23 December 2010

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - # 3 - Auto Row

I'm not sure whether the Auto Row area along Broadway exactly counts as a "neighborhood", but it's certainly an identifiable area of Oakland with all of the car dealers and ancillary businesses including automobile repair and service shops.

My 1985 Jetta went to Fritz & Peter's car repair shop for many years when I lived in the East Bay and well into my Chico years, too.

OK, Auto Row may not be highly scenic but it's a significant part of Oakland's commercial life.

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - navigational links:
Backward to: Uptown
Forward to: Piedmont Avenue
Oakland Marathon website

17 December 2010

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - # 2 - Uptown

Oakland's Uptown area is to the immediate north of downtown.

This is also the area where the race ends on Telegraph Avenue.

Fox Oakland on Telegraph Avenue
The area is gentrifying rapidly west of Broadway with the recent building of apartment and condominum buildings, the restoration of the long shuttered Fox Oakland, and the opening of new bars and restaurants such as Luka's Taproom & Lounge at Broadway and Grand.

One of the most exquisite Art Deco buildings you'll ever see is the Paramount Theatre on Broadway.  Nice on the outside, but unbelievable on the inside, this gem had the misfortune of opening during the depths of the Depression in 1931.

Don't have the cash for a concert?  Well, go to see a "Paramount Movie Classic" that costs only five bucks, and includes a chance to win cool prizes with the Dec-o-Win drawing before the show starts.

Just two doors down from the Paramount is the splendid (and derelict) I. Magnin building.

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - navigational links:
Backward to: Downtown
Forward to: Auto Row
Oakland Marathon website

15 December 2010

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - # 1 - Downtown

The start of the Oakland Marathon is in the heart of downtown Oakland at Broadway and 14th Street.

You can see from the inset image from the course map that the finish line is very close to the start, which makes for easy logistics.  Two hotels, the Oakland Marriott (official race hotel and site of the expo) and the Courtyard are only two blocks from the race start.

For Bay Area runners, the Oakland City Center-12th Street BART station makes for easy transit access, far easier than driving and parking, considering the road closures necessary to conduct the race.

Oakland's restored Beaux Arts City Hall is opposite the start of the race.  Note the beautiful oak tree in front of the building.  It puts the "oak" in Oakland.

One of the best newsstands I know of anywhere is the venerable DeLauer's on Broadway.

The Cathedral Building on Broadway

Old Oakland, an area of restored Victorians, and now thriving with restaurants, shops, offices, and condos, is slightly to the south of the race start and west of Broadway, while bustling Chinatown is immediately east of Broadway.

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - navigational links:
Backward to: The "prequel" (the original marathon)

Forward to: Uptown

Oakland Marathon website

13 December 2010

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - The "prequel" (the original marathon)

How to hide a marathon.

Strangely, no one seems to know for sure what the last year of the old marathon was.  Len Goldman, longtime member and past president of Oakland's oldest running club, the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders, narrows it down to either 1983 or 1984.  That's as close as anyone I contacted could say.

If anyone reading this post knows for sure, please comment back and shed some light on what could be a Hardy Boys book: "The Case of the Missing Marathon".

Going through the file of clippings labeled "Sports - Track & Field" at the History Room at the main branch of the Oakland Library one sees various newspaper articles about the early years of the event but nothing past 1981.

Seems that it had a bright future but abruptly vanished, possibly with a whiff of scandal.

A fine article in the East Bay Express appearing shortly before the inaugural 2010 Oakland Marathon, describes the prospects for the new event, along with some history about the old one.

About a year after I originally wrote this post, I was at a 80th birthday party here in Chico for my friend, Lin Jensen.  Much to my surprise, on the wall with photos and other significant ephemera from his life so far, was a photo of him running the 1980 Oakland Marathon as well as a letter from the race director certifying his achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time (3:05:50 at age 48!).  Lin graciously authorized my including these in this post.  Photos by Karen Laslo.

Lin Jensen running 1980 Oakland Marathon

Boston qualifying letter - full letter
Boston qualifying letter - detail
Boston qualifying certificate

At the History Room I was able to photograph a 1980 marathon program (produced after the race), as well as the entry form for the same event.

1980 Oakland Marathon program
1980 entry form

1980 entry form

While it's sad (and mysterious) that the original event did not have staying power, the course of the new marathon is vastly improved.  The old marathon's mileage was concentrated on an out-and-back course from downtown to the vicinity of the Coliseum.  The new course takes runners on a grand tour of the city that is both more scenic and more challenging.

1980 entry form - course map

The next post in the "Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour" will be the beginning of the tour in the heart of downtown Oakland at 14th and Broadway.

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - navigational links:
Backward to: Introduction
Forward to: Downtown
Oakland Marathon website

10 December 2010

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - Introduction

Industrial wasteland.  Dysfunctional school system.  Confusing freeways.  Ugly sister of the glamorous, cool, beauty queen across the bay.


Just no reason to go there unless you want to get mugged.

That’s all Oakland is, isn’t it?

Maybe it is if you want it to be, or if you just don’t know better.

I know better.

To adapt Gertrude Stein's quote: "There is a there there."

(This famous saying used often to insult Oakland was written by the quotable Stein not to mock her birthplace, but rather to note that the house in which she grew up had been torn down.)

Lake Chalet restaurant at the boathouse on Lake Merritt

I’ve lived in Oakland twice in my life.  Once for about 6 months in 1979 in my early 20s, and then again from 1990 to 1998 before I moved to Chico, Calif.  Because I’m frequently back in the area, I still feel completely at home in Oakland and the East Bay.

Is Oakland a victim of character assassination?  No.  There are reasons behind the reputation it has.  In fact, a friend and client of mine was recently robbed at gunpoint in the nice neighborhood where she lives.  The problems are real.  But they don't tell the whole story by any stretch.

Let me tick off the reasons why I’m fond of Oakland.
  • Nearly perfect weather
  • Interesting and attractive neighborhoods
  • A thriving Chinatown unknown by tourists (and even most people in the Bay Area)
  • Restaurants and drinking joints of every possible sort
  • Diversity that isn’t worn on its sleeve
  • A beautiful in-city lake (Lake Merritt)
  • A secluded and picturesque municipal rosegarden
  • Outstanding trail running in the hills
  • Transportation hub by sea, rail, road, and air
  • Compelling history
  • A downtown that is coming back from the dead

As in many other cities in our Golden State, you will see plenty of runners in Oakland - around Lake Merritt, on the trails in the Oakland Hills, in the neighborhoods – however the last running of a marathon was long ago in the mid-1980s.

That was until Gene Brtalik moved here because his wife took a job in Oakland.  Lucky break for Oakland, because Brtalik, an event director with Corrigan Sports Enterprises based in Baltimore, saw in Oakland many similarities to Baltimore: an unloved "second" city that would embrace an event that showcased the city in all its mottled glory.

Brtalik and Corrigan Sports should know.  They faced skepticism when they launched the Baltimore Running Festival in 2001.  Since then, the event has become hugely successful, both for runners and the community.  Not counting this year’s race in October, since 2001 over 100,000 runners have participated in one of the Baltimore events: marathon, half-marathon, 5K, 4-person marathon relay, and kids fun run.

They saw the same potential for the Oakland Running Festival, and got the inaugural event off to a smashing start the weekend of 27-28 March 2010.  By the accounts of everyone – runners, residents along the route, city officials – the races came off flawlessly and the community turned out in droves to support it and their city.

I didn’t get in on the ground floor but at least I’ll catch it at the mezzanine; I’m running the 2011 Oakland Marathon on 27 March 2011.

For a couple of years I’d thought it would be fun to write a series about Oakland’s neighborhoods but never got around to it.  Now inspired by the race, I am.  I’ll follow the route of the marathon and focus on the neighborhoods it traverses.  Different in style from most of my posts, these will be short pieces:  just a few paragraphs to accompany pictures.

I’m calling the series the "Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour".

I heartily encourage Oakland residents to post comments with insider knowledge of what makes their neighboorhood noteworthy, good, bad, or otherwise.  It could be a special coffeehouse, restaurant, or bar, a nice walk, notable views, history, you name it - just write about it.

This series will run concurrently with the Amtrak series and anything else I throw in along the way.  But to make it easy to move from chapter to chapter, at the bottom of each post you'll see "Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour navigational links" that give quick access to the previous or subsequent chapter, as well as to the index of all chapters, the series introduction, and to the Oakland Running Festival's own website.

And if you're a runner, why don't you give some thought to joining me at the Oakland Running Festival for your own self-propelled tour?  In addition to the marathon, there is a half-marathon, 4-person marathon relay, and 5K.

I hope this series demonstrates that Oakland is more than a place you have to go through in order to get somewhere else.

Before the neighboorhood tour starts, I'll write a short "prequel" post about the original Oakland Marathon.

Oakland Marathon neighborhood tour - navigational links:
Forward to: "the prequel" (the original marathon)
Oakland Marathon website

07 December 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 3 – Routes – Long distance trains – Western (Pacific coast to Chicago and New Orleans)

This is the second installment on Amtrak's routes, looking at trains in the West that operate eastbound from the Pacific coast to Chicago or New Orleans.  (The first chapter covered long-distance trains operating in a roughly north-to-south direction.)

Let’s move from south to north.  With one exception that I’ll identify, all trains from the west coast to points east (Chicago or New Orleans) take 3 days and 2 nights to reach their destination.  For example, if you left Seattle on a Thursday you would arrive in Chicago on Saturday.

Two trains, three if you look at it differently, begin in Los Angeles and head east to Chicago and New Orleans.  One train leaves from Emeryville (Oakland/San Francisco) bound for Chicago.  One more leaves begins in two separate sections from Portland and Seattle, but becomes one train in Spokane for its run to Chicago.

Here is a closer look.  (Remember, you can click on a link in the name header of each train that takes you to a detailed page of route information at Amtrak.com)

SOUTHWEST CHIEF (trains 3 / 4)

The Southwest Chief, the descendant of Santa Fe’s Super Chief, operates between Los Angeles and Chicago, with principal stops in Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Kansas City.  For a good deal of the trip, this train parallels the old Route 66.  This train traverses the classic scenery of the Southwest before reaching the vast flatness of Kansas and beyond.

SUNSET LIMITED (trains 1 / 2)

The Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans.  The Sunset Limited was the original name of the train operated up until Amtrak day by the Southern Pacific.  It is one of two long-distance trains in Amtrak’s system that operate only 3 times per week each direction.  (All other long-distance trains are daily.)  The big cities served along the way include Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston.  (Phoenix is not served directly, but a stop at Maricopa, Ariz., is only 30 miles away.)

Some Amtrak passengers may remember when this train ran all of the way to Florida (first to Jacksonville, then later to Orlando).  The service to Florida was suspended after damage to tracks along the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Katrina.  Though the damage was long ago repaired, the service to Florida never resumed, and as of this writing (July 2011) there is no indication at all that it ever will.

TEXAS EAGLE (trains 21 / 22 and 421 / 422 )

The third eastbound train from Los Angeles, the Texas Eagle, isn’t a train of its own when it leaves; it’s part of the Sunset Limited.  This requires a detailed explanation.

The Texas Eagle is a daily train that operates daily from San Antonio to Chicago.  Important stops include Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Little Rock and St. Louis.

Three days a week a sleeping car and a coach that begin their trip in Los Angeles headed eastbound on train 2 (the Sunset Limited) are uncoupled in San Antonio and then coupled to train 22 that leaves San Antonio headed to Chicago.

A passenger in a Chicago-bound sleeping car or coach does not have to change trains in San Antonio, because the car itself gets switched from one train to the other, but because of a 9 ½ hour layover in San Antonio it makes for longer overall travel time from the origination in Los Angeles to a final destination of Chicago.  (The process works in reverse for westbound travelers, with cars that begin in Chicago being uncoupled in San Antonio and coupled to westbound train 1.)  This is the one train that would produce a 4 day, 3 night overall travel time from the west coast to Chicago because of the more circuitous route and long layover.

Passengers booked eastbound on the Texas Eagle between Los Angeles (and intermediate points up to but not including San Antonio) to cities beyond San Antonio as far as Chicago are typically booked on train 422.  In reverse, they are booked on train 421.

CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR (trains 5 / 6)

The California Zephyr, heir to the name of the renowned train that did not even live to Amtrak day (discontinued  March 1969), runs between Emeryville (Oakland) and Chicago.  (San Francisco is served via a bus connection from Emeryville to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge.)  Noteworthy stops include Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Denver, and Omaha.

This train is considered among the best for scenery because of the rugged crossing of the Sierras and the long stretch along the Colorado River and in the Rockies.  Unlike the original postwar California Zephyr, the train does not traverse the Feather River Canyon (except for the very rare detour) but instead runs on the former Southern Pacific Donner Pass route, which was part of first transcontinental line when completed in 1869.

EMPIRE BUILDER (trains 7 / 8 and 27 / 28)

The last of the western long-distance trains is the Empire Builder.  The name of the train was inherited from the railroad that created it, the Great Northern Railway (later part of Burlington Northern), which named the train after its founder, James Hill.  In his day Hill was dubbed the "Empire Builder".  Headed eastbound, the Empire Builder begins its journey as two trains.  Train 8 with coaches, sleeping cars, and a dining car, originates in Seattle headed north to Everett where it makes an eastward turn and crosses the Cascades bound for Spokane.

Train 28 on the other hand starts in Portland, crosses the Columbia River over to Vancouver, Wash., and then makes its eastward turn to run along the Columbia for about 200 miles to Pasco, Wash.  The Portland-originating section of the Empire Builder includes coaches, sleepers, and a lounge car.  It continues to Spokane for a midnight rendezvous with the Seattle-originating train 8.

In Spokane, the two trains are coupled together to become one train operating east to Chicago.  Westbound, it works in reverse; the train splits into two pieces in Spokane for the final legs of the trip to Seattle (train 7)  and Portland (train 27).  Portland-bound and Seattle-bound coaches and sleepers are clearly identified, so it is seldom that a passenger needs to move from one car to another in Spokane.

Between Spokane and Chicago the principal stops are Whitefish, Mont., Havre, Mont., Fargo, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.

Like the California Zephyr, this train is highly regarded for great scenery in Oregon and Washington, Glacier Park, the vast reaches of Montana's Big Sky Country, and some pretty landscapes in Wisconsin.  By most accounts, the on-board service on the Empire Builder is presently the best among all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - Eastern (Chicago to the east coast)

18 November 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 2 – Routes – Long distance trains – North to South

Before I jump into Amtrak’s route structure, it bears pointing out that since I live in the West this series has a definite focus on rail service in my part of the country.  As Jim Morrison of The Doors muttered twice in his iconic song The End: “The West Is the Best”.  And boy, was he ever right!  Nonetheless, you’re going to get well acquainted with Amtrak service throughout the United States by the time this series is complete.  It's a big country.

Originally, I was going to write just one chapter about Amtrak’s routes but I realized after starting that not only was it too much to write, but even worse, it would be way too much too read at one sitting.

So I’m breaking it into six manageable blog post bites – eat one or eat them all:
  • Long distance trains – North to South
  • Long distance trains – Western (Pacific Coast to Chicago and New Orleans)
  • Long distance trains – Eastern (Chicago to the Northeast)
  • Short distance corridors – Northeast and Midwest
  • Short distance corridors – California and the Pacific Northwest
  • Route to Route – How things fit together
The first three chapters will provide a look at all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.  Long-distance for our purposes means trains that travel overnight at least one night from origin to destination travel overnight.  Following long-distance trains, the next two chapters will examine Amtrak’s short-distance corridors.  Finally we’ll see how they fit together.

Amtrak has excellent resources available for research.  Each route reference below contains a link to the relevant Amtrak.com page where you’ll find a route map and route guide, list of all the stations served, timetables, accommodations, policies, and plenty more.

We’ll begin with the north-to-south trains.  6 long-distance trains operate in a mostly north-to-south orientation.  All north-south trains are two days in total duration (only one overnight from origin to destination).  For example, if you left Los Angeles on a Monday morning you would arrive Seattle on Tuesday night.

COAST STARLIGHT (trains 11 / 14)

In the West, the only north-south train is the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles.  The principal cities it stops at along the way include Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Barbara.  While “Coast” is part of the name, the portion that is actually along the coast is just from roughly Ventura to Pismo Beach.  It’s beautiful, and much of it you’ll can only see by train because the highway (U.S. 101) runs inland from Pismo Beach to Gaviota (south of Buellton).  Except for glimpses of the San Francisco Bay and the Puget Sound, nothing else that could be considered coastal.  But the route is outstanding from start to finish, and provides a survey of the three Pacific coast states that takes in most of its great cities, agricultural areas, and wilderness.

CITY OF NEW ORLEANS (trains 58 / 59)

One Amtrak’s weaknesses is that it offers no other north-south service until the midsection of the country, and not all that much there.  More or less paralleling the Mississippi River is the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans.  Its principal stops along the way include Memphis and Jackson, Miss.

CRESCENT (trains 19 / 20)

The Crescent runs in a northeast-southwest diagonal, connecting New York with New Orleans.  The principal cities it serves include Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham.

SILVER STAR AND SILVER METEOR (trains 91 / 92 and 97 / 98)

Three trains connect the Northeast with Florida.  Two of them operate similar and to some extent overlapping routes.  The Silver Star and the Silver Meteor both begin in New York and end in Miami.  The Silver Star, however splits into two sections in Orlando, where one section continues to Tampa, whereas the other section continues to Miami.  Both the Silver Star and Silver Meteor serve Washington, Richmond, Virginia, Savannah, and Jacksonville, but the routes in the Carolinas diverge.

AUTO TRAIN (trains 52 / 53)

There is one more long-distance train that operates along the eastern seaboard: Auto Train.  This is a unique train for two reasons.  One, is that it operates without any passenger stops from Lorton, Virginia (close to Washington, D.C.) to Sanford, Fla. (just north of Orlando) and, two, it carries passengers and their vehicles.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to History
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - Western (Pacific coast to Chicago and New Orleans)

10 November 2010

Running – Pick a hotel, but not just any hotel

I first really “got” the point about which I’m going to write in 2005 when I ran the Davis Stampede Half Marathon.  Davis isn’t too far from Chico, Calif. where I live; it’s 100 miles away, and about an 1 hour 45 minute drive.

We walked two blocks to get here!
My partner Keith and I chose to drive down the day before and stay overnight at a Best Western two blocks from the race start.

We arrived the afternoon before the race, picked up our race packets at the local running store, got a good night’s sleep, and walked two entire blocks to the start of the race.


A light went on and has burned ever since, and now that I operate a hotel reservation booking service for business travelers, I have the opportunity to propagandize (in a good way) my clients, many of whom are both runners and business travelers.

Before I drown you in reasons, here’s the part to take away:

When you’re doing a big running event out of town, you owe it to yourself to get the nicest hotel room possible, striking the best balance you can between cost and proximity.

Look at it from this perspective.

You’ve trained for a marathon putting in untold hours and miles over many months time.  It’s quite likely you’ve gone through two or more pairs of running shoes in training.

Why would you want to put that entire investment at risk by staying in a hotel that is far from the race start (or transportation to the race start), or so cheap that a good night’s sleep is problematic?  It’s a clear-cut case of penny wise and pound foolish.

The most important thing you can do is be rested for the Big Race, and not have an undue stress level added to an already early morning start by having to drive a long distance to the start of the event, with all of the potential for car trouble, traffic jams, or a frustrating search for parking.

Is money tight and you’re doing this marathon on a budget?  Then economize by ditching most of the post-training run meals and beers with your buddies, and put the money you would have spent in a jar and save it for a hotel room.  Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

Now if you have the option of staying with friends or relatives that can be a good money-saving alternative to a hotel, provided it is relatively close to the start of the race.  But if your hosts are not interested in what you are about to do, then your free lodging may be more of a nuisance for them, what with your needing to get to sleep early the night before, and then rummaging around early on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  Should that be the case, consider redeeming this "free room" for another non-running occasion.  Plus part of the fun of staying at a hotel is soaking up the energy of all of the other runners doing the same thing.

Final tip: if you have a long drive or flight ahead of you after the marathon, strongly consider staying over the night after the race if your schedule and pocketbook permit.  Not only will you not have to scramble to shower and pack to beat the hotel check-out deadline, but your sore and cramping legs will thank you for not having to be cooped up in a car or plane.

04 November 2010

Airlines - (No) Fear of Flying

For most people, flying on commercial aircraft is a pretty ho-hum affair.  While present day flying isn’t very glamorous, and certainly the on-the-ground check-in security procedures now are sheer drudgery, a nonstop flight for distances of 500+ miles is still the best – and sometimes the only – way to go.

But not for everyone.

One out of eight Americans shuns commercial air travel according to the figure cited in the Bay Area’s “Fear of Flying Clinic”.

A good friend of mine, Robert Moran, told me that up until recently he was one of those “one out of eight”.  He traces his anxiousness about flying back to an incident as a 6-year old on his first flight.  There was a minor problem with the aircraft, but even before that he began taking up the fear evinced by his two grown-up traveling companions.

For many years as an adult, he avoided flying altogether which made for very lengthy car trips back to Mississippi where he grew up and where his family still lives.  (Robert and his wife live in northern California.)  Over the last few years, he embraced better flying through chemicals by getting a prescription for a mild sedative to batten down the fear factor, but the aftermath he experienced after reaching his destination wasn’t pretty: exhaustion and disrupted sleep patterns.

Funny thing was that the doctor who prescribed the flying meds had also been a nervous flier, but had benefitted from the program offered by the Fear of Flying Clinic (FOFC) at the San Francisco Airport.  He recommended it to Robert.

In June over two consecutive weekends, Robert went through one of their clinics and emerged much less fearful.  In his own words, “[T]hough by no means cured, I actually look forward to flying now and have many coping mechanisms that have put me on track to conquering this long-term problem”.

The therapists and airline professionals (pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, etc.) who conduct the clinics for the non-profit FOFC, take participants behind the scenes to see how planes fly and how the air traffic control system works.  In essence, they demonstrate that commercial air transport is indeed complex, but it is also routine, and very, very safe.  And those funny noises planes make at the start, end, and sometimes in the middle of a flight are normal.  It’s a cliché but true, that you face more danger on the drive to the airport than you do on the flight itself.

While not an obligatory part of the clinic, Robert and his other FOFC classmates had a graduation day-trip on Alaska Airlines to have lunch in Seattle.  Success!  (And rather decadent, if you ask me.)  Subsequently, Robert along with wife Karen and infant twin boys did another day-trip to San Diego to test his flight comfort level.  More success!

How much longer from now will it be, before Robert  contemplates the “mileage runs” that some frequent flyers do, to ensure elite status in an airline’s mileage program?

For further information about the programs operated by the Fear of Flying Clinic see their website.  Readers outside of northern California will find FOFC has a list of links to similar resources elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

29 October 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 1 – History

Though many people are not old enough to know this by having lived through it, Amtrak did not invent the passenger train in the United States.  Amtrak was created by the federal government in 1971 to preserve what was left of passenger rail service operated by private railroad companies after decades of decline.

A note about the photos you see enlivening this post.  The picture above was taken by Steve Schmollinger near Colfax, Calif. in July 1973.  The other photos you'll see from here on are courtesy of Larry Mack, and snapped in the Midwest during the same time period of the early 1970s, which is known as Amtrak's "rainbow era".  You'll read why it's called that later.  Thank you, Steve and Larry!

Branch-line passenger service had begun to drop in the 1920s as automobile ownership increased and the reach of paved roads grew.  That drop in ridership coupled with the Depression resulted in many short-distance passenger trains being discontinued prior to WWII.  During the war, passenger traffic exploded on all lines, in part due to wartime rationing of gasoline and tires, though service was ragged due to unprecedented demand.

Although after the war railroads invested heavily in new, streamlined passenger railroad equipment for longer distance travel, by the mid-1950s it was clear that more and more of the public was leaving the rails for the sky or for their own cars operated over the ever expanding interstate highway network.

This decline in ridership was not identical from railroad to railroad.  Some fought to retain passengers through enhanced service, but others lost interest altogether and claimed, sometimes dubiously, about the deep losses they suffered operating passenger service.  Two western railroads were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant carrier within California and along the Pacific Coast, became notorious by the 1960s for its bad service and zeal for discontinuing trains.  (Railroads could not unilaterally discontinue trains as they were heavily regulated by the government.  Discontinuance petitions had to be made to the Interstate Commerce Commission which by no means was a rubber stamp for the railroads.)

On the other hand, the Santa Fe Railway maintained impeccable service standards aboard its trains up until the end.  While it did discontinue a number of secondary trains and shorter distance trains, the trains it continued to operate (such as the famous Super Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles) were consistently top-notch.

One of the last things that kept many passenger trains in the black – carriage of the U.S. Mail in baggage cars on passengers trains – was largely eliminated in 1967.  By the late 1960s it was clear to the public and to policy makers that passenger trains were endangered and the railroads were clamoring for some kind of relief: government subsidies, a government takeover of passenger trains, or blanket permission to discontinue any trains they wished.

By 1970 a discussion was well underway in Congress, and between the Nixon Administration and Congress, which ultimately resulted in the bill that created Amtrak.  (This is politically ironic, because in general it has been Republicans over the years who have used Amtrak has a punching bag, even though Amtrak was created under a Republican president.)

In brief, the plan offered railroads the opportunity to lose their financial responsibility for operating passenger trains by buying into Amtrak with their passenger railroad equipment and cash.  All of the major railroads except three (Rock Island, Southern, and Denver Rio Grande & Western) chose to participate from its inception.

As the countdown to Amtrak’s takeover of passenger rail service on 1 May 1971 began, many people began taking their last rides on trains that would not survive the transition to Amtrak.  The route network authorized by the bill that created Amtrak was skeletal compared to what the railroads had chosen to operate (or were required to operate) even with all of the train-off notices of the postwar years.

Below are maps of the U.S. intercity rail service at the end of the private railroad era (30 April 1971) and at the beginning of the Amtrak era (1 May 1971).  (Maps are scanned from "Journey To Amtrak", recommended at the end of this post for further reading.)

Because so many trains had already been discontinued in California prior to Amtrak, the cuts were probably less severe than elsewhere.  Trains in northern California that made their last runs on 30 April 1971 included Southern Pacific’s Del Monte (San Francisco-Monterey), the San Joaquin Daylight (Oakland-Los Angeles) and the Redwood (Willits-Eureka), as well as the Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief (Chicago-Richmond, Calif).  (Western Pacific’s California Zephyr did not live to see Amtrak; it was discontinued in March 1970, although the name would be resurrected a number of years later by Amtrak for a train that only partly used the same route as the original Zephyr.)

Southern Pacific’s Daylight (San Francisco-Los Angeles) and Cascade (overnight between Oakland and Portland) would be amalgamated into Amtrak’s Coast Starlight running from Seattle to Los Angeles.  Other than commuter service to San Jose, San Francisco has been without mainline intercity passenger rail service since 1971, except by way of the Amtrak bus connection to trains in Oakland and Emeryville.

The history of Amtrak itself is not the subject of this series as it would easily fill many posts.  A few key points are worth noting.

Initially most of the employees operating and staffing the trains remained on the payrolls of the railroads, although reimbursed by Amtrak.  This gradually changed, but since the late 1980s all of the employees – whether operating employees (engineers, conductors, etc.), on-board staff (dining car, sleeping car, etc.), station agents, call-center agents, maintenance, and so on, have been Amtrak employees.  Most non-management Amtrak employees are unionized, and represented by the same unions that employees of the now freight-only railroads are.  Amtrak employees, like their freight railroad brethren, are covered by Railroad Retirement, a separate system very much like Social Security.

It was a number of years before Amtrak ordered its own equipment (locomotives and passenger cars) so the initial years (roughly 1971-1974) are known as the "Rainbow Era", because the passenger cars that the railroads had to contribute in order to join Amtrak ended up being used all around the country.  A silver and red Southern Pacific car might be next to a green Burlington Northern car which was next to a golden yellow Union Pacific car.  Eventually all of this equipment would be painted in Amtrak’s own livery and look more or less the same.  Most - but not all - of this railroad hand-me-down equipment has been replaced by locomotives and cars ordered by Amtrak.

Amtrak has a president appointed by the Board of Directors; the Board is appointed by the president subject to confirmation by the Senate.  The Secretary of Transportation is an ex-oficio member of the Board.  While Amtrak runs its own affairs on a day-to-day basis and is technically a separate entity, it is highly subject to political interference both by friends and by enemies.  The federal government provides (some years) capital investment funds and annually supplies an operating allowance to make up the difference between revenue and expense.

Decisions about adding or cutting routes, have invariably involved input from Congress.  Historically the Democratic Party has been more inclined to support Amtrak, and the Republican Party to disdain it, but exceptions to that rule render it only a rough guide.  Under President Jimmy Carter several Amtrak routes were axed and Republican stalwarts former Senator Trent Lott and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have been two of Amtrak’s best friends.  Though invisible to the traveling public, Amtrak’s headquarters is in the upper floors of one of the nation’s busiest and prettiest train stations: Washington Union Station.   And coincidentally or not, the U.S. Capitol is just a few blocks walk in distance.

Amtrak is not the name of the corporation.  In fact, the official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but it has always done business publicly as Amtrak.

That’s enough history.

For further reading:

If you would like to read more about passenger trains before Amtrak, and the path that eventually led to Amtrak, here are three recommendations:

Wikipedia (this is a very detailed and useful Wikipedia entry)


Journey to Amtrak, edited by Harold Edmonson (1972)
This is about the decline of railroad operated passenger trains and the formation of Amtrak, and about the last months of private passenger service leading up to Amtrak day (1 May 1971) with lots of pictures of trains making their last runs.  (Used copies of this are a bargain at Amazon.)

Twilight of the Great Trains, by Fred Frailey (1998)
Frailey examines eleven different railroads and their attitudes and policies concerning passenger service in the postwar years until they joined Amtrak.  Frailey writes exceptionally well, and presents the information in such a way that even readers who aren’t enthralled by trains will find this interesting from a business or historical perspective.  Excellent pictures and diagrams, too. (Available both new and used at Amazon.)

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Introduction
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South