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Railroaders' Nostalgia > An Amtrak Christmas special

Date: 12/25/20 12:17
An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: TAW

To Charlie Wherry's Christmas story, I remarked that it sounds like something I would have done. I don't normally repost anything, just put a link to a relevant post, but this was 15 years ago. We may have folks around that weren't here back then.

Date: 12/24/05 21:06
An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: TAW On a Christmas Eve about 23 years ago I came to work on the second trick asst. chief dispatcher job in Seattle (BN-handling Seattle-Spokane/Vancouver BC 3p-11p) for what should have been an easy evening. BN was planning to shut down the railroad and whatever was not already on the road was not going to run. There would be early quits in the yards and roundhouses. Depending upon the local situation, operators might answer the dispatcher's phone to be told merry Christmas gn (gn-telegraph for good night - time to go home). There was no Portland section of the Empire Builder then. Portland passengers connected to a Portland train in Seattle. That forms the basis for being able to play Santa with the help of a few colleagues.

No 7 (Empire Builder) was late because of a derailment east of Spokane. The trick man (dispatcher) told me that No 7 threw off a note at Harrington (24 hour train order office an hour west of Spokane) saying that he had over 50 Portland passengers and would like to know what to tell them since they were going to miss the last train out of Seattle. I went downstairs (we were on the Jackson Street level of King Street Station, one floor up from the waiting room), found the station supervisor, gave him the message, and asked what Amtrak had in mind. This was the first he heard of the situation and there was nothing lined up. He said that they would probably put the people up in hotels after they arrived.

I asked him if he really thought they were going to find hotels around King Street Station for 50 or so people at 10pm on Christmas Eve. He didn't know for sure and said he would need to find out and would tell me when he knew something. I went back upstairs thinking that it just didn't seem right that these people who had planned to be in Portland for Christmas would be in a hotel in Seattle instead and get to Portland around noon on Christmas.

Back then, the railroads generally ran the passenger service for Amtrak. A call to the control center in Philadelphia would generally yield a conversation with someone who didn't have a clue about anything west of Harrisburg. I called Philadelphia to talk about the situation. Although things were changing, the chief dispatcher still ran the railroad, but it was Amtrak's train not ours. I asked about running a train to Portland with the Empire Builder connection and the response was entirely inconclusive. The control center didn't know 7 was late, didn't know about connecting passengers, and didn't know how to initiate an extra train even had they thought of it. Trying again, I asked if an extra would be ok with them if I could arrange it. That got a positive response. Yes, it's ok with us if you can arrange it.

The coach yard was run by a BN yardmaster. I called, explained the situation, and asked if he could dig up a couple of cars and an engine for an extra to Portland. He said he could probably do that. This would cause another interface with Philadelphia, but his not mine. He would tell them he was going to use this unit and these cars on an extra to Portland, they would ask if he needed them for anything else, he would say no, and they would say ok. The next call was to the chief in Tacoma. I explained the situation and asked about a passenger extra out of Seattle about 10 pm to Portland. He said that would work for him and he would check with the chief in Vancouver. I asked him to see if Vancouver could come up with 2 units that could be in the station at Portland ready for the arriving crew to bring back to Seattle so they would be home for Christmas morning too.

A little while later he called back. Vancouver was ok with the move and had 2 units on hand at the Hoyt Street roundhouse in Portland. He'd have them taken to the station before the passenger extra arrived; ready to leave as soon as the arriving crew could get on. The station supervisor in Portland would be on hand (at about 230am) to open the station for the arriving passengers. The King Street yardmaster called back to tell me that he lined up a couple of cars and an engine. We could leave them in Portland to be brought back the day after Christmas.

Now there was one more piece to put in place. I called the crew office and said I needed a crew for a passenger extra to Portland and return light engine for 930pm on duty at King Street Station. I told the caller that the crew could be voluntary, don't force anybody to go but call until you have enough people. I told him that I didn't care if the train crew was a uniformed crew as long as the conductor was passenger qualified. I also told him to tell the people that he asked that there would be engines in the station at Portland waiting for them, they would have the railroad to themselves for the return trip, and that they could leave the power at King Street Station and go home on arrival.

Inside of an hour, we had a crew. I called the station supervisor downstairs and laid out the whole plan. He said that he would be in position on the platform to handle the transfer of passengers and to tell the conductor that if passengers wanted to give someone in Portland a message about their delayed arrival, write the message down and he would handle it.

I had the trick man tell No 7's conductor that there would be a special train at King Street Station for his Portland passengers, to have all of the Portland passengers, coach and sleeper, in the same car on arrival ready to get off, and to tell them about leaving messages with the station supervisor on the platform.

That night 50 or so people got to where they were going for Christmas. A bunch of other people, the Seattle yard crew, the Seattle crew caller, the Portland roundhouse crew and hostler, and probably a few others worked to make it happen when they could have gone home early or hung out in the locker room. A couple of engineers, a conductor and a couple of brakemen (none of whom were in passenger service-not a uniform in the bunch) spent the night they planned to have off making it happen. The Amtrak station supervisors in Seattle and (especially) Portland were on hand long after quitting time to handle the final important details-the passengers. Putting all of the pieces together took hours; my most memorable Christmas Eve.


Date: 12/25/20 13:22
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: 3rdswitch

Awesome, back when there were real railroaders around. Doubtful this would happen today. Merry Christmas.

Date: 12/25/20 15:47
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: cewherry

Great story and thanks for re-posting it, Tom.

As I re-read your words the thought occurs if it is even possible, given the present level of rationalization in 
the industry to do what you accomplished back in 1982. Is there the flexibility, the manpower, equipment, funding?
I'd like to believe the will is still there and that we haven't become so immune to feeling for our fellow human beings
that we wouldn't at least try to provide a service; given the tools to do so. 


Date: 12/25/20 22:30
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: roustabout

I remember reading that when you first posted it and enjoyed rereading as much.  Merry Christmas, Thomas!

Date: 12/26/20 04:34
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: perklocal

Great feel good XMAS story.  Back when operating people still knew how to make it happen. Never be able to make that happen today. 

Date: 12/26/20 07:08
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: atsfer

Amazing that all the chips fell into place for a good ending to the story.   From the inside, it seemed chaos and mismanagement were always the norm, but that obviously was not the case everywhere at least.

Date: 12/26/20 07:24
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: trainjunkie

Just imagine trying to pull that off today! To begin with, you'd need a competent and connected Chief. So much for that.

Wonderful story Thomas. Thank you for posting it. I somehow missed it the last time. 

Date: 12/26/20 08:43
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: gtwtd3

trainjunkie Wrote:
> Just imagine trying to pull that off today! To
> begin with, you'd need a competent and connected
> Chief. So much for that.
> Wonderful story Thomas. Thank you for posting it.
> I somehow missed it the last time. 

This should be rewritten.   There are many competent chiefs out there, the problem is there bosses have been promoted due to being friends, rather than being competent.  Those same bosses don't know what they are doing, and will swat the chiefs hand when they are told to, which leads to a good chief following instructions instead of doing the right thing. 

Date: 12/26/20 10:31
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: Corpach

It's always good when you can pull off a move like that to help get passengers home. Over here in the UK I have arranged a number what some of the Old School (me included !) call "Control Specials" It's usually a case of knowing what units are available and whether the traincrew owe you a favour, in most cases they did as it pays to have a good memory !!

It's a wonder I never acquired the nickname of Don Corleone due to the number of times "One day I may call upon you to do me a great service" was made mention of when letting traincrews away for an early finish !!! 

All the best for the Xmas season from this side of the pond.

Date: 12/26/20 20:40
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: rob_l

Outstanding. Back when the non-exempt could still take pride in what they did, even when their exempt superiors did not acknowledge it.

Happy Holidays,

Rob L.

Date: 12/27/20 08:27
Re: An Amtrak Christmas special
Author: spider1319

Great story and post.And thank you for the post and effort on that day.Bill Webb

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