U.S., History: Night Trains, Past and Future

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 19, 2021

The Greatest Generation’s road warriors traveled in Pullman comfort and safety, in a wide, open section berth in a Pullman sleeping car that had some combination of sections, bedrooms, and compartments, adding roomettes in later years.

Traveling in a berth in an open section (as hilariously depicted in the 1959 Billy Wilder movie, Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis) meant if you had purchased the bottom berth, when the beds were not made you sat facing the direction of the movement of the train, and if you purchased the slightly less expensive upper berth, you sat facing the rear of the train.

The only thing separating sleeping passengers and the rest of the car were heavy curtains which were closed from the inside. Gender-specific restroom facilities were at the end of the car, which also served as a smoking lounge. If you chose to bathe, you bathed in a sink; there were no showers or other bathing facilities.

All train stations were staffed with ticket agents; there were no telephone central reservations facilities (Large cities also had city ticket offices.). Each station was allotted – on paper diagrams – a certain amount of coach seats and Pullman accommodations. If a particular station had sold all of its allotted space, inquiries either by telegraph, teletype or the company’s private telephone system (all of those trackside telephone polls came in handy) to other stations or the railroad’s internal reservations department. When space was sold, the information was transmitted in the same fashion to the railroad’s passenger department for final manifests which ultimately determined equipment and onboard staffing.

The majority of the road warrior travel was done on night trains, or, as they are referred to today in Europe, sleeper trains.

This was in a time when each mainline route had at least three daily frequencies, if not more. Terminal departures were timed for the convenience of passengers, not the convenience of operating and mechanical crews. Rolling stock inventories were maintained to meet traffic surges; if passenger demand was there, the demand was met instead of turning away large amounts of passengers.

Night trains of the era were a special breed. They often left their originating terminals with a long string of Pullman cars in a certain order in the consist. The consists became very fluid. At certain major station stops, cars would be cut out of the consist during the night, and the slumbering passengers would sleep until a decent hour in the morning while the car was standing on a station house track, and then detrain refreshed and ready for the day’s adventures.

Since the cars of that era had direct-flush toilets and sinks, buckets would be placed under the cars to keep things tidy and sanitary. Because each car had its own battery power and generators to recharge the long-lasting batteries, shore power was not required for car lights or air conditioning. Head End Power (HEP) would not come to passenger trains for decades until the nearly last night train was gone.

While some cars were cut from the consist, others would be added, traveling from the intermediate station to the end terminal. Passengers would board the car on the station’s house track, go to bed, and wake up when arriving at a down-line station or the terminal.

It was all something of a complicated ballet of cars, switchers, car-knockers, and conductors, but it was done every day for decades. And, it was done close to flawlessly by professional railroaders who took pride in their work.

The Baby Boomer’s road warriors traveled in a different way. They drove their Detroit-built, air conditioned automobiles over four-lane interstate highways and patronized Holiday Inns. They grabbed lunch at a roadside McDonald’s fast food outlet and listened to music or talk radio on their AM and FM car radios when they could pick up a signal along the interstate. Some would make use of their 8-Track tape players before they upgraded to cassettes.

If the Baby Boomers weren’t driving, they were spending time in airports, boarding the latest Boeing 707 or 747 and jetting off to their next meeting. Staring at 6 A.M. on Monday morning, bleary-eyed road warriors would board their plane and start their work week. Starting about 2 P.M. on Friday afternoons, they would begin the migration back home for the weekend before they did it all again next week.

It was in the airports, while navigating security and waiting to board, they refreshed their standing-in-line quietly and orderly skills they first learned in kindergarten and grade school. After the first rash of airline hijackings to Cuba in the 1960s, the road warriors learned waiting skills for passing through quaint, early security measures, then even more intense measures after September 11, 2001.

One “semi-night train” still exists, today. Northeast Corridor Trains Nos. 65/67, overnight service from Boston to Newport News, Virginia (Hampton Roads/Norfolk) departs Boston at 9:30 P.M. and arrives in Newport News at 11:15 A.M. Formerly known as the Night Owl, the train has all of the characteristics of a night train including coach seating, business class seating, a café car and baggage car. What it does not have that it did at one time is a sleeping car. Passengers are expected to sleep in their coach or business class seats. At one time, this train also carried the Executive Sleeper, which operated between New York Penn Station and Washington Union Station; at other times it carried the sleeping car the full length of the route. When the Executive Sleeper was used, it was spotted in New York Penn and passengers boarded and went to bed and the car was added to the train sometime during the early morning hours.

Millennial road warriors have essentially carried on the Baby Boomer traditions, but with the advantages of satellite radio services, smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers.

The 2020 pandemic taught road warriors a new way to travel – the Zoom meeting, where virtual meetings are held without ever leaving the office or home. All you need is a good backdrop, an allegedly quiet room sans barking pets, and some sort of camera attached to the internet and suddenly you have meetings.

People of a certain age (read that to be people with copious amounts of gray hair) will recall that the infamous MAD Magazine (What, me worry?) in the early 1960s created a lengthy spoof article on the futuristic telephone systems which also had a personalized camera attached. The gag was you could fool your boss you were too sick to come to work that day by showing a hospital room in the background or you could fool your customer you worked in a prestigious office when you really worked in a corner of a warehouse.

Millennials say with conviction today that Zoom meetings are not only efficient, but they are economical, and they are the future. No more travel, no more big travel budgets, no more time away from home.

Uh huh.

At some point there will be the reawakening to the fact there is no substitution for seeing someone in person, face-to-face, shaking hands (perhaps, still fist-bumping, but still making human contact), and connecting as people, not as machines making a digital connection.

The Millennials will be reawakened to the reality that much more can be accomplished for cementing business relationships – and making sales or major plans – over an unhurried luncheon or business dinner than can be accomplished over a digital connection.

Millennials and following generations are likely to be skeptical about the grueling requirements of taking to the skies again and trudging through airports and airport security. No amount of exclusive airport lounges (which passengers have to purchase the use of ) or “free” tickets earned after hundreds of thousands of miles flown are going to change that skepticism.

Spending all day on a train in a coach or business class seat is also not the answer. There is no privacy for at times necessary solitude, nor any privacy for telephone calls. How many major news stories have broken because some loudmouthed business class traveler on an Acela train on the Northeast Corridor has been saying things out loud not realizing how easily others could hear and the odd national security secret has been unwittingly revealed or some sort of corporate secret suddenly became public knowledge?

Hours spent on a train with internet access continues to be more efficient for working than airports and crowded planes are, but daylight hours are still hours that need to be as productive as possible. Time in transit is often time lost instead of time gained.

While today’s business class passenger train travel is more convenient than some other choices – especially driving a private vehicle over interstate highways – it is still not the ultimate answer.

What’s old is going to be new again. Night trains will be the answer.

In Europe, Asia and elsewhere, they are already the answer. Night trains there aren’t just for business travelers, they are for all types of travelers who wish to avoid traveling by airliner either for environmental reasons or simply for the greater convenience of passenger train travel.

The form night trains will take in North America is likely to be a hybrid of the mid-20th Century model and more modern needs. There will still be cars cut in and out of consists as trains travel through the night and stop at various major intermediate stations. There will be some express trains which have static consists and only stop at very few intermediate stations. Whatever the model, they will feature primarily sleeping cars, perhaps a single coach for “shorts,” and some type of food service car which offers late night meals and full breakfasts in addition to complete beverage services.

The business model for the new night trains will be part of a larger, overall model which restores multiple frequencies to most routes, enabling all stations to have marketable times for at least one daily frequency. The new model will be based on individual route needs, not “one size fits all” illogical thinking and planning. The new model will be passenger-centric, not cost cutting-centric.

The new business model will completely re-imagine passenger train service. It will take the best from the past – what pleased passengers the most while sanely recognizing the financial implications – and, as railroads did in the past, will invent new ways of comfortable travel.

For too long, passenger train travel has been based on what least amenities can be provided for passengers willing to travel on a system that has been designed to “take it or leave it” with the least possible conveniences for time and choices.

That will change. A new reality will be realistic fares, realistic departures/arrivals/frequencies, and desirable service that beckons passengers to return because they want to, not because they have to. Passenger trains to do not have to be operated by a carrier of last choice run by government bureaucrats. They will be operated by business-savvy railroaders who seek the patronage of their passengers, and simultaneously reward their passengers with the honor of a desirable, pleasant journey worthy of telling friends, neighbors and business associates about how good of an experience was enjoyed.

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