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Amtrak At Night In Carbondale, Illinois

January 29, 2010

Carbondale, Illinois, is a college town. It has also been a railroad town, at least to some extent, since its inception. Once a hub from whence branch lines radiated, the town has gone from a freight hub to a passenger hub. Since the days when the Illinois Central Railroad was in the business of operating passenger trains, Carbondale has been the point of origin and termination of trains geared toward the student trade. This continues today under Amtrak.

Since Amtrak began operating its trains with its own crews in 1987, Carbondale has been an Amtrak crew base. Carbondale crews work  “The City of New Orleans” in both directions out of town; north to Chicago and south to Greenwood, Mississippi. Carbondale crews also work the college trains to Chicago, The Illini and The Saluki.

I grew up in Carbondale, and the Amtrak station on South Illinois Avenue was one of my frequent hangouts as a teen. I took my first railroad photos of The Shawnee (The Illini’s predecessor) there in June, 1982. I continued to take photos of the Amtrak operations there as I grew up.

In late 1989, I was a senior at Carbondale Community High School. One of the classes I took was a photography class. One cool thing about that class; I was so far ahead of everyone else that I finished the full year’s worth of work by the end of the first semester. The end result was that I had a blank check to come up with my own projects to work on. One of these was a series of photos at the Amtrak station as the southbound Illini arrived from Chicago shortly after 9:00pm on the cold night of November 27.


At 9:00, the headlight in the distance blends in with several other lights north of downtown. Look closely to the left of the tracks; the triangular shape is the roof of the former Illinois Central passenger station which was replaced by the modern Amtrak station in the early 1980s.


Looking to the south along the center track, known as “the Rock Track,” where The Illini’s cars will be parked overnight.


As The Illini’s headlight grows brighter, the Illinois Central carman has arrived in his company truck. It will be his job to work with the train’s 480 volt cables when the locomotive is cut off the train. The locomotive will be parked overnight in the yard north of town, where it will be turned and serviced.


Passengers are detraining after The Illini comes to a stop in front of the Amtrak station.


Emptied of passengers, the train pulls ahead and crosses College Street. The train will then be backed into the Rock Track.


One of the conductors stands by and the engineer waits to pull ahead as the carman takes care of the 480 volt cables between the train and the locomotive. In a moment the locomotive will pull away, run through the crossover just south of College Street, and back down to the yard where it will tie up for the night.


The sleet is falling the morning of February 4, 1990, as the City of New Orleans makes its stop in Carbondale. The engine crew is changing before the new crew goes to work switching cars to make The River Cities for St. Louis and Kansas City.


The locomotives and baggage car off The City of New Orleans are picking up a coach off the Rock Track. At the same time, another locomotive is picking up a coach from the big train to form The River Cities.


Passengers are detraining after The Illini arrives from Chicago on the evening of July 26, 1990.


On the night of August 1, 1990, the headlight of the approaching City of New Orleans backlights the crew members waiting to take over the train and illuminates The Illini’s cars parked on the Rock Track.


A fuel truck has arrived to top off the tanks of The City of New Orleans’ locomotives.


The fuel truck moves from the first locomotive to the second.


After taking fuel and picking up the River Cities’ coach from Kansas City and St. Louis, the City of New Orleans departs for New Orleans. The next station stop will be Fulton, Kentucky.


The River Cities is sitting in the Rock Track waiting for arrival of the northbound City of New Orleans.


Photography by Mary Rae McPherson

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Stitch! permalink
    January 29, 2010 3:35 pm

    Mary, although it probably doesn’t seem that long ago. It was 20 years ago this year. One of your shots was February 4th. As this was 20 years ago Thursday I wondered:
    Any chance you will re-visit theese sights 20years later to document the differences from the same shot locations?

    • January 29, 2010 4:04 pm

      Interesting thought. I hadn’t even thought about that.

      I defintely will be revisiting the same location on February 4th, but I don’t know that I will be able to do any photography as such. I will be the assistant conductor on The City of New Orleans twenty years after those shots were taken.

      I’m glad you pointed that out. I hope the train gets in plenty early where I might have an opportunity to take a shot or two while we wait for time!


  2. January 29, 2010 4:01 pm

    Mary Rae, very nice indeed.

    Paul Anderson

  3. Curt Ayers III permalink
    January 30, 2010 12:05 am

    I’ve enjoyed your writings and now your photos. Good work. Maybe I’ll see you next summer on the “City”. I usually fly from Thailand (where I live most of the time and am writing a(an)historical novel with an Asian train trip in it.) to Chicago and then take a sleeper to Jackson. I missed that trip last year though because I took a train from Vietnam to Germany and let the USAF fly me to Jackson. The Trans-Siberian trip is a real train ride to remember but I always like to ride the old Main Line of Mid-America.

  4. Jim French permalink
    January 30, 2010 11:13 am


    Yet another great story. As you may recall we met a few times during that period (depot and Dillingers crossing). From 89-91 I was working on an MSEd in safety and operating practices at SIUC. Once every couple of weeks to break from the grind of research, I would spend a night trackside starting just before 391’s arrival at ~9pm and leaving after 359-59 were combined and 59’s departure at ~1am. The Amtrak activity was usually spiced by at least four IC movements that were squeezed into the mix(ESME, I01, I02 and I12 IIRC). Along the way I befriended one particular and now long retired carman/hostler (I’m from an IC family so I had a foot in the door), and would often start the night having a cup of coffee up at North Yard and then ride along with him during the ensuing activities. As an extra treat, every so often I would get to ride along as he moved, serviced and turned 391 and 359’s power up at the old Roundhouse.

    Keep the stories coming.

    Jim French

    • January 30, 2010 2:56 pm

      That wouldn’t happened to have been Ted Bonner or Forrest Rose or would it?

      I rode along with Ted one night, helping him hostle 391’s unit and taking a spin on the turntable. That was probably in 1991.

      Frosty, as Forrest was known, was the guy who usually worked 392 when I was hanging around the “Amshack” in the late 80’s. He gave me my first diesel cab tour as he was working on GP38-2 #9626 in North Yard on an afternoon in 1987.


  5. T.J. Kaufhold permalink
    January 30, 2010 12:00 pm

    Dear Mary Rae:Thank You so much for sharing this portfolio of photos. I originate in Belleville,Il and have seen it go from steam to diesel to Amtrak. You have updated me once again. T.J.

  6. Fred LeSage permalink
    February 6, 2010 9:08 am

    Great writing and photography as always Mary Rae. I was wondering if you know the origin of the “Rock Track” name? I find unofficial railroad place names to be fascinating and you often find that it’s hard to trace their origin.

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