By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 13, 2021
Note: This was written in early 2019.
“Kindly do not flush toilet when train is standing in station.”
This sign used to be posted above every toilet on every passenger train car in North America, including in the early years of Amtrak.
It was the Silver Meteor which changed everything, and doomed many cars in Amtrak’s Heritage Fleet to be scrapped because it was too expensive to refit them with new flushing systems and waste retention tanks.
Originally, all toilets and sinks on passenger trains were direct-dump-onto-the-tracks. When you flushed a toilet, you could hear the movement of the train coming from the tracks below. While by modern day standards this was unsanitary and unpleasant, 40 years ago this was normal. The train of thought was nobody should be walking on the tracks in the first place, and, when whatever hit the tracks as the train was moving at high speed would disperse easily upon impact. Beyond that, Mother Nature would take care of things with the next rain. In a Heritage Fleet coach, there may have been a total of five or six toilets. In a Heritage Fleet 10 roomette, six double bedroom car, a total of 17 toilets.
This method of waste disposal had been going on since the first rest facilities were installed on the first passenger train cars.
When a train was standing still in a station, the waste simply plopped onto the tracks next to the platform, and either would splash onto an unsuspected passenger or crew member on the platform, or would disgustingly stay on the tracks until it was somehow washed away. Thus, the sign, politely imploring a recently relieved passenger to wait until the train was moving to flush.
The Pullman Company regularly scheduled sleeping cars to be set out from trains at various stations all along a route from a night train, and occupancy by passengers was usually allowed until 8 a.m. or the next morning. When this happened, metal buckets were attached under the cars to catch waste from sinks and toilets and then emptied by an unfortunate car knocker or other worker. The same was true for railroad business cars; buckets under the cars when they were spotted in a station for its traveling official and staff to use as an office or sleeping quarters while on business in a given location.
One fine Florida day in the 1980s, Amtrak’s Silver Meteor was headed southbound, somewhere between Palatka and DeLand, and crossing over a trestle above a river. It happened some fishermen were in a boat, directly beneath the train trestle. Just at the exact moment as a toilet in a passenger train car was above the fishermen in their boat, the toilet was flushed by either a passenger or a crew member. The end result was a more generous application of waste upon the unlucky fishermen in the boat than when a pigeon flying overhead in a city happens to relieve itself on an unsuspecting pedestrian.
The anointed fishermen were neither amused or pleased, and complained to their local authorities that they had been accosted by a passing Silver Meteor.
Local authorities and those above their official status were all aghast that in these modern times in the 1980s such a vile event could occur. Action was taken, a ruckus ensued, and Amtrak ended up in court. The fishermen prevailed judicially.
The immediate result was when traveling over this specific spot, Amtrak restrooms were locked by crew, and sleeping car passengers were entreated to refrain from relieving themselves while on the train trestle.
The long term result was a systemwide change for all Amtrak equipment. Direct dump sinks and toilets were passe, and new plumbing was installed on all cars, which included retention tanks. Thus, an entire new industry was created: Honeywagon vendors suddenly had Amtrak as a new customer in coach yards, profitably emptying out the retention tanks. A new headache was also created for Amtrak management: Making sure cleaning and maintenance crews were diligent in remembering to empty the retention tanks. Once the tanks are full, the entire waste system shuts down, and toilets will not operate.
Because the modern waste systems in Amfleet and Superliner cars are vacuum operated systems, when the hotel power from the locomotive (Head End Power; HEP) shuts down, so do the toilets. So, if there is a power crisis resulting from a malfunctioning locomotive, the cascading effect is no lights, no air conditioning or heating, and no toilets in the train.
Credible inquiries about modifying these vacuum systems with emergency battery systems in cars so toilets would flush and water would flow in sinks has revealed that the way the overall system is designed would not allow the systems to work without both power and compressed air from the locomotive.
For every news story you read or lament heard from a passenger on a stalled train about toilets not working and overflowing by desperate, stranded passengers, you can thank those unfortunate fishermen on a river under a train trestle on a nice Florida day, somewhere between Palatka and DeLand and the southbound Silver Meteor passing by at just the right critical moment.
One other change has also occurred by the removal of the dump toilets. Before the retention systems, it was not unusual for a crew member or occasional passenger to open the top of a Dutch door in a vestibule and lean into the wind as the train moved along. Occasionally, there would be a refreshing spray of moisture hitting the crew member or passenger in the face. Most thought nothing of it; no telling where the refreshing spray of moisture came from. More informed crew members or passengers eventually figured it out; that refreshing moisture was the direct result of a flushed toilet or emptied sink bowl. One had to fervently hope it was from a dumped sink, not a dumped toilet. With retention tanks, those refreshing sprays of moisture no longer mysteriously occur.