Ohio’s lasting victory! – See All Aboard Ohio’s Lake Shore Limited presentation CLICK HERE given at AAO’s Fall Meeting held Oct. 31 at Toledo’s MLK Plaza/Amtrak station.
In the summer of 1973, William Lind had just finished four years of doctoral study at Princeton University with an eye to becoming a professor of history. Instead, he was about to create it. The 26-year-old had two loves – military history and railroads. But history professors weren’t in great demand that year so he returned home to Cleveland.
While back in Ohio for the summer, he saw that U.S. Senator Robert Taft Jr. was due to give a speech near his home. Mr. Lind’s attendance at that speech would result in Amtrak creating one of its most successful trains.
Among his comments, the Cincinnati-born Republican senator and grandson of the 27th President William Howard Taft told his audience why Ohio needed better passenger rail services.
“Cleveland used to be one of America’s greatest rail passenger centers and now was the largest city in the United States without Amtrak service,” Sen. Taft said, according to the Congressional Quarterly Almanac. Canton, Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton had Amtrak services. Akron, Toledo and Youngstown did not. Youngstown and Cleveland were linked by a weekdays-only Erie-Lackawanna commuter train and nothing else.
Inspired by the senator’s speech, the young student of history drove back to his parents’ house and pulled out one of his 1960s Official Guide To the Railways that listed all passenger rail schedules in North America. With those as his template, Mr. Lind jotted down some new ideas for passenger train schedules to restore routes between Ohio’s largest cities and those in surrounding states. He drafted a cover letter and mailed the proposal to the senator.
It wasn’t long before Senator Taft’s Washington D.C. office responded to Mr. Lind in a most generous way: He was invited to become the senator’s transportation aide. Mr. Lind happily accepted and began work that autumn.
“Our first act was to restore passenger rail to Cleveland,” Mr. Lind said in a recent interview from his house in the Cleveland suburb of Middleburg Heights. While Senator Taft was a strong proponent of the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati (3C) and Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh (CYP) corridors, he wanted to establish an east-west trunk route through Cleveland first.
One of the busiest pre-Amtrak passenger routes was the Chicago-Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo-Albany-New York City “Water Level Route” of the New York Central System. It hosted 15 daily round trips in the 1950s. But the NYC’s high-speed tracks, monumental stations and glamorous passenger trains were neglected during the 1960s to where only three daily trains bounced over decayed tracks between rotting, cavernous stations on the eve of Amtrak. To add insult to injury, this route was omitted from the Amtrak Basic System that started May 1, 1971.
Nine days later, it was restored as the overnight eastbound and westbound daily “Lake Shore” – the first state-supported addition to Amtrak’s Basic System. The states of Ohio and New York agreed to reimburse Amtrak for two-thirds of any operating losses under Sec. 403(b) of the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970. However, New York withdrew its financial backing until the state’s department of transportation could develop a state-wide plan for passenger rail routes. The Lake Shore stopped running Jan. 10, 1972, leaving the Broadway Limited (via Pittsburgh and the Ohio stations of Canton, Crestline and Lima) as Amtrak’s only Chicago-New York City train.
The erstwhile Lake Shore never served Boston. Yet there was a growing advocacy effort in New England for linking Boston with Chicago using a direct Amtrak train. The year before, the Senate approved an amendment by Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.) authorizing $15 million per year for experimental train services between points not currently served by Amtrak.
“Since there was already a group in New England, we in Ohio started working with them,” Mr. Lind said. “We got the congressional districts along the (Lake Shore) route to support the train. I was the guy in Washington who expanded the coalition from New England to the entire line.”
In April 1974, Mr. Lind came to Dayton to meet with President David Marshall and Secretary Tom Pulsifer of the brand-new Ohio Association of Railroad Passengers (OARP — today doing business as All Aboard Ohio). Messrs. Marshall and Pulsifer worked with OARP volunteers in Northern Ohio communities to secure station stops and send letters and resolutions to the USDOT.
OARP volunteers included Bill Hutchison who rallied community support in Ashtabula. Al Mladineo, Rodger Sillars, Bill Snorteland and Jim Stevenson sought an Amtrak stop in Painesville and worked to get Amtrak to serve Cleveland Union Terminal (CUT) rather than a city-supported stop on the lakefront. Bob Wickens successfully fought to get Elyria included as a stop at the outset. James Mann worked to get Sandusky added although it didn’t gain a stop until 1979. Rick Priest of Toledo urged that the train operate west of Buffalo on the Penn Central, despite its poor track conditions through Toledo rather than on Norfolk & Western which had better track conditions via Fostoria and Fort Wayne. The station stop at Bryan, OH would not be added until 1980.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Harley Staggers of West Virginia was busily lobbying for new trains to his state. In 1974, three experimental Amtrak routes were designated by U.S. Transportation Secretary Claude Brinegar to operate for two years each. All three involved Ohio:
- Boston-Chicago (via Buffalo & Cleveland)
- Norfolk-Cincinnati (via Lynchburg & Roanoke)
- Washington DC-Denver (via Parkersburg, Cincinnati & St. Louis)
The first new experimental train began March 25, 1975: the Mountaineer ran from Norfolk, VA through Lynchburg and Roanoke to a new Tri-State station at Cattletsburg, KY. It never reached Cincinnati except with through cars on the Chicago-Washington DC James Whitcomb Riley. A change of names as the Hilltopper didn’t improve ridership or help it survive President Jimmy Carter’s drastic 1979 budget cuts that also claimed the New York City-Kansas City National Limited, ending Amtrak service to Columbus and Dayton.
The Washington DC-Denver experimental train wasn’t developed as originally proposed either due to poor track west of Cincinnati. On Oct. 31, 1976, Amtrak’s Washington-Cincinnati Shenandoah began via the Ohio stations of Athens, Chillicothe and Loveland. Ridership never met expectations. Rep. Staggers retired in January 1981. The train was axed that fall in President Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts. Three years later, CSX ripped out 200 miles of track between Greenfield, OH and Clarksburg, WV.
Only one of the three experimental trains survived – the Lake Shore Limited. In fact, the new Boston-Chicago train would add a New York City section and go on to be one of Amtrak’s most successful trains, despite early predictions.
“The new secretary of the (US) DOT (William Coleman Jr.) said it would be a colossal failure,” Mr. Lind said. “(Rep.) Staggers got routes that served his district. He didn’t care where the trains went. We got a train (Lake Shore Limited) that went where the people lived.”
Although Boston-Chicago was named an experimental route in mid-1974, neglected tracks and stations west of Buffalo weren’t yet ready for a passenger train. Penn Central was in bankruptcy but got its court-appointed receiver to approve expenditures for track improvements, notably between Cleveland and Chicago.
Although Cleveland Union Terminal (CUT) still hosted the Erie-Lackawanna commuter train to Youngstown (ended Jan. 14, 1977), it used only two miles of CUT track. Another 15 miles of CUT track needed to be improved and operated only for the Lake Shore Limited and costly station-usage fees would be incurred. OARP urged a temporary station at the West 150th Street rapid transit station (also served by Greyhound back then) until funding could be found for restoring CUT.
Instead, Amtrak allocated $1,023,270 to build a standardized station on Cleveland’s lakefront with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority running a shuttle bus between that station and CUT (it didn’t last long). The current lakefront station was completed in early 1977 next to a temporary modular facility with a waiting room, ticket office, baggage room and restrooms.
That modular station was later relocated to Elyria where Amtrak had built a parking lot and trackside platform in 1975 for $67,000. Elyria’s modular station facility lasted until 2013 when it succumbed to an electrical fire. Amtrak invested only $64,000 in Toledo for improving platforms, lighting and water lines, citing that Central Union Terminal (built 25 years earlier) was still relatively new.
On Oct. 28, 1975, Amtrak operated a special inaugural train over the entire route, complete with an observation car for speech-making at station stops. OARP President Marshall rode the eastbound train as did Mr. Lind, speaking on behalf of Senator Taft, although the senator later joined in the festivities at Cleveland.
In Toledo, hundreds of people showed up trackside to welcome the new train, hauled by Amtrak’s new, red-nosed SDP40 locomotives (sadly they gained a reputation for derailing). Amtrak President Paul Reistrup, hired earlier that year, led the festivities. The largest crowd along the route showed up at Elyria and included two marching bands. By comparison, Cleveland’s crowd was small as the train arrived during the afternoon rush hour. It was welcomed by searchlights, Senator Taft and Mayor Ralph Perk.
“Clevelanders, this is our train!” declared Mr. Mladineo, a travel agent who led the grassroots effort for the Lake Shore Limited in Greater Cleveland. The new train offered reserved coach seating, a diner-lounge car, sleeping cars and checked baggage service. It soon gained a full dining car and separate lounge car.
The first regularly scheduled Lake Shore Limited ran Oct. 31, departing Chicago at 2:15 pm, Toledo at 8:50 pm, Cleveland at 11:20 pm, Buffalo at 3:45 am, Albany at 9:25 am, and arriving New York City at 12:15 pm and Boston at 4:20 pm Westbound, it departed Boston at 2:40 pm, New York City at 6:15 pm, Albany at 9:25 pm, Buffalo at 2:55 am, Cleveland at 7:30 am, Toledo at 10:00 am, and arriving Chicago at 2:40 pm.
Neither the eastbound or westbound schedules would change by more than an hour until the early 1980s. From then until the 1990s, the eastbound train departed several hours later and the westbound about an hour or two earlier.
On the first night of service, about 150 intercity bus company employees arrived on buses at the Cleveland Amtrak station and picketed in protest of what they called “unfair subsidization of a competitor” in Amtrak. They neglected to mention that passenger rail is also a public-private partnership but in the inverse of its highway and aviation competition. Passenger rail has public-sector vehicles using private infrastructure; highway and aviation has private vehicles using public infrastructure.
The Lake Shore Limited proved to be an immediate hit with the traveling public. Many raved about the velvet-smooth ride west of Cleveland that gave a storm-at-sea experience on Amtrak’s prior “Lake Shore” several years earlier. In just its first year, it became Amtrak’s third-most heavily used long-distance train, averaging 300 passengers per direction.
The high ridership was the result of high passenger turnover per trip as few passengers traveled the entire route. Only 10 percent of riders traveled the entire distance between Chicago and the East Coast. Most seats would have more than one person sitting in them at different points along the route.
“All of us are encouraged by the ridership,” said Mr. Reistrup in December 1975. “Our intermediate (route) business is strong along with our connecting traffic through Chicago. We’re not surprised. We’re operating a good train through a very populated area.”
Mr. Reistrup said at an early 1976 Cleveland press conference that Amtrak was considering a second train for the Lake Shore Limited route (budget cuts by President Gerald Ford derailed consideration of further expansion).
“Just fantastic,” said Mr. Wickens, referring to train boardings at Elyria, which outdrew Amtrak usage in 1976 at Lima, Canton and even Columbus. “It’s far surpassing what we’d ever hoped for.”
Parking shortages were noted at Elyria and at Toledo’s Central Union Terminal (now Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza) where some passengers were ticketed for parking in fire lanes. OARP complained to the city and the Toledo Chamber of Commerce, resulting in the creation of more parking spaces.
The strong ridership allowed the Lake Shore Limited to survive the severe budget cuts by the Carter and Reagan administrations. Its popularity also was the reason why the train received some of Amtrak’s newest efforts to improve services. The Lake Shore Limited was the first long-distance train to be completely re-equipped with Amtrak’s refurbished heritage fleet, including all-electric heating that replaced the awful steam heating.
The Lake Shore Limited was also one of Amtrak’s first long-distance trains to receive the 1984-built Amfleet II 60-seat coaches and lounge cars. Amfleet I coaches, built in the mid-1970s, had 84 seats for short-distance trains. And it got Amtrak’s new Viewliner I sleepers in the mid-1990s.
Despite schedule tinkering, the Lake Shore Limited continued to stop eastbound in Ohio cities one hour before or after midnight and westbound just after dawn. That schedule allowed passengers to make more connections in Chicago while still serving Ohio’s population centers. The Lake Shore Limited achieved its 20th century ridership record of more than 390,000 passengers in 1986. Some trains were 19 cars long.
But the Lake Shore Limited soon faced new challenges. The federal government created the Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail) in 1976 to acquire six bankrupt Northeast railroads and eliminate redudant rail corridors. Railroad deregulation in 1980 freed Conrail to consolidate freight traffic (and Amtrak’s Capitol Limited) off parallel routes onto the tracks used by the Lake Shore Limited especially west of Cleveland. Overall tonnage shipped by rail grew more each year.
Delays became more common on the Lake Shore Limited, earning it the dubious nickname “Late Shore Limited.” Amtrak made more significant changes to the train’s schedule to help passengers make their connections in Chicago which meant worse times for Ohio cities. On board services were tinkered with, some unsuccessfully. Equipment shortages at times reduced the Lake Shore Limited to fewer than 10 cars. Ridership dipped to near 300,000 per year.
As the 21st century began, gas prices began to increase causing travelers to consider fuel efficient trains. On-time performance was still spotty but passengers could use their computers or smartphones to better anticipate train status in advance. On board service improved. Amtrak devoted more equipment to the Lake Shore Limited.
Ridership grew by more than 30 percent from 2000 to 2010. The Lake Shore Limited was carrying more than 400,000 riders per year, or an average of 550 passengers for every train. While 11 of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains experience direct operating losses of $5 million to $30 million per year, the Lake Shore Limited loses only about $1.6 million per year. It could perform better, as shown by the three long-distance trains that do no worse than break even – the Auto Train, Silver Meteor and Palmetto. Those three share the same route and split its fixed costs among more revenue sources. It shows the value of running more than one daily long-distance train per route.
Today as director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, Mr. Lind looks with pride at the popularity of today’s Lake Shore Limited. His only regret is that Congress has never provided Amtrak with enough money to expand service over this and other routes.
“If you run convenient and comfortable trains where the people live and where they want to go, they will ride them,” he said. “It’s not very complicated.”