In 1971, the newly created Amtrak was generally viewed from one of two angles: the salvation of passenger trains in the United States, or an orderly funeral to phase them out. Forty-one years later, "America's Railroad" is still running, operating trains in 46 of the 50 states despite frequent budget battles in Washington, philosophical debates about its existence, and countless Jay Leno jokes about its trains' uneven on-time performance and occasional involvement in accidents. That history is recounted in an Amtrak 40th Anniversary exhibit train that has toured the United States since last May 7 and makes its penultimate stop in Toledo today as the centerpiece of this year's local National Train Day event. Through a mix of memorabilia, pictures, advertising, models, and full-scale dioramas, the train's three exhibit cars trace, in chronological order, Amtrak's run from its 1971 startup as the successor to passenger trains previously run by private railroad companies to its current-day operation of 150-mph Acela Express speedsters in the Northeast and cross-country overnight trains with dining and sleeping car service. "It's just interesting how much polyester there was in the 1970s," Derrick James, Amtrak's director of government affairs and corporate communications, quipped concerning the uniforms Amtrak attendants and dining-car staff wore during the company's startup years.
Amtrak's early uniforms and car decor featured the Disco Era's vivid colors, which also served to distance Amtrak from the gloomy, austere final years of private passenger-train operation.
"We always knew that Amtrak's survival was not a foregone conclusion," Paul Reistrup, the company's president from 1974 to 1978, said in Amtrak: An American Story, an Amtrak-published history that is among commemorative merchandise offered in the exhibit train's gift shop. "The Nixon administration considered it an experiment and might have let it pass if the 1973 energy crisis had not awakened people to the need for transportation alternatives."
A desire to promote passenger trains as an alternative to driving or flying is the driving force behind National Train Day, too, said Bill Gill, a regional coordinator for the advocacy group All Aboard, Ohio and the Toledo event's chairman.
"A lot of people in our region are not aware we have the beautiful Amtrak station and four trains a day that come through here," Mr. Gill said. Building awareness, he said, can make the existing trains useful to more people and foster support for better passenger train service in Toledo's future.
"We'll get thousands of people down here who have never ridden a train before," said Dave Gedeon, the director of commuter services at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, a National Train Day co-sponsor. "We still have hopes in the future of the Toledo community becoming a high-speed [rail] route," he added.
Along with the exhibit train -- which actually arrived Thursday and was set up Friday for visitors today -- Amtrak will offer tours of Superliner passenger train cars currently in use on many of its long-distance trains, and a Norfolk Southern freight locomotive will be on display.
Inside the train station at Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza, National Train Day Toledo will feature rail-related displays, live music, food, and prize drawings. Several model train layouts will be operating, and "Engineer Steve" will give hourly, youth-oriented safety presentations.
Steve Rathke, a Norfolk Southern engineer from Springfield Township, said he began his "Engineer Steve" presentations at area Safety Town events after one of several car-train collisions during his railroad career.
"People, both young and old, have misconceptions surrounding trains and railroad tracks," Mr. Rathke said. "I feel that clearing up these misconceptions and educating the public is one way that I can make a difference. .… With the help of Engineer Teddy, a stuffed bear dressed exactly like an engineer, we talk to the kids at their level. As a group, we watch a cartoon and sing songs about what we learned."
National Train Day will start at 9:30 a.m. with opening remarks by several local and railroad dignitaries, including Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and Paul Toth, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, which owns and renovated the then-crumbling Toledo train station during the mid-1990s. Tours and displays will be open to the public until 4 p.m. Admission is free.