Saturday, December 12th, 2015 marks the 116th year of the annual college football classic between the rival teams of the United States Military Academy of West Point, New York and the United States Naval Academy of Annapolis, Maryland. The tradition started in 1890 and has run continuously since 1899 with the exception of just four years. The event has been held in several cities over the years but Philadelphia was often the regular host as it was roughly equidistant from both academies. In Philadelphia the venue was held in several locations, games during the early 20th Century were held at University of Penn’s Franklin Field, in 1936 the game moved to Municipal Stadium, a product of the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition. Municipal Stadium (later renamed JFK stadium) was located at the southern end of Broad Street and would remain the primary location until moving to the new Veterans Stadium in 1980 then to the Lincoln Financial Field in 2003.
Despite having limited public transportation access (the Broad Street Line to Pattison Ave would not be built until 1973) the move to Municipal Stadium was ideal for the event for two primary reasons; the stadium had plenty of capacity to handle the crowds and it was in close proximity to the PRR’s sprawling Greenwich Yard. Capitalizing on the location, the PRR transformed the rail yard from a major import - export coal and iron ore facility into a passenger station to receive thousands of midshipmen, cadets, spectators and dignitaries on game day. Requiring a year of planning and weeks of work "on the ground" before the event the railroad transformed the terminal and freight only Delaware Extension and West Philadelphia Elevated Branch into a high volume passenger conduit to connect trains from all directions to the venue for just a single day.
The Pennsylvania’s Army Navy game service quickly became one of the most concentrated passenger operations in the United States. Initial service in 1936 offered 38 special trains to the event and by 1941 the operation hosted 42. After a three-year hiatus due to the wartime travel restrictions rail service to the game resumed in 1946 with 37 trains continuing an annual tradition that operated at various levels under the Penn Central and Amtrak well into the 2000’s.
Though the Army Navy game trains eventually ceased, noted PRR preservationist and Philadelphia businessman Bennett Levin sought to bring back the tradition for a very special occasion. Saddened by the reports of injured troops returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Levin and his wife Vivian looked to renew the tradition providing a special day to honor these soldiers. The Levin family spearheaded an effort with the help of countless agencies, officials, private railcar owners and an army of volunteers to assemble a train of luxury private rail cars to operate a special train from Washington DC. Recovering troops from the Walter Reed and National Naval Medical Centers would be transported to Union Station boarding a train that would travel the original route of PRR specials to the Army Navy Classic in Philadelphia. After the train’s arrival at the former PRR Greenwich Yard, Septa busses would take guests the remaining distance to Lincoln Financial Field to enjoy the game from premium seats at the 50-yard line.
The Liberty Limited ran in 2005, 2006 and 2010. After the initial success of the 2005 trip the special was given a high priority by hospital commanders and medical treatment was arranged around the trip date to ensure troops could attend. The 2006 trip was the most sought after and eagerly anticipated “outside event” for troops recovering from war related injuries at both Walter Reed and the National Naval Hospital according to George Weightman, MD the Commanding Officer at Walter Reed. When announced, the 2006 trip sold out immediately with another 65 soldiers on a stand-by list. Not wanting to turn soldiers away, changes were made to the train’s consist to ensure no “soldier, sailor or Marine would be left behind!” The 2006 trip would ultimately take 132 wounded warriors, invited guests and 26 medical staff to the game. With no press, politicians or Pentagon officials these men and women were treated to a first class experience in honor of their sacrifice for our country.