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Consider the Commuter

Commonly known as “The Plug”, this was the Illinois Central Gulf’s contribution to commuter service between Joliet and Chicago. Inherited from the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, the old corporate image survived unaltered as seen here on March 8, 1976, at Locks, Illinois. Much to the delight of railfans, these operations kept dozens of traditional passenger trains running long after Amtrak’s attempts at standardization took effect in 1971. This Joliet train is operated today by Metra, and even though the trains are modern, the crews still call it “The Plug.” Photo by Michael Matalis

Consider the Commuter

By Otto M. Vondrak/photos as noted

In the April 2013 issue of Railfan & Railroad, we wrap up a three-part series about how commuter railroads in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia have changed and evolved since taking over from Conrail on January 1, 1983. Literally overnight, hundreds of railroad employees, stations, terminals, and trains became the responsibility of the agencies that funded them. It was a monumental move that proved to be beneficial both for Conrail and for the commuters. Lessened of the burden of operating subsidized passenger trains at a loss, Conrail was able to focus on its primary mission of rebuilding the freight network and returned to profitability. Meanwhile, the commuter railroads were able to invest and rebuild their systems for increased reliability without having to worry about finding a reliable contract operator for the trains. Today’s Metro-North, NJ Transit, and SEPTA are a far cry from the legacy systems they inherited 30 years ago.

To wrap up our coverage of Conrail’s commuter business, we take a brief look at some of the operations that were not transferred to new operators in 1983. Some operations lasted less than a year, while others hung on until they could be passed to new operators. Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Buffalo and Toronto are not destinations you’d expect to find on the cover of a Conrail timetable folder, but there they were. Conrail also ran commuter trains on the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., inherited from the Pennsylvania Railroad and passed on to Maryland DOT on January 1, 1983. It wasn’t covered in any of our feature stories because it was only one component of what would grow to become the MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter) system, versus being exclusively Conrail’s (The B&O continued to operate the Brunswick Line and Camden Lines).

So why the fascination with commuter trains? Growing up within earshot of Metro-North’s Harlem Line, commuter trains were my first exposure to railroading. As I got older, my interest expanded to legacy passenger train operations around the country, especially in the years prior to Amtrak when nearly every railroad in the country offered their own unique service. May 1, 1971, was a sad day for passenger train fans as their favorite railroads began to disappear under a coat of Platinum Mist. Oh sure, there were bright spots, such as the Rock Island, Southern, Georgia Railroad, and Rio Grande who all opted out of Amtrak, but eventually they would all be folded in.

As America’s colorful long-distance passenger trains began to fade in the 1970s, many railroads were still responsible for commuter trains across the country. Not only did the old names survive for a few years longer, so did the trains. Venerable fleets of heavyweight coaches pulled by steam generator equipped diesels continued to ply the rails from coast to coast. Postwar streamliners not acquired by Amtrak were handed down to help “upgrade” other commuter trains. A fortunate few operations got shiny new stainless steel trains paid for by local agencies, yet for the most part, classic postwar passenger railroading lived on.

Consider the Commuter

This blasphemous creation was a result of the tumultuous 1970s as commuter trains passed from private to public operation. This former New Haven streamlined coach has a purple stripe and the MBTA logo applied, while the Boston & Maine logo has been applied to signify the new operator. Photo by Bob Coolidge

In the East, the remaining commuter trains were an interesting patchwork of legacy equipment from various operators, waiting in political limbo for subsidies and other support. Faded heavyweights wearing Pennsylvania Railroad Tuscan Red soldiered on in suburban New Jersey, while classic New Haven streamliners continued to carry commuters in Boston. Commuter trains operating out of New York’s Grand Central Terminal were quickly dressed in MTA blue to show the state’s support for the operation, but improvements were slow in coming.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the railroads continued to operate their trains without much change. As if thumbing their nose at Amtrak’s attempts at sameness and uniformity, the old names and classic colors remained for a few more years. Green and gold Chicago & NorthWestern streamliners raced to the northern suburbs while the Rock Island limped along with its 1920’s non-air-conditioned heavyweight coaches. To this day, BNSF Railway continues to proudly apply their logo to the coaches they operate.

More classics could be found out west, where Southern Pacific’s “commute” service was based out of the venerable San Francisco terminal at 3rd and Townsend. Venerable Fairbanks-Morse Trainmasters hauling heavyweight Harriman coaches, later updated with EMD SD9’s and bi-level gallery cars all finished in Lark Gray. Public funding for new equipment and improved facilities was still decades in the future.

Southern Pacific Fairbanks-Morse “Trainmaster” 3029 on Train 128 passing the 4th Street Tower in San Francisco, circa 1974. Steam-era heavyweight trains operated by the Southern Pacific lasted into the 1980s when state sponsorship brought in modern equipment and improved service to the peninsula “commute” trains. Photo by Steve Sloan

America’s attitude towards commuter trains began to change in the 1980s with rising fuel costs leading many back to mass transit. Older systems in the East were assumed by leviathan agencies with long multi-syllable names like Great Southwestern Regional Area Mass Transit Administration Consortium Authority (or “Gee” for short). Bond issues paid for new equipment and modern stations to replace the rolling museums serving some cities. The transformation was amazing. Not all operations were saved by public agencies though, with some routes retreating and others cancelled altogether (Detroit in 1983, Pittsburgh in 1989).

Into the 1990s and 2000s, it was fascinating to watch as new commuter train operations sprang up in places that never had them before. No plodding transit authority name would do, flashy paint schemes and fun-sounding marketing names were the norm (“Coaster” “Sounder” “RoadRunner” “Northstar”). A whole new generation of commuters was being born, and new traditions to follow. Many new lines rely on a proof-of-payment system rather than have conductors check tickets. The trains themselves are often run by a non-railroad contractor (such as Hertzog Transit Services), with the host railroad only responsible for dispatching. What’s most exciting is that these new services are opening up territory that haven’t seen regular passenger service for 30 years or more.

Consider the commuter on your next railfan journey. America’s commuter trains are a great alternative to the sameness and uniformity of Amtrak, and help break the monotony of “yet another widecab hauling containers.” Now, I just heard that the commuter trains in Buenos Aires, Argentina, are hauled by blue-and-gray Alco RSD-16’s…

Classic Alco-powered commuter trains continue to ply the rails in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A local train departs San Miguel, bound for Pilar on September 8, 2011. Photo by Matia Rykaczewski.

This article was posted on: June 14, 2015