By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 12, 2023
There are many of us in the passenger train business – actually in the business, not outside observers – who feel North America is entering the first stages of a new 21st Century Golden Age of passenger train travel.
This is based beyond Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada, it includes the entire, broad picture. Some known – and, some still widely unknown – private players are willing to invest their own money and good reputations on the future of passenger train travel.
These new players are doing the most necessary thing first and establishing credible, good relationships with host freight railroads. The days of forced, adversarial business relationships between passenger train operators and host railroads is coming to a close. The reality of the respect of the private property of the freight/host railroads and the right for proper and adequate return on investment for use of their property is now forefront.
As the new systems are being developed, such as Brightline both in Florida and soon coming from Las Vegas to Southern California, a strong emphasis on customer/passenger service is being made, from good, ongoing communications to seeking to make passengers at all times – in the station and onboard the train – as comfortable as possible with their needs as conveniently being met as possible.
It’s a return to passenger-focused travel that some passenger train common carriers and, especially, airlines, abandoned long ago. The concept that travel should be a chore instead of a pleasant experience is both worn-out and outdated. Further, the sad idea that basic or advanced technology “convenience” in various forms can effectively replace human interaction on many levels is an idea which is best moved to the dustbin of history.
You already know the history: Sadly, the Greatest Generation, which wholly and unselfishly saved the world from tyranny is about gone. This was the last generation to go to war riding a train from home to a military base or from a military base to an embarkation point for overseas deployment. Many swore after World War II and then Korea they would never set foot on a train again after experiencing a transcontinental trip on a day coach, and their children, us Baby Boomers, were never exposed to passenger trains because our parents avoided them like the plague. Those in large cities who chose to commute to work on crowded, lumpy seat, non-air conditioned, heavyweight consist commuter trains mostly managed to dislike trains even more.
The introduction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and the Boeing 707 further created less need for riding passenger trains, and the final slap in the face to passenger trains occurred when the Johnson Administration moved Post Office business from trains to planes and trucks, taking away a critical financial underpinning of passenger trains.
The few of the Greatest Generation left aren’t traveling much these days, and Baby Boomers find themselves in their late 60s and 70s and wondering, what ever happened to Beatles music? Baby Boomers also like to travel packed like sardines in jets or on the open road in SUVs, but not necessarily by passenger train.
Which brings us to Millennials and following generations. They don’t know they aren’t supposed to ride passenger trains, so they just do, and unsurprisingly, like and prefer it.
It’s always true that “what’s old is new, again” and the worldwide reintroduction of Night Trains proves the rule.
Ubiquitous retailer Amazon.com has a supply of an important book about Night Trains in the United States. Night Trains: The Pullman System in the Golden Years of American Rail Travel by Peter T. Maiken and first published in January of 1989 is a definitive work of the importance of Night Trains. Those interested in learning the nuts and bolts of sleeping cars and Night Trains find this book indispensable.
Amazon’s online information blurb tells us (based on the 1992 paperback reprint) “Forty years ago, it was the way to travel. Back then, one could climb between crisp linens and soft blankets, adjust the oversized pillows, and watch America speed by in the night. With more than 300 photographs and 50 maps, Night Trains is a lively account of the Pullman enterprise during the golden years of its operation – from 1920 to 1955 – when the remarkable sleeping car system routinely played host to more than 50,000 guests nightly.”
‘The Pullman Company was hosting 50,000 guests NIGHTLY throughout the country, in cities and towns large and small.’
In short, the original passenger railroads operated dozens of Night Trains all over the country. As said in the book blurb above, an intelligent argument can be made that the Pullman Company, which operated nearly all of the sleeping cars in the United States prior its shuttering in 1968 was a top competitor to hotels. In the era created by Henry Flagler and Henry Plant in Florida in the Gilded Age with their early chains of luxury hotels and before Conrad Hilton fully created one of the giant international hotel chains, the Pullman Company was hosting 50,000 guests nightly throughout the country, in cities and towns large and small.
What the world has rediscovered is that well-planned and well-operated Night Trains serve two strong purposes for effective travel: providing reliable, all-weather transportation and a good night’s sleep in a real bed, allowing the passenger to awaken refreshed and ready to go at their desired destination. Even in these days of cautious railroading, a higher percentage of passenger trains routinely depart their originating terminal than jet airplanes depart their airports due to inclement weather.
The added desirability of Night Trains is the ability to detach and attach set-out sleeping cars at stations along the way, allowing sleeping passengers to accrue a full night of sleep when their destination is an intermediate station stop along a Night Train route. This does require a station house track (and, now, also shore power to provide hotel service power to the parked sleeping car), which, in the past, was a common part of a station’s infrastructure.
It’s important to understand different types of trains which may, or may not, be defined solely as a Night Train or a long distance/inter-regional train which also serves part of its route as a Night Train.
The simplicity of a Night Train is that the route endpoints are two major destinations, such as large cities, usually 300 to 500 miles apart. The reason for the route is there is high traffic demand between the two destinations which can support a daily frequency. Icing on the cake are intermediate station stops which add to the desirability of the route, but are not the primary purpose of the route because they are usually called upon at nocturnal times. Those especially rural or small-town intermediate station stops are often better served with daytime passenger train frequencies.
But, as mentioned above, if an intermediate station stop is large enough and has enough traffic demand, then a set-out sleeping car can be designated to operate only between an originating terminal and that intermediate station stop, cut off the train, and left tethered to shore power. On the return trip the next night, the reverse operation happens. Passengers would board the single set-out car at an appropriate time in the evening, go to bed, the car would be picked up by a passing Night Train during the night, and brought back to the originating terminal, thus providing its passengers with a full night of sleep and the convenience of traveling to their destination simultaneously.
Typically, Night Trains depart late evening (after 9 P.M.) and arrive during the breakfast hour. They are trains which mostly operate in darkness.
What consist makes a Night Train appealing? By definition, a Night Train is mostly sleeping cars of various descriptions. In other parts of the world, sleeping compartments can be exclusive or shared, similar to a dormitory arrangement, if you don’t mind sleeping with traveling companions and strangers. In the United States, Night Trains were standard heavyweight and streamlined sleeping cars with open berths, compartments, bedrooms and drawing rooms.
Many Night Trains also carried a long distance coach or two, but not parlor cars, which were designed for, and sold as, upscale, luxury day space.
In a more civilized time which respected the total needs of passengers, many Night Trains also carried food service cars, perhaps lounges with an extended menu or combination lounge and dining cars, offering a more traditional menu of late night and breakfast foods.
By definition, Amtrak has had at least three Night Trains, two on the NEC (with a partial current continuation of one since no sleeping cars run now) and one in California. Wikipedia admirably picks up the narrative:
The Night Owl
“The Night Owl was a passenger train operated by Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts, via New York City. It operated from 1972 to 1995 on an overnight schedule with sleeper service; it was the only such train on the Northeast Corridor. … Amtrak replaced it with the Twilight Shoreliner in 1997.
“At first Amtrak did not feature overnight service on the Northeast Corridor. … Amtrak restored overnight service on June 6, 1972. The new train was named the Night Owl (numbered 168/169) and carried coaches, sleeping cars, and a buffet-lounge-sleeper. The southbound Night Owl departed Boston’s South Station at 10 P.M. and arrived in Washington’s Union Station at 8:30 A.M. The northbound train departed Washington at 10:30 P.M. and arrived in Boston at 8:25 A.M.
“In early 1977 Amtrak upgraded the Night Owl with Amfleet coaches and an Amfleet dinette. …
“Between April–October in 1992 Amtrak operated a section of the eastbound Night Owl via the so-called ‘Inland Route’. At New Haven, cars separated and operated via Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, into Boston. … Amtrak permitted smoking aboard the Night Owl until 1994.
“In October 1984 Amtrak revived the concept of the ‘set-out sleeper’, last seen on the Northeast Corridor in 1970. Amtrak parked a sleeping car at Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Ticketed southbound passengers were permitted to board beginning at 9:30 P.M. The car was attached to the southbound Night Owl, which had a scheduled departure time from New York of 3:50 A.M. Conversely, the northbound Night Owl dropped a sleeping car in New York at a similarly early hour, but passengers could remain aboard until 8:00 A.M. This service made the Night Owl a real option for business travelers between New York and Washington. Amtrak termed this service Executive Sleeper, although New York Executive and Washington Executive were also employed. Amtrak ended the service on August 19, 1994, because of equipment shortages.
“…The Night Owl made its last run on July 10, 1997. Losses were high and its equipment was outdated. Amtrak relaunched the service as the Twilight Shoreliner. The train carried Viewliner sleeping cars, replacing Heritage Fleet equipment, and a first class-only lounge called the ‘Twilight Lounge’. The train’s southern terminus was extended from Washington to Newport News, Virginia. Dave Nogar, then Amtrak’s general manager for NortheastDirect services, reflected that ‘Anyone who rode the Night Owl knows it was a rather unique experience. Now we have a deluxe overnight train.’
The Twilight Shoreliner
“The Twilight Shoreliner was a passenger train operated by Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor between Boston, Massachusetts, and Newport News, Virginia, via New York City and Washington, D.C. Amtrak introduced it in 1997 to replace the Night Owl. It was discontinued in 2003 in favor of the Federal.
“The Twilight Shoreliner replaced the Night Owl as Amtrak’s dedicated overnight service on the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak equipped the train with a Viewliner sleeping car, replacing the Heritage Fleet equipment used by the Night Owl. The new train also featured a Custom-class coach and the specially-branded ‘Twilight Café,’ which served hot meals and was restricted to sleeper- and custom-class passengers. Finally, Amtrak extended the southern terminus from Washington, D.C., to Newport News, Virginia, and moved the departure time from Boston from 10 P.M. to 8 P.M. …
“Amtrak launched the Twilight Shoreliner on July 10, 1997. The cover of its Summer 1997 Northeast timetable called the train ‘An Unexpected Departure from the Northeast’; a full-page inset touted the many amenities available, including showers and in-room first-run movies for sleeping car passengers and the two café cars. By October, ridership was up 28%.
Amtrak discontinued the Twilight Shoreliner on April 28, 2003, replacing it with the Federal, which ran from Boston to Washington, D.C. Ridership from Newport News had declined in 2002–2003, and eliminating the Virginian portion of the route Amtrak could offer a better schedule to travelers on the Northeast Corridor. … Amtrak re-extended overnight trains 66 and 67 (now part of the Northeast Regional brand) to Newport News on November 1, 2004; however, they do not include the sleeping car and lounge car.
“Private sleeping rooms were restored to the unnamed overnight Northeast Regional trains 65/66/67 on April 5, 2021. The trains were temporarily discontinued in January 2022. On July 11, 2022, Amtrak resumed the trains without sleeper service and shifted the southern terminus of numbers 66/67 from Newport News to Roanoke, Virginia. They were temporarily cancelled north of New York City effective April 4, 2023, due to Penn Station Access construction.
“The Twilight Shoreliner operated with a mix of Heritage, Amfleet, and Viewliner equipment. A Heritage Fleet baggage car handled checked baggage for passengers and, beginning in 2001, bicycles. The train carried a Viewliner sleeping car except for a brief period in 2002 when Amtrak had to withdraw it because of equipment shortages elsewhere. The train carried four Amfleet coaches, two of which were configured for ‘Custom Class’ seating. The train featured a first class-only lounge car, the ‘Twilight Lounge’, for sleeper and Custom Class passengers. A second standard café car served regular coach passengers.”
Spirit of California
“The Spirit of California was a passenger train operated by Amtrak between Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. It operated from 1981 to 1983 with financial support from the State of California. It was the first overnight service between the two cities since the Southern Pacific Railroad discontinued the Lark in 1968 and one of few state-supported Amtrak trains with sleeper service. The train used the Southern Pacific’s Coast Line, complementing the Coast Starlight which served the route on a daytime schedule.
“The last overnight service on the Southern Pacific’s Coast Line was the Lark, which ended on April 8, 1968. During the 1970s Amtrak operated the Coast Starlight, which departed Los Angeles every morning for Seattle, Washington. The southbound Coast Starlight arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the morning and in Los Angeles by dinnertime, and at the time did not serve Sacramento, the state capital.
“The new train departed Los Angeles at 8:25 P.M., arriving in Sacramento at 9:30 A.M. the next morning. The southbound train departed at 7:55 P.M. and arrived at 9:00 A.M. the next day. The California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, budgeted $1.7 million towards the train’s first year of operation and expected 160,000 passengers the first year, rising to 300,000 in five years. The train carried coaches, a café, and two sleeping cars. Service began on October 25, 1981. …
“Governor George Deukmejian cut funding for the train after taking office in January 1983. The train’s supporters scrambled to find additional funding. … The Spirit of California was discontinued in 1983, running for the final time on the night of September 30–October 1, 1983.
“The Spirit of California’s usual consist was:
- EMD F40PH diesel locomotive
- Heritage baggage car
- Heritage sleeper
- Heritage sleeper
- Amfleet I café
- Amfleet I coach (60-seat)
- Amfleet I coach (60-seat)”
Just barely outside of the traditional definition of a Night Train is Amtrak’s westbound Capitol Limited, Amtrak’s shortest overnight long distance/inter-regional route, originating in Washington, D.C. and terminating in Chicago. The Capitol departs Washington at 4:05 P.M., (the cocktail hour for the lounge car in more traditional times) and arrives Chicago Union Station at 8:45 A.M. In the opposite direction, the Chicago departure is 6:40 P.M. with Washington Union Station arrival at 1:40 P.M., which for this segment, does not qualify as a traditional Night Train.
Perhaps the two “ultimate” Night Trains were arch rival New York Central System’s 20th Century Limited and Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited.
Both the 20th Century and the Broadway departed New York City late afternoon and arrived in Chicago at the breakfast hour. Both were all-Pullman sleeping car trains with plush lounge cars and dining cars serving meals just breathlessly short of fine dining. Departing and arriving at different terminals in New York City and Chicago, the fares, amenities and schedules for the two rivals were comparable. The difference was about the same as choosing between a Cadillac and a Lincoln; both were good choices, it was just a matter of taste and loyalty. The Pennsylvania route was more mountainous and the New York Central boasted their trains traveled “The Water Level Route – you can sleep.”
Both trains were also limited intermediate station stop trains which contributed to their fast schedules. The 20th Century Limited and Broadway Limited were more than luxury passenger trains offering an ultimate travel experience; they were also public points of corporate pride that spilled over into everything the two railroads did, from building temples for stations to hauling box cars and long trains of coal on the freight side. When you thought of New York Central, you thought of the 20th Century Limited and when you thought of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line, you thought of the Broadway Limited. It did not hurt that the 20th Century Limited originated in Grand Central Terminal in New York City and the Broadway Limited originated in the equally majestic Pennsylvania Station in New York. In Chicago, the New York Central called LaSalle Street Station home and the Pennsylvania was ensconced in Union Station.
The reality was, both trains lavishly served a clientele that would otherwise be spending the night in one of the better hotels of their terminal cities, and the service provided on their trains by Pullman Company onboard service staffs was equivalent in terms of comfort, meals, and social amenities to any upscale hotel of the period. The only difference was the natural difficulty of taking an after-dinner stroll in the fresh air.
In today’s modern Amtrak world, some long distance/inter-regional train route segments with sleeping cars serve the purpose of Night Trains. Some daily train examples include:
- The southbound Silver Meteor works well as a Night Train between Richmond, Virginia and Jacksonville, Florida. The northbound Silver Star serves the same purpose between Jacksonville and Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Both directions of the Lake Shore Limited between Buffalo, New York and Chicago.
- The City of New Orleans in both directions between Memphis, Tennessee and Chicago.
- Both directions of the Empire Builder between St. Paul Union Depot and Minot, North Dakota.
- Both directions of the California Zephyr between Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, plus westbound between Salt Lake City and Reno.
- Both directions of the Southwest Chief between Kansas City and La Junta, Colorado and westbound between Flagstaff, Arizona and Los Angeles Union Station.
- The westbound Texas Eagle between St. Louis and Longview, Texas.
- Both directions of the Coast Starlight between San Jose, California and Klamath Falls, Oregon.
There is no mistake the worldwide re-emergence of Night Trains as traditionally defined is becoming more prevalent every day.
The question of the moment is, who is going to get there first in the United States? Will Amtrak expand its near-future plans to include new Night Trains as complementary services to its Amtrak Connects US aspirations? Will private operators, following in the prodigious footsteps of Brightline correctly identify the dozens of potential Night Train routes and start new service?
Some skeptics (because they are – and, will always be – with us) will attempt to point out there is no equipment currently available to create new Night Train routes. There is also no equipment currently available to commence the Amtrak Connects US routes, either.
It’s going to take a commitment to think big about Night Trains by creating a workable business plan that includes equipment procurement plus route expansion. There will also be a need to consider station facilities which may work well for set-out sleeping cars that will require shore power. The problem of yesteryear direct-dump to the tracks onboard toilets has been solved for decades by individual car retention tanks. Set-out sleeping cars can also be handled by onboard train and engine crews without a need for local car-knockers.
Things are beginning to brew. Now is the time to make workable plans. As Daniel Burnham, the celebrated architect of Washington Union Station and Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Union Station which served the Broadway Limited said, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood!” Well said, Mr. Burnham.