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Workin’ on the Railroad

Richard Slattery ’80 Parlays a Lifelong Love of Trains into a Satisfying Career.

By Susan Cousins Breen

Richard Slattery ’80The staccato rhythm of trains chugging down the track has held an allure for Richard Slattery ’80 since childhood. The lifelong interest took root during his family’s weekend subway trips from Queens into Manhattan. Rich found the heavy, metal giants of transportation lining the tracks at New York’s Penn Station “to be much more interesting than shopping at Macy’s.”

At age 11, Slattery was collecting railroad timetables. Seven years later, when he was deciding between Swarthmore or Colby College, the train running along the southern edge of the Swarthmore campus and the fact that were no passenger trains to Maine tipped the scales for the high school senior. The railroad buff often wowed his classmates with his knowledge of the train schedules, according to Ira Gitlin ’80, Slattery’s sophomore roommate. Gitlin recalls Eric Corngold ’80 mentioning that Hibbing, Minn., was Bob Dylan’s hometown, and “Rich instantly rattled off directions to get there by train—not just the train lines, but schedule information as well!”

These days, Slattery can be found in Amtrak’s main headquarters in Washington, D.C. When he joined the company’s legal department 17 years ago, many of the cases he worked on dealt with railroad history or operating issues. Often, he used his personal collection of books and historic papers to document legal arguments. It is not uncommon, he says, to have litigation about railroad property rights that are 60 to 100 years old and still in effect. For the last six years, he has been a senior director in Amtrak’s planning department.

Slattery first made the connection between what he loved and making a living when his collection of railroad books won Swarthmore’s A. Edward Newton Library Prize during his senior year. The cash prize helped him pay a few bills.

Following graduation, he began his railroad career with a brief stint as a reservations agent for Auto Train (now operated by Amtrak). After law school at the University of Virginia, he took a job with Covington & Burling, a law firm that represented railroad companies. In 1991, he joined Amtrak.

The Fairfax, Va., resident has ridden 96 percent of Amtrak’s 21,000 mile route system. His excursions began the summer after freshman year when he traveled the rails of the United States for two weeks on a rail pass. During winter break of his sophomore year, his mother intercepted plans to ride a special Amtrak dome car up to Montreal, Canada, “because she didn’t think I was old enough to travel alone on an overnight trip to another country.” Thirty years later, when Amtrak restored a dome car to that run, Slattery and his 17-year-old son, Tim, also a railroad buff, were aboard that car.

In 1979, on the last day of Thanksgiving break, Gitlin was waiting in Penn Station for the train to Philadelphia. “I ran into Nicky Cawley ’80. Eyeing the masses of returning college students filling the station, we glumly resigned ourselves to standing in the aisles all the way to Philly,” he recalls. “Suddenly, Rich came running up to us and said that another train with special parlor cars was going to make an unscheduled stop in Philadelphia. We followed him down the stairs onto a nearly empty train, took our seats in an elegant 1950s car, and rode back in style.”

One of Slattery’s most memorable Swarthmore-related train experiences happened in Mexico City in 1983. “I ran into Dana Lyons ’82 on the dark train station platform,” he says. “He was the only American I encountered during a four-day trip on Mexico’s now defunct passenger train network.”

Slattery is a member of The Lexington Group, an invitation-only association of individuals interested in transportation scholarship; the National Association of Timetable Collectors (since age 13); and several railroad historical societies. A cross country runner at Swarthmore, he recently joined a running group that trains on an old trail that used to be a railroad right-of-way.

Slattery finally had the chance to ride a train to Maine in 2001, when Amtrak restored passenger rail service from Boston to Portland, Maine, after a 36-year absence. Rich, who had represented Amtrak in the five-year-old effort to reinstate the service, and then–Amtrak Chairman Michael Dukakis ’55 were aboard the first run.

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