One of the nation's most venerable institutions, the US Army troop train, staged a successful comeback over the Christmas-New Year holiday, and officials of both Amtrak and the Army say they'll gladly run more of the "military specials" if enough cars and engines can be found.
"It was a great success," asserts Maj. William O. Cochran, the post transportation officer who chartered a 10-car Amtrak train to carry 610 enlisted men from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., back to their homes in the Northeast.
"The train rolled out of here 35 minutes early, and it was 37 minutes early when it got into New York."
Major Cochran says the 69,000-acre Army post in the south-central Missouri Ozarks hadn't chartered a train to move troops since the Korean war in the early 1950s and hadn't booked space for its men on regularly scheduled passenger trains since well before Amtrak assumed responsibility for the railroads' passenger service in 1971.
The major attributed the Army's retreat from trains to "the general discontinuance of passenger service" then being carried out by the railroads.
But the military was apparently happy with Amtrak's latest effort to restore the rails' once-respected ability in mass movement of soldiers.
The train completed its 30-hour journey on schedule and did its work cheaper than could have been done by airplane or bus. Amtrak was happy, too. The company collected $92,000 in fares; and on the eastbound segment alone took in another $9,286.10 in food- and-beverage revenues.
"They were big eaters," an Amtrak spokesman reports.
Amtrak says the special left the fort Dec. 19 and followed the St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) Railway to St. Louis, where it was turned over to Conrail for movement to New York. It then proceeded over the main line of the former Pennsylvania Railroad, stopping at Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia before terminating in New York Dec. 20.
The special was the first passenger train over the St. Louis-Pittsburgh segment of the route since a budget cut forced Amtrak to drop its National Limited on Oct. 29, 1979.
The westbound trip differed from the east- bound in one important particular. When it left New York's Pennsylvania Station Jan. 3 it carried a select contingent of railroad enthusiasts; and when it paused a day later in Indianapolis it picked up the dean of the breed, Rogers E. M. Whitaker, a New Yorker magazine editor and co-author of the best- selling "All Aboard with E. M. Frimbo, the World's Greatest Railfan."
Amtrak officials say the octogenarian Mr. Whitaker joined the trip because his voluminous log of accumulated railroad riding still lacked a short segment of Army-owned track connecting Fort Leonard Wood with the Frisco main line.
That omission was something of an irony for the legendary Mr. Whitaker, who spent much of World War II in the Pentagon helping the War Department plan the movement of millions of GIs from training camps to ports of embarkation aboard secret "military trains," as the troop trains of that era were called.
The Fort Leonard Wood-New York special was a far cry from those wartime trains, however.
Instead of a steam locomotive tugging a "consist" of heavyweight Pullman cars full of green-curtained upper and lower berths, the Amtrak train featured a pair of diesels pulling six stainless-steel Amfleet coaches, two Amcafe snack coaches , a baggage car, and a private-room Slumbercoach, which was used as bunk space for the train's porters and food- service attendants.
A more important distinction was that the enlisted men riding the train knew where they were going and were even paying their own way.
The Army chartered the train simply to help its men get home for the holidays as conveniently as possible, not to rush them to a secret destination overseas.
Those mysterious military trains of yesteryear will probably never be used again, according to Major Cochran, because modern military strategists expect airlifted "rapid- deployment forces" to meet overseas battle commitments. But the train, he adds, may have a growing role in helping the Army move recruits and reservists on a non-emergency basis.
Before the Christmas, 1980, exodus from the post, Fort Leonard Wood sent its personnel home by scheduled buses or by a combination of chartered bus and scheduled airliner leaving from Lambert Airport in St. Louis. But as Amtrak improved its reliability and acquired modern engines and rolling stock, military planners were once again attracted to the economics of moving large numbers of people by rail.
Trains, which achieve more seat-miles per gallon of fuel than any other mode of transport, are less severely affected by rising fuel prices than are buses or airliners, a fact reflected in recent fare increases on the airlines.
"All the modes were pretty competitive, but Amtrak was the cheapest," Major Cochran asserts. "They quoted us a round- trip fare to New York City of $180. The airlines wanted $195, and you still had to get to St. Louis to board the plane."
The result was that when the post's transportation department announced a special train to the East, more than 1,000 men signed up for tickets. Only 610 could be accommodated, however, because heavy civilian holiday travel restricted the number of coaches Amtrak could spare for the military move.
Amtrak officials say the company owns about 1,700 passenger and baggage cars, but on any given day only about 1,200 are fit for service on the carrier's 21, 000 miles of routes.
By contrast, the West German Federal Railroad system owns about one car per mile of its 27,000-mile network.
"We just haven't had the equipment," declares Leonardo Contardo, Amtrak's chief of military sales.
"We ran another holiday special from Fort Jackson, S. C., to New York, and I also managed to put some extra cars for the military on some of the regular trains, but we really had to scare up the equipment. Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and Fort Gordon have all expressed interest in troop specials, and we're also looking into the possibility of moving reservists to Fort McCoy, Wis., for their summer training, but we just haven't got the equipment to spare."
Amtrak officials say that if their company is to accommodate growing military demands for transportation, Congress will have to increase its capital appropriation for new rolling stock. Mr. Contardo says such an appropriation would be a good investment, and not just in national security.
"It's quite a revenue-producing traffic," he adds.
"What those soldiers spend in the club car amounts to a lot of money. When the report finally gets in from all the different military traffic we handle, plus the food and beverage revenue, it's going to look very impressive."