U.S., Amtrak: Silver Meteor history that doomed much of the Heritage Fleet; ‘Kindly flush toilet after each use except when train is standing in station’

Amtrak’s Silver Meteor in DeLeon Springs, Florida in 1981. DeLeon Springs in Florida’s Volusia County is not far from the infamous “trestle incident” site on the St. Johns River which substantially helped doom much of the Budd-built Heritage Fleet and hurried the need for the introduction of the Viewliner I sleeping cars. Internet photo.

Editor’s Note: This article was written in early 2019 and first displayed on this platform on January 13, 2021. It has been updated with photos added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; June 20, 2022

Internet photo.

“Kindly flush toilet after each use except when train is standing in station.”

This sign used to be posted above every toilet on every passenger train car in North America, including in the early years of Amtrak.

It was the Silver Meteor which changed everything, and doomed many cars in Amtrak’s Heritage Fleet to be scrapped because it was too expensive to refit them with new toilet flushing systems and waste retention tanks.

A typical 10/6 sleeping car, inherited by Amtrak from railroads when the company was formed. All of the 17 toilets in this car were designed to be direct-dump-on-the-tracks facilities and had no wastewater retention systems. Internet photo.

Originally, all toilets and sinks on passenger trains were direct-dump-onto-the-tracks. When you flushed a toilet, you could hear the movement of the train coming from the tracks below. While by modern day standards this was unsanitary and unpleasant, 45 years ago this was normal. The train of thought was nobody should be walking on the tracks in the first place, and, when whatever hit the tracks as the train was moving at high speed would disperse easily upon impact. Beyond that, Mother Nature would take care of things with the next rain. In a Heritage Fleet coach, there may have been a total of five or six toilets. In a Heritage Fleet 10 roomette, six double bedroom car, a total of 17 toilets.

Internet image.

This method of waste disposal had been going on since the first rest facilities were installed on the first passenger train cars.

When a train was standing still in a station, the waste simply plopped onto the tracks next to the platform, and either would splash onto an unsuspected passenger or crew member on the platform, or would disgustingly stay on the tracks until it was somehow washed away. Thus, the sign, politely imploring a recently relieved passenger to wait until the train was moving to flush.

The former Seaboard Coast Line coach yard in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1977. In the 1970s and 1980s Amtrak operated multiple trains into Florida resulting in huge equipment requirements for yards in St. Petersburg and Hialeah/Miami. Internet photo.

The Pullman Company regularly scheduled sleeping cars to be set out from trains at various stations all along a route from a night train, and occupancy by passengers was usually allowed until 8 a.m. the next morning. When this happened, metal buckets were attached under the cars to catch waste from sinks and toilets and then emptied by an unfortunate junior car knocker or other worker. The same was true for railroad business cars; buckets under the cars when they were spotted in a station for its traveling official and staff to use as an office or sleeping quarters while on business in a given location.

The Budd-built Slumbercoaches were very popular on the Florida trains. One design had 24 single rooms and eight double rooms and the other design had 16 single rooms and 10 double rooms. Each separate room had a sink and toilet. The elimination of direct-dump toilets marked the end of the always-busy Slumbercoaches on Amtrak.

One fine Florida day in the 1980s, Amtrak’s Silver Meteor was headed southbound, somewhere between Palatka in Putnam County and DeLand in Volusia County, and crossing over a trestle above the St. Johns River. It happened some innocent fishermen were in a boat, directly beneath the train trestle. Just at the exact moment as a toilet in a passenger train car was above the fishermen in their boat, the toilet was flushed by either a passenger or a crew member. The end result was a more generous application of waste upon the unlucky fishermen in the boat than when a pigeon flying overhead in a city happens to relieve itself on an unsuspecting pedestrian.

A Slumbercoach single room with toilet displayed. The rooms, beds and windows were all small. “Cozy” was a generous description. Internet photo.

The anointed fishermen were neither amused or pleased, and complained to their local authorities that they had been accosted by a passing Silver Meteor.

An enclosed lavatory of a 10/6 sleeping car bedroom. Mirror above the pull-down sink and toilet below the sink with trash receptacle shown with a plastic bag. Internet photo.

Local authorities and those above their official status were all aghast that in these modern times in the 1980s such a vile event could occur. Action was taken, a ruckus ensued, and Amtrak ended up in court. The fishermen prevailed judicially.

The immediate result was when traveling over this specific spot of the St. Johns River, public onboard announcements were made, Amtrak restrooms were locked by crew members, and sleeping car passengers were entreated to refrain from relieving themselves while on the train trestle.

The long term result was a systemwide change for all Amtrak equipment. Direct dump sinks and toilets were passe, and new plumbing was installed on all cars, which included retention tanks. Thus, an entire new industry was created: Honeywagon vendors suddenly had Amtrak as a new customer in coach yards, profitably emptying out the retention tanks. A new headache was also created for Amtrak management: Making sure cleaning and maintenance crews were diligent in remembering to empty the retention tanks. Once the tanks are full, the entire waste system shuts down, and toilets will not operate.

A roomette toilet from a 10/6 sleeping car. The top folded down over the direct-dump toilet and at night the Murphy bed folded down over the top of the toilet. Internet photo.

By this time Superliner I consists were beginning to arrive on western long distance/inter-regional route and the need to replace the single level Heritage Fleet sleeping cars led to the order of the Viewliner I sleeping cars. The first Viewliner sleeping cars would enter service in 1988.

Because the modern waste systems in Amfleet, Viewliner and Superliner cars are vacuum operated systems, when the hotel power from the locomotive (Head End Power; HEP) shuts down, so do the toilets. So, if there is a power crisis resulting from a malfunctioning locomotive, the cascading effect is no lights, no air conditioning or heating, and no toilets on the train.

Credible inquiries about modifying these vacuum systems with emergency battery systems in cars so toilets would flush and water would flow in sinks has revealed that the way the overall system is designed would not allow the systems to work without both power and compressed air from the locomotive.

The fold down sink bowl used in both enclosed bedroom lavatories and roomettes. When the sink was folded back up into the wall the bowel automatically emptied. The same sink design was used on U.S. Navy submarines. Internet photo.

For every news story you read or lament heard from a passenger on a stalled train about toilets not working and overflowing by desperate, stranded passengers, you can thank those unfortunate fishermen on the St. Johns River under a train trestle on a nice Florida day, somewhere between Palatka and DeLand and the southbound Silver Meteor passing by at just the right critical moment.

One other change has also occurred by the removal of the dump toilets. Before the retention systems, it was not unusual for a crew member or occasional passenger to open the top of a Dutch door in a vestibule and lean into the wind as the train moved along. Occasionally, there would be a refreshing spray of moisture hitting the crew member or passenger in the face. Most thought nothing of it; no telling where the refreshing spray of moisture came from. More informed crew members or passengers eventually figured it out; that refreshing moisture was the direct result of a flushed toilet or emptied sink bowl. One had to fervently hope it was from a dumped sink, not a dumped toilet. With retention tanks, those refreshing sprays of moisture no longer mysteriously occur.

A typical 1977 Heritage Fleet Silver Meteor consist at Amtrak’s first Miami passenger station which was originally built by Seaboard Air Line Railroad during the Florida Land Boom in the 1920s. Internet photo.
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