Fifty years ago this weekend, the famous “name” trains of the New York Central — the 20th Century Limited, the Wolverine, the Empire State Express and others — made their last runs.
In their place were a couple of long-distance overnight trains covering the Central’ s routes between Chicago and New York, bearing numbers instead of names. They were supplemented by a series of short-haul trains upstate that together would be known as the “Empire Service.”
On Monday, railroad and local officials gathered at the Rensselaer rail station to mark the 50th anniversary of the Empire Service, which has grown to be one of the busiest corridors on the nationwide Amtrak system.
The idea of fast, frequent service on corridors of a couple hundred miles grew out of an experiment in 1966 in Ohio where the Central set a speed record of 183 mph with a diesel passenger car set, said Mike R. Weinman, then an operating management trainee with the New York Central.
Robert D. Timpany, then the railroad’s assistant vice president, operating administration, touted this as the future of rail passenger service, Weinman said, and convinced the state Public Service Commission to approve the plan.
“He practically had to pledge his firstborn to convince them,” Weinman recalled Friday.
Early on, “cars were beat up. The dining car was a snack bar, when it was open,” recalled Dick Barrett, a railroad historian who serves on the board of the New York Central System Historical Society.
But the service began to thrive as the railroad refurbished its aging passenger cars.
“It was a marketing campaign,” said Bruce Becker, who grew up in New York state riding the refreshed trains and is now vice president of operations for the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “They refurbished coaches specifically for Empire Service. They were able to speed up the schedule.”
The effort succeeded, for awhile.
Weinman says it even made an operating profit. But the service became “collateral damage” as the merger of the Central with the Pennsylvania Railroad tanked, and the combined entity soon filed for bankruptcy.
Albany’s Union Station also was facing closure as plans for the new Interstate 787 required removal of the tracks. The merged Penn Central replaced it with a small station in Rensselaer, which opened at 11 p.m. Dec. 29, 1968, said Ernie Mann, a Rensselaer resident and author of Railroads of Rensselaer.
Amtrak’s assumption of service on May 1, 1971, relieving the freight railroads of what had become a money-losing burden, also led to another round of long-distance train eliminations nationwide.
“Not many people gave Amtrak much of a shot,” said Mann. “For suffering under the budgets from Washington, I think Amtrak has done very well.”
Ridership, helped along by various oil embargoes in the 1970s, climbed, and by 1982 Amtrak had replaced the initial Rensselaer station with a larger one.
That station, too, fell to the wrecking ball as a new, much grander station opened in 2002.
And while many of the name trains were revived, many routes were altered.
You could no longer take the Wolverine to Annandale (actually, Rhinecliff), no matter what the Steely Dan song might say.
The train, which ran between New York and Chicago via Albany and Detroit, today, operates only as far east as Detroit.
But the 18 daily trains on that initial Empire Service schedule back on Dec. 3, 1967, have expanded to 26 weekday trains on the current schedule.
Nearly 1.16 million people rode Empire Service trains in fiscal year 2017, up 0.6 percent from the year before. And the 855,176 people who started or ended their trip at the Albany-Rensselaer station in fiscal 2016 made it the ninth busiest in Amtrak’s nationwide system.