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Railfan Extra Board - April 2011

Amtrak Phase I Heritage Repaint

40 Years of Amtrak - 1971-2011Amtrak 156 arrives at Albany-Rensselaer, New York with the southbound Adirondack on March 20, 2011. This engine is one of several that Amtrak is repainting into various "heritage" paint schemes to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Amtrak 156 wears the "Phase I" paint scheme known as the "bloody nose" or "Rudolph" among railfans, and was originally applied to Amtrak's second-hand cab units.

Amtrak goes "Back to the Future" with heritage paint schemes

By Otto M. Vondrak /Photos by the Author

Amtrak Phase I Heritage Repaint
Amtrak 156 and two other engines are cut off from the eastbound Lake Shore Limited at Albany-Rensselaer on March 18, 2011.

The 1970s were full of uncertaintly for the American railroad system. Railroads were struggling with old work rules and regulation while searching for new sources of traffic in an ever-changing economy that subsidized the competition. The passenger train seemed to be the in the crosshairs of every railroad official in the country. Lucrative mail and express contracts had gone to the airlines, and so followed the passengers. The prevailing opinion of the day was that if railroads were free to eliminate the money-losing passenger trains, then they would be free to concentrate on their profitable freight operations. Up until then, a lengthy hearings process kept many doomed trains running well past their expiration dates. By 1970, many trains were carrying more crew members than passenegers, rolling past dilapidated stations into abandoned city centers.

Reluctantly, President Nixon signed into law the new Rail Passenger Service Act ("Railpax") legislation that would pave the way for railroads to get out of the passenger business. Some viewed the new legislation as a graceful deconstruction of the passenger rail network, and few outside of Washington expected the newly christened Amtrak to surivive the decade. With the preceeding decades of declining ridership, the odds were not in their favor. However, dedicated leadership was working hard to ensure Amtrak's success. On May 1, 1971, Amtrak's first trains looked very much like their predecessors the day before. During those first years, Amtrak trains were cobbled together from the best operating equipment, resulting in mismatched trainsets that were dubbed the "Rainbow Fleet" by railfans. Regardless, the trains kept running.

Railfan Extra Board

Americans showed there was still a demand for passenger trains as agents were overwhelmed with reservations. Amtrak worked hard to apply uniform branding to its fleet of equipment as soon as possible. By the end of 1971, many cars and locomotives were repainted into the Amtrak image as they were cycled through the shops for repair work. Amtrak's fleet of second hand EMD E and F-units emerged in a new paint scheme of red nose with "Platinum Mist" flanks and black roof, the so-called "bloody nose" or "Rudolph." Traditional railroad colors gave way to a standardized red-white-and-blue motif that seemed in tune with an emerging "disco" culture. Some lamented the loss of tradition for the sake of "standardization."

Much has changed since those early days in 1971. Aggressive marketing and rebuilding of the passenger rail network helped restore public confidence in train travel. Thanks to hard campaigning by successive generations of Amtrak leadership, the oldest equipment in the fleet has been retired, and new equipment plans are on the books. Steam heat has been replaced by Head End Power (HEP). Microwaved meals have been replaced by dining cars with full linen service. Many older stations have either been restored or rebuilt, becoming bright gateways for the towns they serve. Communities are once again embracing passenger rail as ridership has climbed to a record 28.7 million in 2010. The "Rainbow Era" is a distant memory as Amtrak's standardized fleet serves more than 300 trains daily across the country.

Approaching its 40th birthday, Amtrak announced on January 31 that several locomotives would be painted in historic paint schemes as part of a year-long celebration of the company's history as "America's Railroad." One of the units was released from Beech Grove shops in the early "bloody nose" Phase I paint scheme. While the new paint may have not inspired much confidence in 1971, 40 years later it serves as a humble reminder of Amtrak's beginnings. Not many corporations are comfortable looking back into history, but Amtrak proudly displays their heritage as proof of their continued success against all odds.

Look for National Train Day celebrations across the country on May 7, 2011 and special Amtrak 40th Anniversary events throughout the year.


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