Editor’s Note: This material was originally written in 2019 and updated today.
By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 23, 2021
All of Amtrak’s current long distance network/inter-regional trains have a pre-Amtrak, private railroad heritage. The Silver Meteor and Silver Star are names which survive directly from the pre-Amtrak era, and, even though much of their “home road” route is that of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star rival Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion and Florida Special, they still travel their routes south of Washington, D.C. on the tracks of the successor railroad to the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, first Seaboard Coast Line, then Family Lines, then Seaboard System and finally today’s CSX.
CSX Transportation, the host railroad over which the Meteor and Star operate today between Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida is a relatively new company name. Here briefly is the CSX heritage:
The Seaboard Air Line Railroad was founded was in 1900 after a consolidation of older, shorter railroads. It ran south from Richmond, Virginia to Florida; first the west coast, and later into Miami.
The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, also founded in 1900, was also a consolidation of older, shorter railroads, the first dating back to 1830. It also ran south from Richmond, Virginia into Florida, to the west coast. It’s passenger trains ran down the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville into Miami until 1963, when FEC employees went on strike and attempted to close the railroad.
The Seaboard and Coast Line merged on July 1, 1967, forming Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. Seaboard Coast Line and the Family Lines lasted until 1983 when the Seaboard System Railroad was formed, which included the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad and the Clinchfield Railroad, among other small lines.
Seaboard System and the Chessie System (former Chesapeake & Ohio [C&O] and the Baltimore & Ohio [B&O] and other smaller railroads) merged in 1987 to form the modern day CSX Transportation. In 1999, CSX merged the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (RF&P) into the company.
Originally the Silver Meteor and Silver Star were operated by three railroads by an interline agreement.
The trains were home based at Seaboard’s Hialeah Yard in Miami where all major maintenance took place and the onboard services crews were headquartered.
Northbound, the trains operated over home tracks on the Seaboard, north to Richmond, Virginia, where they became RF&P trains between Richmond and Washington, D.C. At Washington Union Station, the trains became Pennsylvania Railroad trains, operating along the Northeast Corridor into New York Pennsylvania Station. The trains had turn maintenance and restocking performed for the southbound trip at Sunnyside Yard in Queens, which was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Silver Meteor and Silver Star (and, the Silver Comet which served Atlanta and Birmingham) were extraordinary trains in their day when operated by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad. The SAL styled itself as The Route of Courteous Service, and that was true on its passenger trains.
The stainless steel trains had some of the best equipment in the country, and they served a high-maintenance clientele which traveled during the winter season between New York City and Miami. With the exception of the restriction of dome cars on the Northeast Corridor, no classic streamliners anywhere in North America had any nicer equipment or level of service than was found on Seaboard’s Silver Fleet. Today’s Amtrak Silver Service is based on the Seaboard’s Silver Fleet.
The Seaboard had four New York-Florida trains in the post-war era. By the time the Silver Meteor gained its full place on the SAL horizon, the famous Orange Blossom Special, which was a winter seasonal train, was gone, with the Meteor and Silver Star taking its place and operating year round. In addition to the Meteor and Star, there was the Sunland and Palmland, the last two being “all stops local” trains with heavy loads of mail and express.
Southbound, the Star had the early departure from New York Penn at 9:30 a.m. and during off seasons, was often paired with a Pennsylvania Railroad corridor train to Washington before being handed off to the RF&P for the run to Richmond, the northernmost point of the Seaboard.
The Sunland was next, at 11:30 a.m.; it was a New York-West Coast of Florida train into Tampa and points south.
The Silver Meteor departed at 2:50 p.m.; it was not unusual for both the Meteor and Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion to be side by side on a New York Penn platform, with their separate departures but ultimate destinations less than an hour apart.
The Palmland was the latest departure for Florida, at 7:30 p.m.
The train schedules were designed for end-point-to-end-point convenience. Keep in mind that Florida during the SAL era was mostly developed along the coasts, and middle of the Florida peninsula was orange groves, farms, and mosquitos.
While the Silver Meteor was the pride of the Seaboard fleet, the Silver Star was a notable train, too. It did not carry a Pullman Sun Lounge, but carried a five bedroom Pullman lounge. The Star’s dining car offered the identical menu of the Silver Meteor. The Star had coaches on the front end of the train, with a modified round end Tavern observation car for coach passengers mid-train. The Pullman sleeping cars brought up the rear. At Richmond, the “Richmond sleeper” was added to the southbound train, and ran to Miami.
Both the Meteor and Star ran with a standard onboard services crew of a Passenger Services Agent (who wore an airline style hat to distinguish him from the T&E crew, which wore traditional conductor hats), a nurse, one attendant per coach, and one sleeping car attendant per sleeping car. The Pullman lounge attendant worked both the lounge area and the five double bedrooms. In addition to the SAL conductors, there was also a Pullman conductor, responsible for the sleeping car passengers. The Pullman conductor lifted the sleeping car passenger tickets and handled any other issues. The 48 seat dining car had a steward, waiters, and the kitchen chefs, cooks and dishwashers for the railroad-branded china and silver. From a rather shameful past on the Seaboard as many other railroads, too, it was presumed the waiters could not read nor write, and dining car patrons had to write their food order on a table check provided by the steward. Waiters were not allowed to take verbal food orders. The only credit card at the time (later, before Amtrak and before the invention of the VISA and MasterCards) was the Rail Travel Card, so the dining car stewards and lounge attendants handled a lot of cash.
The Star was introduced as a premium companion train to the Silver Meteor. Most railroad employee pass-holders were not allowed to use their company passes on the Meteor and Star.
Typically, both of these train would run from 12 to 15 cars (all steam heat; HEP had not yet been invented), and had high load factors.
The Meteor ran with an all-bedroom Pullman sleeping car that included a drawing room. In the 1960s there were still some celebrities which preferred not to fly, such as Jackie Gleason, who lived in the Miami area. He was a regular patron of the Silver Meteor’s drawing room to New York City, having his meals served to him in his room.
The Star did not quite draw the Hollywood types the Meteor did, but it did draw an upscale patronage in its Pullman sleeping cars.
When the Seaboard and Atlantic Coast Line merged to form Seaboard Coast Line on July 1, 1967, all of the passenger train fleets from both railroads were retained. It wasn’t until the advent of Amtrak on May 1, 1971 that saw a reduction in frequencies. Gone were the Palmland, Sunland, Everglades, Gulf Coast Special, and the locals. Remaining were the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, the Champion, and winter season Florida Special in the early years.
Under Amtrak in the early years, these trains all ran with 18 car consists, and, the Meteor, Star and Champion would operate with two dining cars per consist in order to feed everyone efficiently, plus lounge cars.
These trains remained 18 car consists up until the late 1990s Amtrak introduction of the Viewliner sleeping cars, and an unfortunate Amtrak manager decided to create the “common consist” trains of the Meteor, Star, the added Silver Palm, Lake Shore Limited, and Crescent. The consists rotated between all five trains (which all used New York Penn and Sunnyside yard in Queens) so all of the equipment would cycle through the old Seaboard Hialeah maintenance shops in South Florida, which was the home maintenance base for single level equipment.
As Amtrak passengers entrain the Meteor and Star, they probably are not aware of the long and illustrious heritage of these two former premium trains. Passengers paid a higher fare to ride these trains as compared to the Sunland and Palmland, and expected and received a higher level of service.
There was a reason why these two trains were considered profitable right up to Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971, almost 50 years ago. Both trains had a loyal clientele, it wasn’t unusual for northern snowbirds to use the Meteor and Star year after year for good transportation to escape the winter weather and enjoy warm, sunny Florida.