Another product line to serve you better

February 13, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen

ONCE UPON a time, newspaper reporters waited patiently in drafty stations to see and record who was coming and who was going on the railroad's crack trains. It was considered legitimate news during the belle epoque of rail travel that celebrated in addition to flesh and fame, steam, steel and speed.

The names of the fast limiteds -- the Capitol Limited, the Black Diamond, the Seminole, the Liberty Limited, the State of Maine, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Royal Blue -- managed to etch themselves into the psyche and fabric of American life. Their whistles and the sight of them rolling across the landscape appealed to our souls and made us want to go to faraway places aboard their swaying cars.

That was then and this is now.

With the issuance of its winter timetable, Amtrak has chosen to banish the names of its Northeastern trains, many of which have historic and geographic ties that go back to the 19th century.

Amtrak has confined its new system only to trains operating in the North East; for the moment the rest of the nation's passenger-train riders have been spared.

New timetables now classify rail service under seven categories or ''product lines,'' says Amtrak, which claims that they have created timetables that are, in the language of the 90s, ''user friendly.''

It works this way. The traveler must select a desired rail service from one of seven categories: NortheastDirect (Springfield, Mass., to Richmond, Va.), Metroliner (New York-Washington), Keystone, (Philadelphia-Harrisburg), Empire (New York, Albany and Montreal), Clockers (Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York), Adirondack (Washington and Montreal) and Vermonter (Washington and St. Albans, Vt.).

Under the new system the Connecticut Yankee becomes NortheastDirect 142, The Yankee Clipper is now an antiseptic NortheastDirect 173.

More 'identity?'

This is progress? Amtrak thinks so after surveying the traveling public. An Amtrak representative says the new system is easier to use and will give more of an ''identity to the product.''

I doubt it. It seems to me that the new designations, or ''product line,'' doesn't end confusion but adds to it.

There is a slight precedent for this. Railroaders themselves have always referred to their trains by numbers -- even numbers eastbound and odd westbound. For instance, the B&O's Royal Blue was known as No. 28 eastbound and No. 27 westbound. The Pennsy's Broadway was No. 28 eastbound and No. 29 westbound.

Maybe this change is needed because no one bothers to learn geography these days and passengers could become befuddled wondering if the Vermonter actually went to Vermont, or the Connecticut Yankee actually stopped at stations in Connecticut.

I doubt that this homogenization would have happened during the administration of the late Graham Claytor, Amtrak's former president and one of the nation's most revered railroaders. He had respect for long-standing traditions. It's too bad that the current crowd at the throttle doesn't.

Fred Rasmussen is a Sun obituary writer and train buff.

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