Breaking the 1971 barrier

By February 4, 2019 Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

For many, railroading became much less interesting after Amtrak Day in 1971. With a few exceptions, the privately operated passenger train disappeared. The 70s saw the demise of the small town depot agent, the manned tower, the caboose and much of the branch line network. It was also the era of mergers causing flags to fall.

For those who run railroad museums, preserving that pre-1971 world became the mission and we seem to be stuck there. Anything that appeared later has been a much lower priority. With the 50th anniversary of Amtrak Day just two years away, it’s worth asking what should be considered historic and worthy of preservation.

Complicating the issue is esthetics. Architectural preservationists are dealing with the same thing. The 50s and 60s produced mid-century modern buildings and furnishings that have a real following. The 70s brought us truly ugly buildings that are hard to love. Similarly, it’s hard to argue that second generation diesels and Horizon coaches can compete with F units and any of the departed streamliners. A collection of cabooses is much more interesting than a collection of FREDs. Would the public be more charmed by a speeder or a hi-rail truck?

Although lots of good pre-71 stuff wasn’t preserved, most museums over-collected and can’t place their collections under roof, let alone restore them. Hence a reluctance to park even more pieces outdoors. Lastly, technology simply made some artifacts go away, to be replaced by nothing.

Put all these factors together and the result is a dearth of newer rolling stock or anything else being preserved by museums. To be sure, a few pieces are starting to appear, in the form of LRT’s from LA and San Diego, a few SD40-2s and at least one AEM7 electric loco. Amtrak heritage coaches don’t really count because the goal is usually to backdate them to 1948. Acquiring Amfleet will have to wait until museums absorb the wave of vintage private railcars marooned by the current Amtrak regime.

One of the best arguments for collecting newer and even current technology is that it can be contrasted with the old stuff, it establishes a context. This mimics the approach of science museums. Why should railroad museums only display history? Why shouldn’t they show what’s new as well? The public’s not going to find it anywhere else and it broadens the potential audience.


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