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Beyond the byline with Bob Johnston

By Carl Swanson, Trains Editor | December 1, 2022

A few minutes with Trains Magazine’s much-traveled passenger train expert

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Photograph of author Bob Johnson
Magazine spread, April 1989 issue Trains Magazine
Bob Johnston’s first published feature in Trains was a Selected Railroad Reading article called “All passengers will make their connections,” which appeared in the April 1989 issue.

What was your first byline in Trains?

Bob Johnston: “All passengers will make their connections” appeared in “Selected Railroad Reading” in the April 1989 issue. That article really began two years earlier, when an employee on the Chicago TV advertising sales team I managed gave me a notebook prior to a trip I took to China to visit my brother — he expected a full report! When that notebook was filled with observations over the next year, I decided to get another. I had it with me on a June 1988 Lake Shore Limited trip from a New York meeting at company headquarters when the woman across from me at dinner in the diner — as we were tooling up the Hudson — pulled a bottle of salad dressing from her purse. She was going to connect to the Empire Builder at Chicago for Minneapolis. It was a delay-plagued trip, with mishaps that included the long train uncoupling at speed in Ohio and a stuck Chicago River drawbridge that forced a painfully slow detour across the St. Charles Air Line. We were late, but Amtrak held the Builder for us. The notebook was key in recounting details, though I had forgotten to write down the woman’s name (“You’ll have to invent one,” advised Trains Editor J. David Ingles in the letter accepting my story. I picked “Liz.”). Today I have more than 80 notebooks and have never traveled without one since, because it’s better to write down ideas when you are looking out a train window than staring at a keyboard.

What’s your favorite passenger train and why?

Bob Johnston: I grew up in a Chicago suburb where the nightly whoosh of Chicago & North Western’s Duluth-Superior Limited and Dakota 400 made mesmerizing first impressions. There are also candidates dating from when I worked for the Burlington in summer 1967 as a Chicago Union Station passenger agent. A treasured assignment was inspecting all of the CB&Q’s trains before passengers were allowed to board, so I will always have a soft spot for the California Zephyr, Denver Zephyr, Empire Builder, and North Coast Limited. Oh, and on the way back from walking through the Denver Zephyr soaking in dining car fragrances as the crew was preparing for dinner, I usually took a stroll through the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited during the last summer of its all-Pullman operation. What class! These trains all are worthy because they projected a unique vibe and personality that is sorely missed today. But my favorite from that era that initially transitioned to Amtrak intact has to be Santa Fe’s Super Chief/El Capitan. Talk about personality: a private “Turquoise Room” dining section under a short dome, comfortable Hi-level coaches and always-spotless sleeping cars, a wonderful Hi-level glass-topped lounge (resurrected and refurbished by Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald in the 1990s for the Coast Starlight), and always a friendly, attentive staff. It had something for every traveler that contributed to the enjoyment of riding a passenger train — and that’s what every train should do.

Passengers enjoy drinks in a railroad lounge car
Curved windows along the edge of the roof give the Santa Fe El Capitan’s Hi-Level lounges a bright, airy feeling; a smaller lounge-buffet is below. Budd Co.

Describe your love of railroading in 6 words or less?

Bob Johnston: Unique travel experience—if done right

What’s your fondest memory as a contributor?

1972 photograph of Bob Johnson and Amtrak dining car steward aboard the Super Chief
During a 1973 ride on Amtrak’s Super Chief, Bob Johnston waits as a former Santa Fe Railway dining car steward totals his check. Bob Johnston

Bob Johnston: Beginning in the 1990s, I started interviewing behind-the-scenes managers and staff responsible for making everything work on a passenger train. The reporting resulted in features or “Passenger” columns on Auto Train; Coast Starlight; Empire Builder; Pioneer; Sunset Limited’s first transcontinental trip; American Orient Express; and Canada’s Whistler Northwind, Rocky Mountaineer, Chaleur, Skeena, Hudson Bay, Pukatawagan mixed, and Canadian Prestige Class. Of these, perhaps the most memorable was researching and photographing the City of New Orleans. Its resurgence occurred in the mid-1990s during what I consider to be Amtrak’s Golden Age, when product line managers had revenue and cost responsibility for growing their train’s business. Leading the effort on the City was Louisiana native and former Amtrak locomotive engineer Tommy McDonald, who schooled me on train economics. For instance, he showed how locally sourced blackened catfish, red beans and rice, and chef-made bread pudding were able to inexpensively entice passengers into spending money in the dining car. Editor Kevin Keefe selected a lucky shot I captured of passengers getting off the train while the conductor looked at his watch for the cover of the February 1998 issue, my first for Trains.

1999 photograph of an Amtrak chef at work in a dining car
Beyond the byline with Bob Johnston: A chef on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle works on one of his creations in this 1999 photo. Bob Johnston

What article received the biggest reader reaction?

Bob Johnston: “Amtrak’s design on the future,” (June 1992) involved a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s engineering and design team led by Cesar Vergara and Blair Slaughter, which  was involved in everything from “Pepsi Can” paint schemes to the shape of General Electric’s Genesis P40 locomotives. I am still getting requests to share notes from the visits I made to Amtrak’s Philadelphia engineering headquarters and General Electric’s Erie, Pennsylvania, facility. Executives at the Erie plant ordered reprints of the feature; it was only after Kalmbach shipped them that GE lawyers realized there was a lot of proprietary information I had included that the company suddenly did not want revealed. Too late.

What advice would you give a new contributor?

Photograph of author Bob Johnson
Bob Johnston

Bob Johnston: Bring that notebook, get the facts, write down your thoughts, and — armed with that information, don’t be afraid to advance a point of view! I was enticed into writing about trains by Mike Schafer when he was editor of Passenger Train Journal. He had seen an op-ed of mine on transportation policy that the Chicago Tribune had published, but the writing style I developed (up to that point only on company memos that no one read) began in the 1960s from devouring month after month of former Trains Editor David P. Morgan’s “Railroad News and Editorial Comment.” A curious 7th grade English teacher had wondered where I learned to mix things up with action verbs and adverbial phrases. It was decades reading “DPM” and other great editors over the years at Trains who are still showing the way.

Read Beyond the byline with Ron Flanary.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the byline with Bob Johnston

  1. Bob is one of railroading’s best journalists, and by far the nation’s No. 1 reporter on the Amtrak beat. It’s always a pleasure working with him!

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