Final Run of the Amtrak Kentucky Cardinal
July 5 - 7, 2003
By Matt Melzer of TrainWeb.com
Unfortunately, the Kentucky Cardinal was doomed by the reason behind its very existence. The policy of the previous Amtrak administration, led by George Warrington, was to augment Amtrak's revenues through expanding its core business from passenger transportation to Mail and Express (essentially, freight). This was to be manifested through a Network Growth Strategy (NGS), which would involve starting numerous new routes to reach Mail and Express markets, while at the same time serving new markets for passengers. Most observers agree, however, that Warrington was overzealous in this approach, turning countless trains into ones in which the freight clearly took priority over the passengers, which was particularly shameful given the fact that Amtrak legally exists for the sole purpose of transporting people. The Kentucky Cardinal was initiated not because of opportunity for passenger revenue, but in anticipation of Express business from Jeffersonville. Amtrak justified the train's existence in the context of passenger transportation by making it an overnight train with a sleeping car, as a 12-plus-hour day train (for a mere 312 miles) could never compete with an equivalent 1-hour flight, or even 5-hour drive. The slowness of the train had been largely due to the fact that it would have to utilize the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Company (also known as LIRC or L&I, and owned by Anacostia) tracks between Indianapolis and Louisville, a shortline that is unsignalled, has old, jointed rail, and carries a speed limit of 30 mph. (Ironically, much higher speeds were achieved decades ago when the line was a Pennsylvania Railroad mainline.)
The NGS never fully manifested. The only other new route that was initiated to expand freight business, the Chicago-Janesville Lake Country Limited (which foolishly left out Madison, Wisconsin, and which also ran painfully slow), was discontinued in 2001 after two years of low ridership and presumed express business from one single General Motors plant that never materialized. Likewise, the express business for the Kentucky Cardinal never came close to reaching its potential. Amtrak had spent a handsome sum of money on constructing a freight platform in Jeffersonville, one which would sit idle most of the time. After realizing that the Kentucky Cardinal was not producing the projected revenue, Amtrak severely downgraded the train's on-board service. Instead of having a Superliner sleeping car and a hi-level ex-ATSF Heritage coach with vending machine food service downstairs, the train became a Viewliner sleeper and a Horizon coach. Throughout the life of the train, the sleeping cars were removed for the summer peak seasons, and only spottily appeared when they were supposed to.
Eventually, the Kentucky Cardinal degenerated into one Horizon coach. No sleepers. No food service. And the trip was still an excruciating overnight run. It became regarded as the absolute worst train in the entire Amtrak system. To complicate matters, strong anecdotal evidence indicated that, day after day, Amtrak would intentionally assign a mechanically faulty coach to the Kentucky Cardinal, and on numerous occasions the train's Indianapolis-based operating crew would go 'AWOL', not even showing up to work. Naturally, revenue and ridership plummeted. Single-digit ridership south of Indianapolis would be commonplace, and an empty train would run every so often. Whenever there were no riders for Louisville, the southbound train 850 would not go beyond Jeffersonville, and northbound train 851 would originate there, stranding any passengers boarding in Louisville (who would have no information because the station was unstaffed, except for a security guard and the occasional employee of the Transit Authority of River City (TARC), Louisville's public transit agency). If those passengers were lucky, Amtrak would remember to send a substitute bus.
The death of the Kentucky Cardinal would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Four years after the route's inception, in December of 2002, Amtrak, led by new President and CEO David Gunn, announced the discontinuance of the Kentucky Cardinal effective July 6, 2003. The final southbound run would depart Chicago on July 5, and the final northbound run would depart Louisville on July 6. In May, TrainWeb decided to send me to cover the final Kentucky Cardinal, making this the first route in which TrainWeb would cover both the inaugural and final runs. (TrainWeb's Steve Grande did ride both the inaugural and final Texas Eagle California Service, but that train was an additional frequency of an existing route, not a new one.)
Travel agent and writer Gene Poon posted the following reflection on the Kentucky Cardinal to the All-Aboard List:
A lot of things have happened since the Kentucky Cardinal first spread its wings. A new Amtrak president; a couple of management reshufflings, one of which claimed the Product Line Manager of the Kentucky Cardinal; and a financial crisis at Amtrak; and the fat lady hasn't sung, yet. Ed Ellis, who was with us both ways on the inaugural, has left the company and his Express operation is being dismantled. Jack Martin was still living, and would have made the trip with us, but for a personal obligation that came up. Who knows, if he had been there, he might REALLY Have had a Grand Trunk switch key. Three major airlines filed for bankruptcy. The terrorists took down the World Trade Center and demolished part of the Pentagon. We went to war. Along the way the Kentucky Cardinal swelled to several sleepers and coaches for Kentucky Derby Day. Amid a brief flurry of interest in extending the train to Nashville and perhaps further south, we first heard that Nashville wasn't on Amtrak's radar screen, then witnessed a test VIP run. The city of Louisville put hundreds of thousands of its tax-paying citizens' dollars into improvements that brought tracks back to Louisville Union Station. But the train never caught on. It lost its sleeping car, first seasonally and then permanently, the kiss of death for a slow overnight run. The volume of Mail and express that were supposed to support the train didn't materialize, either to support a southward extension, or finally to keep the train going on its 30mph meanderings south of Indianapolis. So, it's good-bye, Kentucky Cardinal. In early July, its time runs out. Will Louisville have to wait another twenty years to see service again, as it did after the Floridian was discontinued? Or will it never happen again? -Gene Poon May 9, 2003
Saturday, July 5
Krista and I arrived into Chicago off the Texas Eagle from Los Angeles. After checking in at the Metropolitan Lounge and getting some water, I asked the lounge attendant if it would be possible to board the Kentucky Cardinal early to photograph and record the consist, and she replied that she would try her best to get the necessary permissions, but that the standard boarding time remained 7:50 PM for the 8:15 PM departure. Krista and I ventured onto Adams Street to find a place to eat, but could not find anything to our liking. We even attempted to go to two separate drug stores to purchase snacks for the train, but they were both closed (as many stores are on weekends in the Chicago Loop). We decided to wait for a large meal until we could eat in the Cardinal's dining car, and have a small portion of pizza at the pizza place in Union Station's food court. Unfortunately, that storefront where it used to be was empty! They had obviously gone out of business. Instead, I purchased authentic Chicago-style chili dogs from Gold Coast Dogs, and we enjoyed our excellent meal in the lounge, which was considerably busier than before.
We departed Chicago at 8:27 PM, twelve minutes late, just as a very late Lake Shore Limited train 48 was departing. We stopped at Amtrak's 21st Street yards to let train 48 clear, but it stopped after losing its trainline connection, and we took its slot out of the yard. There were numerous passengers in our car who had traveled together on the northbound Kentucky Cardinal just a few days before, and were joking about the terrible service on the train! Most, however, were aware that this route was the exception and not the rule for Amtrak. There were apparently no announcements coming into our car, so Krista and I assumed that the dining car had already been opened for dinner. We were correct, and after shoving through an insanely long line in the lounge car, we were promptly seated in the beautiful Timoinsa-rebuilt Heritage diner, across from two older ladies, one from Indianapolis and one from Berkeley, California. The menu was limited, and all four of us enjoyed the Lemon Pepper Salmon, which was very fresh and delicious. Krista paid for the meal, and we returned to our car to see fireworks yet again passing through Rensselaer, Indiana. It would probably be safe to assume that they had been rained out on July 4!
Sunday, July 6
Nature soon took over the fireworks, and we drifted off to sleep watching spectacular thunderstorms in the distance. I suddenly awoke in Indianapolis at 2:15 AM, and went outside to see what was happening. All station work was done, and a few railfan passengers on our train were congregated to watch trains 50 and 850 separate. Train 50 soon departed, and engines 164 and 24 backed onto our car to form the trainset of the final Kentucky Cardinal. Ironically, each of the three pieces of equipment on our train had three different paint schemes: P42DC #164 was in Phase V, P42DC #24 was in Phase IV, and our Horizon coach #54561 sported Phase III paint. The rainbow hodgepodge of paint was yet another symbol of Amtrak's neglect for this route, hearkening to the early days of Amtrak when most trains had rainbow paint schemes and were in general disrepair.
The jointed rail of the L&I produced that archetypal rhythmic rocking that I had always heard, read, and dreamed about, but seldom ever experienced on a mainline passenger train. It certainly made the accommodations seem all the less appropriate, as a sleeping car would have completed the experience. I could now see the magic which TrainWeb's Ray Burns recounted in his travelogue from the Inaugural run of the Kentucky Cardinal, in which he was comfortably set in a lower-level Superliner standard bedroom, with snow swirling around outside! Back to reality, snow would have been a nice touch, as the air conditioning in our coach continued to struggle. Thankfully, the temperature and the humidity outside were not unbearably high.
3:47 AM: Crew discussed operational details; CSX crew would meet us in Louisville to wye train and store it in their yard
(instead of Amtrak crew bringing it to Jeffersonville for the day). Engineer Bill also said a "friend from back east" would
be present in Louisville. I couldn't help but wonder if it would be a high-level Amtrak official.
4:04 AM: Passed town of Franklin, historic station. Toilet in accessible restroom not flushing.
4:37 AM: Entered Columbus Yard north limits.
4:41 AM: Passed Columbus Yard with original Pennsylvania Railroad freight house. First light of day outside.
4:50 AM: Crossed main fork of White River. Tim said bridge still said "Pennsylvania Railroad" on the side.
4:52 AM: Engineer Bill contacted dispatcher to notify of our clearance of Columbus Yard south limits.
5:12 AM: Grade crossing with crossbuck and bell, but no lights.
5:25 AM: Crossed CSX St Louis-Cincinnati line at Seymour Interlocking.
5:43 AM: Tim pointed out parallel railroad right-of-way that belonged to the last interurban trolley line in Indiana.
5:45 AM - 6:20 AM: Sleep.
6:31 AM: Railfan photographing our train.
6:44 AM: Same railfan again!
6:45 AM: I asked conductor Carl if official from "back east" would be anyone important, and he shrugged it off.
6:56 AM CST => 7:56 AM EDT: Cleared Track Warrant #1, entered Jeffersonville Yard north limits, switched to yard channel 61 (161.025). Yardmaster asked us to hold at Jeffersonville so our train could be photographed. Many Louisville passengers stepped off there to photograph train as well.
8:07 AM: Departed Jeffersonville one hour two minutes late.
I was soon approached by Jon Owen of the Kentucky-Indiana Rail Advocates and the Friends of the Kentucky Cardinal (click here for their web site), who joined two other individuals in filing a class action lawsuit against Amtrak and the United States Department of Transportation for creating hardship on the Northern Kentucky community by discontinuing the route. Though nothing would change the fact that we were riding the final Kentucky Cardinal, and the plaintiffs' case is considered to be a longshot, he said the case was received by the local US District court, and could go to hearing within a few weeks. Jon distributed copies of the lawsuit before detraining in Jeffersonville along with numerous other railfans. Among the group was Dan Kuhl, Cliff's son. The heat and humidity became extreme in our car, and many passengers stepped off in Jeffersonville to enjoy the pleasant breeze outside. Many of the same railfans who were on the platform at Louisville were present yet again. Because there were so much padding in the schedule and we were so early, Bill stepped out of the cab to converse with local comrades, as did Carl.
Of course, more could have been done to give the Kentucky Cardinal a fighting chance to begin with. With leaner and meaner operations, the running time between Chicago and Louisville could have been trimmed to 9.5 hours. Had the train kept or expanded its consist of a Superliner sleeper and hi-level coach, passenger comfort would have been a selling point, not a point of shame. The service could have been aggressively marketed in the new service area long before the train started, with continual advertising and promotions. All of the above would have led to high morale among the train's would-be employees, and infinitely higher ridership. Alas, instead, George Warrington did not have customer service in mind when launching the Kentucky Cardinal (which hypocritically contradicted the countless millions spent under Warrington to launch a Service Guarantee program, put employees through charm school, and invent a new Amtrak logo). It was to be a freight train that happened to carry passengers. In the end, the freight business never materialized, the passengers were driven away anyway, and David Gunn saw no choice but to put this miserable train out of its misery. It is a sad ending to a sad story, but can hopefully serve as an important lesson in how not to handle the addition of a new route. The bottom line is that the customer is always right. Freight is inanimate, humans are not. Freight does not tell others to ride the train, humans do. And freight certainly does nothing to convince America's lawmakers that we need a healthy passenger rail system, but humans definitely do, and more would if Amtrak could effectively serve more passengers. I am confident that the Kentucky Cardinal will live again, hopefully as a reincarnation of the Floridian, but it will take time.
The heat and humidity inside the car did not improve much, so Krista and I spent nearly all of the trip seated, fanning ourselves with safety instruction cards and drinking plenty of water. I switched my watch back to Central Standard Time, and at 11:21 PM Bill stopped the train to copy Amtrak's very last warrant on the L&I, Track Warrant #5. At 11:38 PM, we cleared the north limits of Columbus yard. Because of the uncomfortable accommodations, I got the idea for us to upgrade to a Viewliner standard bedroom in Indianapolis. I called Amtrak to check availability, and was told that six rooms were available. I asked Carl if he could figure out the charge, and he said it could cost as little as $47 for the lowest bucket, but couldn't be sure. I soon went to sleep and awoke at 12:56 AM. We arrived into Indianapolis at 1:10 AM. Since daily service would continue between Indianapolis and Chicago, it was at that moment that the Kentucky Cardinal officially passed into history. There would be much time to kill, as train 51, the Cardinal, was not scheduled to arrive until 5:25 AM, and we were not scheduled to depart until 6:10 AM, providing for a five-hour layover. Pitifully, that is the amount of time it takes to drive from Louisville to Chicago!
Monday, July 7
Click on the below links to view each set of photos:
Set #01 - Final Southbound Kentucky Cardinal out of Chicago
Set #02 - Final Southbound Kentucky Cardinal at Indianapolis
Set #03 - Final Southbound Kentucky Cardinal on the L&I
Set #04 - Final Southbound Kentucky Cardinal at Jeffersonville
Set #05 - Final Southbound Kentucky Cardinal at Louisville
Set #06 - Louisville Union Station, Hyatt Regency Hotel
Set #07 - Louisville Union Station
Set #08 - Louisville Union Station
Set #09 - Final Northbound Kentucky Cardinal at Louisville
Set #10 - Final Northbound Kentucky Cardinal at Louisville
Set #11 - Final Northbound Kentucky Cardinal out of Louisville/Jeffersonville
Set #12 - Final Northbound Kentucky Cardinal at Indianapolis