Riding the Rails
In September 1986, I rode Amtrak’s Cardinal from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Alexandria, Virginia. The Cardinal is the successor to the Chesapeake & Ohio’s (now, CSX) George Washington. In those days of privatized rail travel, Electromotive Division E-8 locomotives pulled Pullman coaches and sleepers between Cincinnati and Washington, DC.
Cincinnati Union Terminal
(MJ, Creative Commons license 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1986, Amtrak did not use Cincinnati’s beautiful art deco station, which was being restored; rather, it operated from a small, purely functional building some distance away from the station. That did not stop me from walking through the terminal and admiring the beautiful marble floors and walls. Today, Amtrak and the Cincinnati commuter train, SORTA, operate from the station.
Unlike the George Washington, the Cardinal originates in Chicago. It arrived in Cincinnati at about 5:00 in the morning. It comprised former Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Budd Streamliner coaches, which still bore their Native American interior motif, and was pulled by Electromotive Division F40PH locomotives. I walked from one end of the train to the other and counted fourteen cars plus two locomotives. Oh! To be able to take that trip again!
The magic wasn’t limited to the station and the train consist. It extended to the people. I can’t speak for how things are today, but on that trip in 1986, the people were very friendly. I met a lady from Staunton, Virginia, who was traveling to New York to visit her brother. They planned to see Broadway plays, dine in nice restaurants, and do some shopping. When she returned a week later, she would be met by a friend, who would take her to the country club for lunch. I also met a man who was a chef at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. No, they did not share their names; I knew them simply as “the little old lady from Staunton” and “the chef from the Greenbrier.”
The magic extended to a nice visit with the conductor, who taught me that the newer locomotives are safer than the old E-8s, because they are better weighted against derailment. He shared the route’s history as the George Washington. He had served on the George Washington and remembered those days with special fondness. It being a Sunday, a National Park Service tour guide was aboard and gave us the history of the New River Gorge as we meandered our way along the river’s edge. I believe that custom continues today.
Brian M. Powell
Creative Commons license 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Interestingly, the thing I remember most about the trip is the yellow depot in Thurmond, West Virginia with its drop-arm semaphore railroad signal. Such was how trains were told they had clearance in the days before the red, yellow, and green signal lights came into being. Yes, it still stands, albeit inactive, today! The depot dates to the early 20th century, when Thurmond was a bustling railroad and coal mining center.
Alexandria Union Station
National Park Service (public domain)
We arrived in Alexandria in the early evening, following a fourteen-hour journey on the rails. There, the station was early 20th century Georgian Revival in classic red brick. Little did I know that, less than a year later, I would move to Northern Virginia to spend the next sixteen years of my life.