U.S., Amtrak and others: Night trains once efficiently and successfully moved America; it’s time to do that again

Dedicated Viewliner sleeping car for the Northeast Corridor’s Twilight Shoreliner, the updated version of the Night Owl and before the Federal and then Northeast Regional Train Nos. 65/66/67. The Twilight Shoreliner sleeping car’s windows had exterior tinting advertising the service that allowed outside viewing from the interior of the cars. The Twilight Shoreliner ran from Boston to Newport News, Virginia and had custom class coaches, the Twilight Cafe which served hot meals and was opened all night, a cafe car for coach passengers, the sleeping car and a baggage car. The train operated from 1997 to 2003. Interesting to note is Amtrak managers branded the Twilight Shoreliner as a “luxury train experience.” Those who rode it would agree, compared to other Amtrak offerings east of the Chicago at the time. It was a good and popular service. Internet photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on January 19, 2021. It has been updated and photographs and illustrations have been added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 30, 2022

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner appears to not be in favor of the return in Europe and elsewhere in the world of successful night sleeper trains.

Mr. Gardner seeks to inundate the United States with short corridors running in daylight, ignoring the siren song of night sleeper trains. It appears to many he wishes the national system of long distance/inter-regional trains would roll over a die, just like the dinosaurs it appears he may liken them to in the summer of 2022.

Interior view of Nightjet sleeping car accommodations. Nightjet is a relatively new and successful night sleeper train service introduced by the Austrian Federal Railway OBB. Nightjet publicity photo.

Once staid European operators have had their eyes opened by travelers who seek a better way to travel than fighting crowds and long lines at airports and understand a rolling hotel room at night between major terminals provides a combination of comfort, transportation, amenities and pleasant experience.

Open section Pullman heavyweight sleeping car. Passengers purchasing a lower berth rode facing forward; those with an upper bunk (which was sold at a slightly lower price) rode facing backwards. Museum of the American Railroad photo.

Millennials and younger generations unwittingly discovered what their grandparents and great grandparents already knew: Spending a night on the train in a cozy, comfortable bed while gliding down the tracks is, indeed, a great and refreshing way to travel.

Before post-World War II streamliners were introduced, the Greatest Generation’s road warriors traveled in Pullman comfort and safety, in a wide, open section berth in a Pullman sleeping car that had some combination of sections, bedrooms, and compartments, adding roomettes in later years.

Traveling in a berth in an open section (as hilariously depicted in the 1959 Billy Wilder movie, Some Like It Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis) meant if you had purchased the bottom berth, when the beds were not made you sat facing the direction of the movement of the train, and if you purchased the slightly less expensive upper berth, you sat facing the rear of the train.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in 1959’s Billy Wilder brilliant and funny hit movie Some Like it Hot, walking down a Roaring 20s heavyweight train platform at a Chicago terminal. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Tony Curtis is Josephine and Jack Lemmon is Daphne in 1959’s Some Like it Hot. Daphne is in the upper berth of a Pullman heavyweight sleeper traveling from Chicago to Miami. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The only thing separating sleeping passengers and the rest of the car was heavy curtains which were closed from the inside. Gender-specific restroom facilities were at the end of the car, which also served as a smoking lounge. If you chose to bathe, you bathed in a sink; there were no showers or other bathing facilities.

Jack Lemmon is Daphne and Marilyn Monroe is Sugar in a Pullman heavyweight sleeping car upper berth in 1959’s Some Like it Hot. Until VIA Rail Canada introduced Prestige Service with its bed designed for two, open section berths still found also on the Canadian were the largest beds on regularly scheduled passenger trains. Wikimedia Commons photo.

All train stations were staffed with ticket agents; there were no telephone central reservations facilities (Large cities also had city ticket offices.). Each station was allotted – on paper diagrams – a certain amount of coach seats and Pullman accommodations. If a particular station had sold all of its allotted space, inquiries either by telegraph, teletype or the company’s private telephone system (all of those trackside telephone polls came in handy) to other stations or the railroad’s internal reservations department. When space was sold, the information was transmitted in the same fashion to the railroad’s passenger department for final manifests which ultimately determined equipment and onboard staffing.

An Erie Railroad passenger train smoking up the sky in 1946 at Oxford, New York made up of a string of heavyweight passenger cars. Note the telegraph/telephone polls beside the tracks which were the communications lifeline for a nation. In addition to telegraph wires the poles also hosted two types of telephone wires: one for the private inhouse railroad system company telephones and also for use for a fee by outside telephone companies. Many railroad private telephone company systems remained in place through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Internet photo.

The majority of the road warrior travel was done on night trains, or, as they are referred to today in Europe, sleeper trains.

When members of Congress traveled primarily by train there was a Capitol Hill railroad ticket office. This 1938 photo shows a congressman from Mississippi examining his lengthy ticket while a congresswoman from New Jersey has a shorter ticket for a shorter ride home to New Jersey. The congressman at the ticket window was also from New Jersey. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Toledo Union Station ticket office and staff in 1909. The systems and tools used in this ticket office and the hundreds of similar ticket offices throughout North America would stay the same until the introduction of computers and centralized call centers in the 1970s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A teletype machine with a tape punch. This identical equipment would be found in every railroad, early airline, newspaper, telegraph office and any other business which had to communicate quickly with other locations.The message would be typed on the keyboard and simultaneously “punched” onto the tape and the tape would be fed into the transmission system. This kept things moving as the tape would feed faster than most operators could type. Newspaper wire services used this equipment up through the 1970s. Wikimedia Commons photo.

This was in a time when each mainline route had at least three daily frequencies, if not more. Terminal departures were timed for the convenience of passengers, not the convenience of operating and mechanical crews. Rolling stock inventories were maintained to meet traffic surges; if passenger demand was there, the demand was met instead of turning away large amounts of passengers.

Night trains of the era were a special breed. They often left their originating terminals with a long string of Pullman cars in a certain order in the consist. The consists became very fluid. At certain major station stops, cars would be cut out of the consist during the night, and the slumbering passengers would sleep until a decent hour in the morning while the car was standing on a station house track, and then detrain refreshed and ready for the day’s adventures.

One of the most critical inventions that benefited railroads: the telegraph key which could transmit Morse Code. Once railroads installed telegraph systems every station and location could communicate with each other. This is a “relatively new” J-38 model, used by the United States Army during World War II. The styles may have changed over the decades, but the functions stayed the same, whether it was used during the Civil War, World War II or today by amateur operators.Wikipedia photo.

Since the cars of that era had direct-flush toilets and sinks, buckets would be placed under the cars to keep things tidy and sanitary. Because each car had its own battery power and generators to recharge the long-lasting batteries, shore power was not required for car lights or air conditioning. Head End Power (HEP) would not come to passenger trains for decades until the nearly last night train was gone.

While some cars were cut from the consist, others would be added, traveling from the intermediate station to the end terminal. Passengers would board the car on the station’s house track, go to bed, and wake up when arriving at a down-line station or the terminal.

Circa 1960s Western Pacific Railroad city ticket office in Salt Lake City. Internet photo.

It was all something of a complicated ballet of cars, switchers, car-knockers, and conductors, but it was done every day for decades. And, it was done close to flawlessly by professional railroaders who took pride in their work.

The Baby Boomer’s road warriors traveled in a different way. They drove their Detroit-built, air conditioned automobiles over four-lane interstate highways and patronized Holiday Inns. They grabbed lunch at a roadside McDonald’s fast food outlet and listened to music or talk radio on their AM and FM car radios when they could pick up a signal along the interstate. Some would make use of their 8-Track tape players before they upgraded to cassettes.

1978 AMC Matador dashboard with the latest features including an 8-Track tape player, an AM/FM stereo radio, air conditioning and the de regueur cigarette lighter. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Postcard for the Allentown, Pennsylvania Holiday Inn from 1957. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
It’s twilight in Downey, California at one of the original Golden Arches. This was the third McDonald’s in the chain, built in 1953. It still operates today, but hamburgers are no longer 15 cents. 2007 photo from Wikimedia Commons.

If the Baby Boomers weren’t driving, they were spending time in airports, boarding the latest Boeing 707 or 747 and jetting off to their next meeting. Staring at 6 A.M. on Monday morning, bleary-eyed road warriors would board their plane and start their work week. Starting about 2 P.M. on Friday afternoons, they would begin the migration back home for the weekend before they did it all again next week.

It was in the airports, while navigating security and waiting to board, they refreshed their standing-in-line quietly and orderly skills they first learned in kindergarten and grade school. After the first rash of airline hijackings to Cuba in the 1960s, the road warriors learned waiting skills for passing through quaint, early security measures, then even more intense measures after September 11, 2001.

Kindergarten is where children learn to stand in line and be patient, because one day they will be facing what is below at any major airport. National Association for the Education of Young photo.
Holiday travel crowds at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. NBC News photo from the Internet.

One “semi-night train” still exists, today. Northeast Corridor Trains Nos. 65/67, overnight service from Boston to Newport News, Virginia (Hampton Roads/Norfolk) departs Boston at 9:30 P.M. and arrives in Newport News at 11:15 A.M. Formerly known as the Night Owl (inaugurated 1972), then the Twilight Shoreliner (1997-2003), then the Federal (2003-2004) and now Trains Nos. 65/66/67, the train has all of the characteristics of a night train including coach seating, business class seating, a café car and baggage car. What it does not have that it did at one time is a sleeping car. Passengers are expected to sleep in their coach or business class seats.

Before Amtrak’s Night Owl, Twilight Shoreliner, Federal and now Northeast Regional 65/66/67, there was the Federal Express. That is a Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 beyond the end of Track 16 in the basement baggage room of Washington Union Station on the early morning of January 15, 1953, five days before the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as President of the United States. The joint operation of the New Haven and Pennsylvania Railroads’ Federal Express (decades before the name would be used for other ventures) from Boston to Washington was a runaway train headed down the last couple of miles of the Northeast Corridor into Washington Union Station. Fortunately, an alert Tower K operator notified the station and it was evacuated before the train smashed through the stationmaster’s office and into the basement. Two amazing results of the crash were the GG-1 was cut up and the pieces carted off to the Pennsylvania’s Altoona shops were it was put back together and had another 30 years of operation. The station itself, the very center of all of the crowds coming into Washington for a presidential inauguration, was patched together and fully functioning for the inauguration. The crash is said to have been the inspiration of the crash scene at Chicago Union Station (portrayed by Toronto Union Station) in the 1976 Arthur Hiller film Silver Streak starring Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh and Richard Pryor. Ghosts of DC photo.

At one time, this train also carried the Executive Sleeper, which operated between New York Penn Station and Washington Union Station from 1984 to 1994; at other times it carried the sleeping car the full length of the route such as during the Twilight Shoreliner era. When the Executive Sleeper was used, it was spotted in New York Penn and passengers boarded and went to bed and the car was added to the train sometime during the early morning hours.

The original Executive Sleeper equipment was a 10 roomette, 6 double bedroom Heritage fleet sleeping car. While it was rated for 110 mph running on the Northeast Corridor, the Executive Sleeper was was the rear car on the train because it was detached from the train at New York Penn Station. Because of “back-end sway” at track speed on the NEC there were often perilous moments when rounding a curve that someone sleeping in a bedroom bed at the rear of the car could find themselves pitched violently from side to side.

Platform signage for Amtrak’s Night Owl in the early 1970s. Trains.com Internet photo.

Before the Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner era when there was still influence from the original railroaders who established Amtrak in the beginning, the Twilight Shoreliner was a shining star not only for the Northeast Corridor, but for the entire company. The Twilight Shoreliner could have been described as a “pocket streamliner” with its baggage car, coaches, custom coaches (equivalent to business class), cafe/lounge for coach passengers and a separate cafe/lounge for custom coach and sleeping car passengers, plus its branded Viewliner sleeping car with its special window tinting. The crew was friendly and efficient, the schedule was designed for convenient arrival times at major terminals (such as the padding added at some stations to stretch the schedule to allow for adequate sleeping time in the Viewliner sleeper), and the trip was refreshing. During that period when Amtrak was offering branded amenities kits to all sleeping car passengers, the Twilight Shoreliner had its own unique kit.

The Twilight Shoreliner was a shining example of what conscientious Amtrak managers could offer passengers that was a cut above most service and something that would be a beacon for returning passengers. It was unfortunate the service was withdrawn because of a lack of sufficient Viewliner sleeping cars available for use.

Millennial road warriors have essentially carried on the Baby Boomer traditions, but with the advantages of satellite radio services, smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers.

The 2020 pandemic taught road warriors a new way to travel – the Zoom meeting, where virtual meetings are held without ever leaving the office or home. All you need is a good backdrop, an allegedly quiet room sans barking pets, and some sort of camera attached to the internet and suddenly you have meetings.

MAD Magazine’s longtime mascot, Alfred E. Neumann and his famous quote, What, me worry? Illustration from madmagazine.com, 2012.

People of a certain age (read that to be people with copious amounts of gray hair) will recall that the infamous MAD Magazine (What, me worry?) in the early 1960s created a lengthy spoof article on the futuristic telephone systems which also had a personalized camera attached. The gag was you could fool your boss you were too sick to come to work that day by showing a hospital room in the background or you could fool your customer you worked in a prestigious office when you really worked in a corner of a warehouse.

Millennials say with conviction today that Zoom meetings are not only efficient, but they are economical, and they are the future. No more travel, no more big travel budgets, no more time away from home.

Uh huh.

At some point there will be the reawakening to the fact there is no substitution for seeing someone in person, face-to-face, shaking hands (perhaps, still fist-bumping, but still making human contact), and connecting as people, not as machines making a digital connection.

The modern, pandemic-inspired Zoom meeting where participants are only required to dress appropriately from the waist up. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Millennials will be reawakened to the reality that much more can be accomplished for cementing business relationships – and making sales or major plans – over an unhurried luncheon or business dinner than can be accomplished over a digital connection.

A Rust Craft Publishers 1950 sales meeting in Chicago. How much longer are Zoom meetings going to stand-in for face-to-face contact and interaction? Note the guy in the middle of the second row from the bottom with the plaid vest. He has to be a salesman. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Millennials and following generations are likely to be skeptical about the grueling requirements of taking to the skies again and trudging through airports and airport security. No amount of exclusive airport lounges (which passengers have to purchase the use of ) or “free” tickets earned after hundreds of thousands of miles flown are going to change that skepticism.

Spending all day on a train in a coach or business class seat is also not the answer. There is no privacy for at times necessary solitude, nor any privacy for telephone calls. How many major news stories have broken because some loudmouthed business class traveler on an Acela train on the Northeast Corridor has been saying things out loud not realizing how easily others could hear and the odd national security secret has been unwittingly revealed or some sort of corporate secret suddenly became public knowledge?

The predecessor service of today’s Caledonian Sleeper train service between London and Scotland dates back to 1873. This modern service with a large fleet of new equipment operates daily. Euronews photo.

Hours spent on a train with internet access continues to be more efficient for working than airports and crowded planes are, but daylight hours are still hours that need to be as productive as possible. Time in transit is often time lost instead of time gained.

Nightjet is an overnight sleeper train service offered by Austrian Federal Railways OBB. Nightjet operates in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland. Nightjet publicity photo.

While today’s business class passenger train travel is more convenient than some other choices – especially driving a private vehicle over interstate highways – it is still not the ultimate answer.

What’s old is going to be new again. Night trains will be the answer.

In Europe, Asia and elsewhere, they are already the answer. Night trains there aren’t just for business travelers, they are for all types of travelers who wish to avoid traveling by airliner either for environmental reasons or simply for the greater convenience of passenger train travel.

Typical European night train sleeper private accommodations. Wikivoyage photo.

The form night trains will take in North America is likely to be a hybrid of the mid-20th Century model and more modern needs. There will still be cars cut in and out of consists as trains travel through the night and stop at various major intermediate stations. There will be some express trains which have static consists and only stop at very few intermediate stations. Whatever the model, they will feature primarily sleeping cars, perhaps a single coach for “shorts,” and some type of food service car which offers late night meals and full breakfasts in addition to complete beverage services.

The business model for the new night trains will be part of a larger, overall model which restores multiple frequencies to most routes, enabling all stations to have marketable times for at least one daily frequency. The new model will be based on individual route needs, not “one size fits all” illogical thinking and planning. The new model will be passenger-centric, not cost cutting-centric.

The new business model will completely re-imagine passenger train service. It will take the best from the past – what pleased passengers the most while sanely recognizing the financial implications – and, as railroads did in the past, will invent new ways of comfortable travel.

For too long, passenger train travel has been based on what least amenities can be provided for passengers willing to travel on a system that has been designed to “take it or leave it” with the least possible conveniences for time and choices.

That will change. A new reality will be realistic fares, realistic departures/arrivals/frequencies, and desirable service that beckons passengers to return because they want to, not because they have to. Passenger trains to do not have to be operated by a carrier of last choice run by government bureaucrats. They will be operated by business-savvy railroaders who seek the patronage of their passengers, and simultaneously reward their passengers with the honor of a desirable, pleasant journey worthy of telling friends, neighbors and business associates about how good of an experience was enjoyed.

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