By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 14, 2021
Note: This article was originally written in 2010; updated in 2021.
Will there be another Broadway Limited?
There is a 1966 photo of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s crack passenger train, the Broadway Limited, standing in Chicago Union Station awaiting passengers.
The train, decked out in its Tuscan Red with gold stripes paint scheme, is gleaming, without a speck of dirt, but the Tuscan Red paint is beginning to fade a bit. The drumhead on the back of the rear end observation car proudly announces the Broadway Limited name. On an adjacent track, another Pennsylvania Railroad train sits, its Pullman cars also spotless, and adorned in Tuscan Red.
Chicago Union Station has a look of well worn service, having seen thousands of previously steam – and now diesel powered – trains come and go, hosting millions of passengers from all corners of the country, and, indeed, the world.
This evocative photo is perhaps atypical of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1960s. The company has shed its “Standard Railroad of the World” slogan for a somewhat slightly less grandiose watchword of “Serving The Nation.” In just a matter of two short years in 1968, the once-mighty Pennsylvania Railroad would be merged under duress with the New York Central System into the untamable Penn Central Transportation Company, which would then slink into bankruptcy less than a decade later in 1976. Eventually, Penn Central would be nationalized and renamed Conrail, later privatized, and then carved up by two lesser railroads, one of which in an earlier, pre-merger form as the Norfolk & Western Railway, used to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1966, the gleaming Pennsylvania Railroad equipment doesn’t particularly shout out “discernment” or “verve,” but certainly proclaims “sturdy, predictable, and sedate.”
While the original heavyweight passenger car Broadway Limited of 1912 was considered to be the height of luxury in its all-Pullman sleeping car consist, the 1938 upgrading of the Broadway to lightweight streamlined equipment designed by the famous Raymond Loewy set a standard for chic passenger rail travel.
The post-war 1948 (and last) upgrading of the Broadway Limited is what would survive until Amtrak in 1971, and the 1966 photo features Pullman-Standard built equipment, all adorned in the familiar Tuscan Red paint favored by the Pennsylvania management.
By 1966, passenger trains were on a steep downhill slide thanks to the Boeing 707 jet, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, and the proliferation of Holiday Inns and Howard Johnson roadside motels. The former all-Pullman sleeping car Broadway had become a combined coach and sleeping car train, promoting financial practicality over presumed prestige of exclusive trains.
Boarding a Pennsylvania Railroad train in the 1960s, or, indeed, any Pennsylvania Railroad equipment operating on another railroad rarely evoked a heightened sense of adventure, but, rather, more a sense of purpose for many of us. The map of the Pennsylvania Railroad covered no untamed areas, or areas of great escapades. Instead, the Pennsylvania served much of the heartland of the East and Midwest, a sturdy railroad for a sturdy customer base. Coal and heavy industry were the main sources for the Pennsylvania’s money-making freight business, and the passenger side of the Pennsylvania reflected those values of strength and depth versus glitz and glitter.
Anyone who was a regular rider of passenger trains in the days when all of the heating and air systems on the trains were powered by steam coming from the boilers in diesel locomotives knew there was a distinct fragrance of passenger trains. Walking down any station platform – be it in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia or trainside in Lund, Utah, the aroma of the steam heat system was unforgettable – it wasn’t necessarily good or bad, just unforgettable. Onboard the train in Pullman cars, which were essentially sealed metal containers, was always the inimitable scent generated by an air handling system which constantly recycled air mixed with cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke which had been baked into the wall paint, seat upholstery and carpets. It was not the most pleasing olfactory sensation, but it was distinctive, and anyone who rode trains regularly could have been blindfolded, and placed in the middle of the Pullman car, and by the scent alone identified where they were without any other hint.
Dining cars, from a combination of steam tables and stoves fueled by burning coke logs had their own specials aromas, too, which readily mixed with whatever fresh food was being baked, fried, boiled, or steamed for that day’s intercity repast.
Distinct passenger train sounds of the pre-Amtrak era are gone, too. Most mainline tracks are now made of long, continuously welded rail, instead of the old, short, jointed rail, and the accustomed “clickety clack” of train wheels going over the joints in the rail is mostly gone. The constant wailing of a diesel locomotive horn is often missing, too, as more and more cities and towns have imposed “quiet zones” on railroads, not wishing to disturb the slumber of denizens who have purchased homes next to railroad tracks which have been in place for over a century, but still demand railroads conform to their personal serenity at a late date.
In a time of the third decade of the 21st Century, the sights, sounds, and aromas of passenger railroading in the middle of the 20th Century will never be replicated. Diesel locomotives with steam boilers are as ancient as their predecessor steam locomotives, replaced by all-electric systems. Passenger cars filled with recreational smokers are thankfully gone. Even the once de rigueur dress codes of gracious travel have been replaced by new codes demanding too casual alleged comfort. Neckties and cocktail dresses in the dining car for dinner have been replaced by shorts, tee shirts, and sandals — if there is even a dining car on a train.
But, what of the future? The sturdy Pennsylvania Railroad trains may one day be reincarnated by a new generation of travelers unfazed by the glamour of jet airplane travel, and have no idea what the Broadway Limited was – it’s all just history. The next electronics-toting generation may well discover for themselves the efficiencies, appeal, and satisfaction of passenger train travel.
Night trains are making a strong comeback in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The United States, which has just properly and proudly stood up a new branch of its military — the Space Force — may soon rejoin the rest of the world with sturdy and dependable night trains, too.