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Telephone History
Mobile Telephone History ---- Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (8A) (9) (10) (11)
(Packet switching) (Next topic: Standards)

The Metroliner and the First Cellular Radio System by John Winward

In January, 1969 the Bell System made commercial cellular radio operational by employing frequency reuse in a local network for the first time. Aboard a train. Using payphones. As with AT&T's mobile telephone service, Motorola built the radio gear which was designed for Western Electric. [Click here my writing and references on this. (internal link]

Retired AT&T employee John Winward was a lead person on the Metroliner installation, known by Bell as the "High Speed Train Project." He recounts many good details about the train and about early cellular development.


Thanks for such a wonderful website. I'm delighted to know someone is keeping a record of this history and how the radiotelephone changed lives. For me, your website was a nice trip down memory lane. I worked for Bell of Pennsylvania in mobile radio and installed all of the telephones on the Metroliner at the Budd Co. factory in Philadelphia and later the Pennsylvania Railroad yard at Morrisville, PA.

Amtrak Poster

A 1970 poster done by Klien. The AMTRAK era.

Later on, I was loaned to Bell Labs for two years and was a member of the labs field team that actually proved in the cellular concept. Much of the equipment we used was hand built due to a lack of off the shelf equipment for the frequencies we were working with. After we proved the concept worked and was blessed by the FCC, we handed all of our findings over to Motorola. This was because the decision was made for AT&T to be satisfied with the additional long distance revenue that would be generated. However, no one knew at the time the impact Judge Green and the Consent Decree would have on the future of the Bell System.

Anyhow, there were seven of us on the field development team, we were up on the roofs in the cold and snow doing all of the grunt work to make the cell phone concept work. It was a lot of fun and fellowship, but no credit for our achievement. It was sort of like winking at a pretty girl in a dark room, we knew we were doing it, but no one else did. Of course, at the time, no one knew just what cellular radio would eventually evolve to.

First a couple of items about radio-telephony of the time, then I'll tell you about President Nixon's inaugurals ride on the Metroliner.

Metro at The Budd Factory

The Metroliner at the Budd Factory in Pennsylvania. Photo from the site below:


The FCC limited the BOC's to 50 customers per channel on IMTS, there were always 1,000 potential customers on the waiting list for service. The list had seven categories with Public health and welfare being #1, #7 was for other. Naturally everyone applying for service was a doctor whether they actually were is another story. The Bell Operating Companies or BOC's were always asking the FCC for additional channels. This scenario was repeated all across the country, basically there was plenty of pent up demand.

The FCC approached AT&T and said, "we do have these frequencies between channels 13 & 14 in the TV band, show us a workable system in two years and we will give you the frequencies." That's how the field work began, basically we worked 6 days a week for 2 years and got the job done. All testing was done in Philadelphia. Chicago came into the picture because that's when Motorola was located in Schaumburg, Illinois. Motorola did some of their own testing in Chicago. The long term design criteria was to come off hook and initiate a call in NYC, drive to California and never be interrupted, a lofty goal by any measure. The vehicle antennas were to be mounted in the rear view mirrors and the telephone order would be placed at the automobile dealer. Later testing proved that there was an RF hazard (similar to microwaving an egg) by having the cellular antenna at eye level.

As a point of interest, we could locate a vehicle within 200' which generated much interest by the military and law enforcement. Don't forget, this was back in the 70's. It makes me smile when today's media states that 911 calls cannot be located geographically. Some differences between now and then are cell size, our cell size was 1 mile, today the cells are much larger. Our antennas were mounted low, today they are high to cover the larger area.

AT&T didn't want to begin manufacturing radios, after all, it wasn't their "Core business" and we had a long standing relationship with Motorola as the prime vendor for IMTS. GE was a player but in a very small way. By standardizing on Motorola, repair parts and service was available anywhere in the US for Roaming BOC IMTS customers. However, GE was the prime contractor for the Metroliner High Speed Train Project.

The Metroliner

This was an enormous project for the country, the highspeed train was to offer the promise of dependable, improved ride and comfort, center city to center city, travel without the hassle of highway traffic and that sort of thing. The Japanese had their Bullet train but the US did not have anything like it. To make the high speed train possible, the physical plant of the railroad had to be upgraded with very long sections of special welded track to eliminate the old clickety clack associated with the standard bolted track selections. The fact that Bell System employees worked side by side with Budd Company employees on the assembly line at the Budd Co. was another first for AT&T.

The rail cars were special too, each was self propelled and had to meet acceleration and deceleration specs set by the DOT. To be certain that the project would be delivered on time, two propulsion systems were developed, one by GE, the other by Westinghouse. There were a lot of innovations on the railroad side such as dynamic braking (Westinghouse) using the traction motors as a brake before the brake shoes could be applied. The speed target was 158 MPH although the highest speed in service was 125. We did hit 158 on the test track in New Brunswick, NJ, that was exciting.

The telephones on the Metroliner changed frequencies by signals picked up from Track coils strategically placed between the rails at various locations. The cars with the telephones had pickup coils that were inductively coupled to the track coils when they passed over the track coils. There were two pulses generated when passing over the coils, that's how the channel control unit in the train knew where it was, the land stations switched by measuring the signal to noise ratio of the received signal from the train.

The control center was located in Philadelphia. At maximum speed, the train was over the track coils for about 7 milliseconds, not very much time, but enough and it worked very well, except for the fact that every time there was a railroad accident, it seemed to happen right over the track coils. They needed to be replaced more than we imagined.

Inauguration of the high speed train service

The Metroliner at Washington D.C. Photo from the site below:

Being this was a government project, and deemed important to the prestige of the country, President Nixon rode the train from Washington to Philadelphia to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting. I was selected to ride the train because I had the most experience with the hardware, this required a background check by the FBI which also included visiting my neighbors. The government people gutted one of the cars, and built a war room in side complete with a special crypto room and the "War Chest" which contained all the materials necessary to launch a nuclear attack right from the Metroliner should the need arise. I was not allowed to leave the train for 16 hours.

AT&T via Bell of PA provided 2 full duplex circuits from the Metroliner to the Whitehouse for the entire time. The government communications people exercised the circuits during the entire trip and we didn't lose a second, everything worked flawlessly, another Bell System first. A decoy Metroliner proceeded the presidential train by 15 minutes to test the track and draw any potential harm that might be directed towards the president. The President's train had a helicopter flying over head the entire trip and I could hear the Secret Service checking in with their agents that were stationed at every intersection along the way.

For what it's worth, we found out later the cost for the Presidential trip was around $500 hundred thousand dollars. I really enjoyed the opportunity to be on that trip and was very impressed with how our President travels. I was presented with a pair of Metroliner cuff links for my contribution. There were many other rides by Senators and Congressmen, but none ever matched the preparation and execution of Mr. Nixon's trip. The Russians and many others were very interested in the high speed train concept. I have lost count of the number of "I'm making the First call from the Metroliner" that were made.

I have some pictures of the Metroliner and cell phone testing around here somewhere. It's strange, but at the time, we didn't know we were making history otherwise, there would be much more documentation, that's why I was delighted to have found your web site.

On one of the first Metroliner trips (invited guests only), AT&T Executives were to ride the train. The AT&T PR people, hired a Modeling Agency to provide models that would greet the AT&T executives by name and show them the telephone. Well, this seemed strange to me because, I thought AT&T already had some of Americas' finest looking women on the payroll. Don't get me wrong, the models were lovely, but in my mind, it was just shades of gray between the models and real AT&T employees.

The models spent the first part of the trip studying 8x10 photographs of the AT&T executives they were to greet, (by name of course) as though they had known them for years.

The trip went flawlessly, the models did their job, the executives were flattered and at their finest, and I enjoyed the whole thing armed with my secret knowledge.

John Winward

[A little more on this, writing and references by Tom Farley (internal link]

Mobile Telephone History ---- Pages: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (8A) (9) (10) (11)
(Packet switching) (Next topic: Standards) logo West Sacramento, California, USA. A Tom Farley production