News & Reviews News Wire Passenger advocate Ed Von Nordeck dies

Passenger advocate Ed Von Nordeck dies

By Bob Johnston | December 12, 2022

Former operator of rail tour charter company also served in passenger association, at Southern California musuem

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Man at train station
Man at train station
Ed Von Nordeck in 2008. Bob Johnston photo

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Few people were more knowledgeable — or more enthusiastic —about passenger rail operations in the United States and Mexico over the last 70 years than Ed Von Nordeck, who died Dec. 6 in California. He was 89.

Ed began learning the basics as a Southern Pacific ticket agent in 1952 at age 19, and following a stint in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, used that hands-on experience to arrange special rail excursions. He also began volunteering at what is today the Southern California Railway Museum (formerly the Orange Empire Railway Museum), beginning a lifelong involvement. He met his wife of 47 years, Mary Lee, while working for the SP. Together they helped out at the museum with fund-raising excursions, and formed Let’s Travel Tours, a company that chartered special trains over many secondary U.S. and Mexico rail routes from 1965 through 2005.

Von Nordeck parlayed his accumulated knowledge into volunteer and paid assignments with LA-area commuter operator Metrolink and the Riverside County Transportation Commission, while also serving as a National Association of Railroad Passengers director.

He received that organization’s Jack R. Martin Passenger Rail Advocacy Award in 2005, but continued keeping an eye on Amtrak. Armed with extensive institutional knowledge from operating special trains and how to efficiently provide quality onboard service, Von Nordeck has been critical of recent food offerings and lounge space cutbacks in emails sent to Trains News Wire. He cheered the return of traditional dining to western long-distance trains in 2021, but expressed concern about its continued lack of availability on the Texas Eagle and to all coach passengers, as well as the elimination of the Eagle’s Sightseer Lounge.

Ross Capon, president emeritus of the Rail Passenger Association, had many conversations with Von Nordeck over the years and recounts his many accomplishments in this blog post on the RPA website.

Ed is survived by his wife, Mary Lee; daughter Lori Clarke and her husband Dane; and granddaughter Heather Clarke. A celebration of life is planned for a later time. The family is suggesting donations to the Southern California Railway Railway Museum in Perris, Calif.

4 thoughts on “Passenger advocate Ed Von Nordeck dies

  1. Donald J Russell was Espee’s president who introduced the Auromated Buffet Cars aka vending machines.
    Richard Anderson was Amtrak’s president that introduced flexible dining, contemporary dining (slop) on Amtrak.
    Ed would regularly post Amtrak consists from the 70’s and 80’s on the group io Passenger Consists groups. Some pre Amtrak consists as well. He posted a couple of North Coast Hiawatha consists from 1974 where I was on those trains. Amtrak’s best years in my opinion although the David Gunn years at Amtrak were pretty awesome too.
    Rest in Peace Ed
    Mike Lustig

  2. Ed and I were for years friendly competitors in the rail-tour business–but also partners as well. My company, Rail Travel Center, and Ed’s Let’s Travel Tours worked with Rolland Graham’s Mountain Outin” Tours to operate a very successful series of full line trips over the British Columbia Ry (BCR) from North Vancouver all the a thousand miles north to Fort Nelson, BC on the Alaska Highway, using their fleet of Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs). We even took the BCR RDCs once over the CN/VIA “Grad Trunk Pacific route to kitimat, BC and up the very bumpy BCR Dease Lake Extension–a sadly never completed line that might have been the actual gateway for thru rail to Alaska.

    Ed and I stayed in touch for decades through our mutual involvement in the RPA/NARP, rail tourism and passenger rail advocacy. He was always a stalwart supporter of better train service. But most of all he was a friend.

    Because Ed had worked for the Southern Pacific (SP) from 1952 to 1963 (interrupted by a 24 month stint in the US Army–with 18 months in Berlin) Ed had a unique view of how a once great passenger carrier gradually reduced service levels and ran-off much of its remaining passenger revenue by such measures as substituting vending machine “diners” for properly cooked food and by deliberately blocking full bookings.

    An example: The SP spent half a decade trying to rid itself of the luxurious overnight LARK between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The train lost its triple unit “Lark Club” diner, kitchen, lounge car in favor of a Hamburger Grill Car by the time I rode it in the summer of 1966. Coaches appeared as well, but on my 1966 trip there were still four sleepers and the SP claimed a sell-out four days in advance, when I tried to upgrade from coach to a roomette. Yet when I actually boarded at 3rd and Townsend in SFO for Oxnard there was one completely empty 10 roomette/6 bedroom car. Ed explained to me years later what was going on with this.

    The SP had a lot of freight business from Pacific Power and Light, but by 1966 their company’s rail travel most commonly took place only when the weather was really vile. But the SP held out an entire car for them on the LARK every day and would open it to public sale only on the departure day if everything else was full. The car ran even if empty. But when the SP would go to the California PUC for permission to drop the train they would sadly observe that typically the Lark ran with many empty sleeper rooms!

    Another trick Ed mentioned impacted longer-distance riders on trains like the SUNSET LIMITED. If a roomette was full from Los Angeles to El Paso–as an example–the proper method of handling reservations for that room was to enter the west end rider’s name on the car diagram, but draw a line through the box for that room on the sleeper diagram and mark it LA/ELP–which would allow the room to be resold east of there to New Orleans. But the SP told its Reservationists just to mark the room as filled for the entire run. This dramatically cut sleeper revenue. My mother–a former Pennsy Pullman Reservationist at Penn station when I was born, told me she could have fired for this! Ed noted that he and many of his colleagues refused to play this game.

    Ed had worked for the SP in the 1950s when SP passenger sales service was so good that the Res Bureau hired Ticket Messengers to hand-deliver tickets to important customers on the LARK and the COAST DAYLIGHT. He knew what real passenger “Service” was and he saw how the SP wrecked much of it. He knew how the diner-lounge–coffee shop triple unit on the DAYLIGHT catered both to full meal and snack customers, and he saw the reaction of regular riders when such cars vanished in favor of vending machines. He also worked for a time in 1960s for the Santa Fe–a still pro-passenger carrier, that asked him and wife Mary Lee to arrange special trains and tours to supplement passenger revenues.

    He could smell a rat with Amtrak’s handling of long-distance services as well. One of our last conversations by phone was about his view of the withdrawal of the lounge car and the downgrading of food service on the TEXAS EAGLE and the artificial contraction of that train by Amtrak’s refusal to run more than one sleeper and two coaches on it–even when sold out days if not weeks in advance. Ed compared it to the SP’s campaign to destroy ridership on the SUNSET–which at one point offered no sleepers, lounge car or diner–only vending machines and coaches east of El Paso all the way to New Orleans.

    Ed was a passenger rail giant, a really smart guy, a great story-teller, a faithful advocate and a kind and good man. He will be more than missed! He probably had forgotten more than most of us ever knew about the behind the scenes details of passenger trains. Fortunately he still knew and more importantly shared priceless insights about passenger service and his loss is truly a personal and institutional tragedy. He is I’m sure enroute to paradise on the 1950s edition of the COAST DAYLIGHT–“The Most Beautiful train in the World”!

    1. Thank you for sharing Carl. From your chronology I learned that my father had to have known Ed when my he also worked for the SP in the mid 1950’s.

      My father also served on the NARP/ARP board in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. In 1992 I accompanied him to their semi-annual meeting in Flagstaff. We had a VIP one way excursion on the Gran Canyon Railroad with their CEO followed by a South Rim bus tour back to Flagstaff. I remember Ed telling my Dad that market the ski resort in the San Francisco Mountains to southern Californians via rail would NOT be viable. I probably last saw Ed at a RailPac/NARP Regional Meeting at the LA MTA/Metro Bldg about ten years ago.

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