic Coast Line and is part of CSX today
Pullman was a hotel company on rails broken up by the government in an anti-trust case
National Association of Railroad Passengers is a citizen lobby group which recently proposed a major reshaping of Amtrak route miles, yet completely missed the Southeast.
United Rail Alliance, is a pro passenger train group based in Jacksonville.