By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 16, 2021
Train Number 58, the original northbound Silver Meteor was dwelling longer than usual in the Columbia, South Carolina station in the mid 1960s. Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s flagship train had a malfunctioning dining car, and local Seaboard mechanical forces – electricians – were trying to figure out what was wrong.
When the Silver Meteor departed its home maintenance and crew base of Miami earlier that morning everything was fine. The train had its usual consist including the famed Pullman Sun Lounge for Pullman sleeping car passengers, a sleeper with drawing rooms, the round-end observation lounge car with the Silver Meteor drumhead for coach passengers, and an assortment of other sleeping cars and coaches, plus a combination crew dorm/baggage car.
Somewhere up the line after the luncheon service the lights in the dining car started failing; the neon bulbs running the length of the dining area on both side of the car were flickering. While some dim light was available, it was a less than herculean effort. The Seaboard conductor had notified the company of the problem – most likely a station agent had been informed and he notified the proper maintenance authority – and the electricians met the train at Columbia.
The kitchen, while darker because of the lack of full light, was still mostly functioning because cooking was done by coke log-fueled stoves.
While electricians were working diligently to solve the problem a passenger was berating the splendidly-attired and overly-patient dining car steward because of the light problem.
The passenger was a man – it’s impossible to describe him as a gentleman in this circumstance – who obviously believed he should never be inconvenienced under any circumstance, and he was demanding action in a forceful voice. “I am a regular rider on the Seaboard and you need to do something immediately. Why can’t you just substitute a working dining car for this one and we can be on our way?”
One can only presume he believed the Seaboard – or any other railroad – kept fully stocked and spare dining cars at regular intervals along the route just in case of a problem so this passenger would not be inconvenienced and have to eat his meal under a flickering light.
After not a very long period of time the electricians solved whatever system problem there was, lighting was restored, and the Meteor continued its now-tardy northward journey.
Passenger railroading is a complicated business with hundreds of moving parts which all have to interact nearly perfectly together to provide a good passenger experience. In this instance, Columbia, South Carolina, while a major stop, was never a terminal or endpoint stop; only a station in a state capital. But, it was large enough the railroad had available maintenance forces to address a problem on a passing streamliner.
Railroads which jointly operated through-trains on a route which encompassed more than one railroad company often pooled their resources when purchasing equipment for routes.
For the Seaboard’s Florida trains – which over half a century later have morphed into Amtrak’s two daily Florida trains (Auto Train was an independent company which leased track from host railroads) – the Silver Meteor and Silver Star had unique equipment pools purchased by the Seaboard and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. The full route from Miami to Washington to New York City also included the Pennsylvania Railroad north of Washington, D.C., but the Pennsylvania did not participate in the equipment pool.
The Pullman Company operated the Pullman sleeping car lounges and sleeping cars and the Seaboard operated the coaches and dining cars. The RF&P and Pennsylvania only provided train and engine crews, not onboard services crews, which were all Pullman and Seaboard crews.
Pullman sleeping cars were interchangeable with most other railroad routes; always some sort of combination of bedrooms, compartment and roomettes and the occasional sleeping car with open sections which were operated on Seaboard’s Tidewater service.
Coaches were coaches; some with different interior configurations, but always the same number of revenue seats. The same was true of dining cars; usually 48 seats in the dining area and fairly standard kitchen layouts.
Round-end observation cars, if not full lounges, were a combination of coach and lounge car.
Because of the “streamliner standardization” of cars with set numbers of seats and accommodations, at foreign endpoint terminals cars could be switched out for a similar car from another railroad if bad-ordered. This also made it possible when the Seaboard merged with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1967 that cars from either railroad could be assigned to any other route the merged Seaboard Coast Line operated. The only truly unique cars were Seaboard’s Pullman Sun Lounges which had been built specifically for the Silver Meteor; just three were built (Only one – Hollywood Beach – survives today). No protect cars were ordered; if a Sun Lounge had to be pulled from a consist for any reason, a more standardized Pullman bedroom/lounge car was substituted for that run.
Cars were ordered to populate trains for their normal runs. All of the Seaboard and Coast Line trains had one-night-out schedules, so it required three trainsets to operate a given, named route.
In the streamliner era the private railroads maintained large fleets of older heavyweight equipment for use on secondary trains, as backup/protect equipment, and for special movements such as seasonal football trains. This equipment had already long-before been paid for and the associated maintenance was small.
With the advent of Amtrak and so many trains/routes disappearing on Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971 even though most of the heavyweight equipment had gone to the scrappers, been sold to Mexico or other ways of disposal, Amtrak found itself in a similar situation with a large inventory of streamlined equipment; much more than it needed to operate its skeletal system.
Much of the carbon-steel, non-stainless-steel equipment was in bad shape, rusting from the inside. Everything was steam-heat equipment (this was before head-end power) and far too much of it had not been properly maintained by the private railroads as they knew they were about to lose their passenger train ownership responsibilities soon.
Because much of this equipment was questionable for daily service Amtrak maintained a large fleet of protect equipment, at some points as high as a 25% ratio. As the fleet was pared down and the Budd stainless-steel equipment was converted to head-end power, the protect fleet ratio was lowered, but because of Amtrak’s various maintenance practices, a 10% or higher ratio of equipment has been maintained.
Even 10% has translated to dozens of critical cars sitting in the weeds waiting to be called up in an emergency. Every car held in the protect fleet has been one less car available to earn revenue in daily service.
The cost of a single dining car today – single level or Superliner – is about equivalent to what the Seaboard paid for entire trainsets in the early streamliner days.
New passenger cars are not cheap; the most expensive car is always a dining car; the least expensive car is a baggage car. As we have seen with Amtrak in the past months, fleet replacements run into the billions of dollars when outright purchased.
Because Amtrak is always spending free federal monies for equipment purchases, it rarely considers what airlines and other major carriers do: lease equipment. Leasing equipment can save huge amounts of upfront money and provide great flexibility.
For unknown reasons this summer of 2021 Amtrak seems to have great difficulty fielding Superliner Sightseer lounge cars on overnight trains. These highly popular cars – which provide high revenues from the sale of casual food and beverage – seem like logical cars to have in abundance. But, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Social media posts indicate on train after train using Superliner equipment the Sightseer lounge cars are full of passengers through most of the daylight hours with certain passengers employing strategies to secure seats in the car and other passengers admonishing fellow passengers to not set up camp in the lounge cars so other passengers can also enjoy use of the cars.
Part of the overcrowding lounge car problem is there is but a single lounge car per trainset for both sleeping car and coach passengers. Since Amtrak trains are often considered to be a mostly “amenity free” experience, lounge cars provide the single relief for coach passengers to be away from their reserved coach seats. Sleeping car passengers have use of the dining car – denied to coach passengers – but are unable to spend long periods of time in the diner because of meal periods.
Considering there are always going to be maintenance car mile/car day costs, adding more cars for some type of lounge use is desirable.
In the past on the Sunset Limited when groups were booked from California to New Orleans as part of a cruise package a non-working diner was added to the consist for the use of the cruise groups which were booked in sleeping car space. The tables in the non-crewed, unused dining car provided plenty of opportunities for various lounge activities and extra space.
Another option is the addition of a coach in the consist next to the lounge car to be designated as additional lounge space. Seats can be turned into facing pairs of four seats for enhanced conversation or general fellowship. Again, this is non-crewed, non-revenue “spread out” space. (The number of “revenue” cars which are cars where space is sold for occupancy such as coach seats and sleeping car accommodations determines by union contract the number of assistance conductors required per consist.)
In recent modern times the former Pacific Parlour Car used on the Coast Starlight was the near-perfect lounge area for sleeping car passengers. The food service component of the car helped with an overcrowded dining car and also enjoyed high revenue alcohol sales. The car did have an attendant which created enough income that both covered salaries and food service costs. The popularity and cache of the car was enough that it drew sleeping car riders to the train and more than made up for any car mile/car day maintenance costs.
Amtrak is currently charging sleeping car fares which outstrip airline business class and many first class fares. While the linens and bed covering upgrades in the sleeping cars are an improvement, they come nowhere close to the justification for sleeping car fares, especially with overall lack of other amenities.
For Amtrak to sustain new ridership on the western transcontinental inter-regional trains there must be a better product provided to justify the high costs.
Extra lounge car space is a beginning. It’s tough to spend a lot of money and then realize anywhere to choose to be on the train your personal space is about the size of a small closet with few choices for moving around.