U.S.: Several years in the future, Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak Cardinal is retired and Cincinnati becomes a major hub again – as it should be

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on April 21, 2021. It has been revised and updated with additional information and photographs. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; June 3, 2022

It’s several years in the future. The former Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s premier train, the daily George Washington is back in service. The C&O styled itself as “George Washington’s Railroad” because as a young surveyor long before he helped found our country he helped lay out the route for the Kanawha Canal. The canal eventually evolved over time into a railroad which in turn eventually evolved into the C&O which further evolved into one of the primary routes of today’s CSX Transportation. (The “C” in CSX stands for the Chessie System, which itself was a modern take on the C&O name.)

Left to right, Internet photo, Wikipedia photo, provided photo
C&O’s longtime logo. Internet image.

One of Amtrak President and CEO Stephen Gardner’s two saddest trains but with the incredibly unrecognized potential of a blockbuster route, the tri-weekly Cardinal – no need to speculate on the other one, it’s the Sunset Limited – has been retired. The heart of the original route of the George Washington deserves a premium train, not the shadow of a train like the Cardinal. It is ironic that one of the country’s most scenic and historic routes has been virtually ignored by Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak and considered a “second class citizen” in the Amtrak world. Few amenities, short consists which are frequently sold out and poor scheduling are hallmarks of the Cardinal. Summer or winter, the natural beauty of the scenery along the route through the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and then into Kentucky is breathtaking.

Cincinnati has been restored as the major hub it always was in the past. The magnificent Cincinnati Union Terminal is once again seeing enough passenger service to regain its crown as the gateway to the Midwest. (Wikipedia has an extensive article about Cincinnati Union Terminal and numerous photos. See the connecting link at the end of this article.)

The outstanding Cincinnati Union Terminal. A restoration was completed in 2018. Wikipedia photo.
Main rotunda, Cincinnati Union Terminal. Wikipedia photo.
The main business today of the Cincinnati Union Terminal is as a museum. Amtrak has a small station included in the terminal/museum complex which hosts the Cardinal. Wikipedia photo.
A contemporary aerial photo of the Cincinnati Union Terminal/museum complex. Note the terminal today is served by just two tracks. Wikipedia photo.
Historic aerial photo of Cincinnati Union Terminal with all of its passenger concourse, platforms and station tracks intact. Wikipedia photo.
Cincinnati Union Terminal’s busy rotunda area as used today for museum purposes. Wikipedia photo.
Today’s Amtrak waiting room at Cincinnati Union Terminal. This was once the Gentleman’s Lounge. Note the quaint telephone booths still in place. Wikipedia photo.
Both the C&O and Louisville & Nashville had major service at Cincinnati Union Terminal, as well as the New York Central. Internet photo.

The route of the newly restored George Washington is Washington, D.C. to St. Paul/Minneapolis via Cincinnati and Chicago. A new, overnight train originating in Cincinnati goes to Washington, up the Northeast Corridor, and terminates in Montreal, Quebec. Another new train, also originating in Cincinnati, travels to Indianapolis, stops in Chicago and continues on to St. Paul/Minneapolis. Other trains radiating from the Cincinnati hub travel to Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit as well as Louisville and Nashville. One train originates in Cincinnati and terminates in Newport News/Hampton Roads, Virginia via Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg.

Circa 1960s, the Newport News section of the George Washington at Richmond, Virginia’s historic Main Street Station. The station was built jointly by the C&O and Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Today, both successors to the C&O and Seaboard form the core of CSX Transportation. Internet photo.
Today, Main Street Station has been lovingly restored and is again a train station, serving Amtrak Northeast Corridor Regional trains as well as a special events venue. Above, an NEC train pauses on the same tracks as predecessor George Washington before proceeding to Colonial Williamsburg and Newport News in Hampton Roads (which includes Norfolk, but Norfolk’s Amtrak station is reached via a different route over former Norfolk & Western Railroad tracks). Twitter photo from Main Street Station.

To visualize the new George Washingtonwhich has primarily been designed so the train itself is a destination – because of the compelling scenery along the route in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, think of the consist of VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian.

This is a train which provides some transportation, but is structured to be a large cash generator with high fares which provides financial support for more traditional service trains. The concept is multiple trains each contribute to a fleet in their own way, be it cash generation, basic and convenient transportation, or fill the growing need for overnight sleeper train service between major terminals.

A typical George Washington consist would be a baggage car, a “shorts” coach for travelers traveling less than 100 miles, a first class coach designed along the lines of airline business class individual passenger pods (the car will also feature shower facilities), a parlor car for day travel only, a dome lounge car, a dining car open continuously from 75 minutes prior to departure to arrival at the end terminal, a combination of five sleeping cars (drawing rooms, compartments, bedrooms and one car with bedrooms and roomettes), a dome lounge car and a round-end sleeping/dome observation car similar to VIA’s Canadian Park cars and/or the former California Zephyr sleeper/dome observation cars.

The new George Washington will have nine revenue cars (including one serving as a combination lounge/sleeping car), three dining/lounge cars and a baggage car for a 13 car consist.

The schedule for the train, designed for maximum scenery in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky has an 8 a.m. departure from Washington Union Station as well as daylight service to Clifton Forge, Virginia, the station serving the famed Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the station serving the luxury resort The Greenbrier.

The Greenbrier Hotel & Resort, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Greenbrier publicity photo.
Clock Lounge, The Greenbrier. Greenbrier publicity photo.

As with C&O premium trains of the past, the new George Washington will do a brisk business moving passengers to and from these two remote luxury vacation properties as both will partner with the railroad to include upscale passenger train transportation as part of their complete guest packages. There will be a much-needed throwback to “the vacation begins when passengers board the train” versus “the vacation begins after you leave the trials of the airport.”

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice are passengers on the new George Washington, boarding at Washington Union Station. Bob and Carol live in the Washington area and Ted and Alice live in Baltimore. Ted and Alice chose to take an early morning NEC train to Washington, arriving in time for the George Washington’s departure.

Sunset at the Omni Homestead Resort, Hot Springs, Virginia. Publicity photo from Omni.
Omni Homestead Resort Great Hall. Publicity photo from Omni.

Bob and Carol have invited their neighbors to dine with them for breakfast on the train prior to departure. Boarding for the train begins at 6:45 a.m. and the dining car opens for passengers and their guests at the same time. Bob and Carol and their guests will enjoy a full American breakfast – preceded by Mimosas or Bloody Marys – cooked to order and be drinking the last cup of coffee in time for their guests to detrain prior to departure.

Circa 1960s, the Chicago-bound George Washington makes its second stop in Charlottesville, at Union Station, a facility it shared with the Southern Railway. The Washington and Newport News sections of the George Washington were joined in Charlottesville, at the C&O’s Main Street Station, a mile east of this location. Internet photo.
Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak Cardinal in Charlottesville, Virginia, pausing at the former Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern) station in Charlottesville. Both the former Southern and C&O stations were close to each other as shown when comparing these two photographs. The current Amtrak station for the Cardinal, daily Crescent and daily NEC regional trains is housed in the former REA Express building of the Southern Railway station complex. When the station was renovated in the late 1990s it was considered adequate for current traffic. Today, the station is overcrowded and congested because of the popularity of Commonwealth of Virginia-sponsored regional trains connected to the NEC as well as the Cardinal and Crescent. Internet photo.

Bob and Carol are traveling in a drawing room as both wanted a lower berth. In the next car back, Ted and Alice have boarded and settled in their compartment before moving to the sleeping car dome lounge where a buffet continental breakfast with a fresh fruit assortment has been laid out for all sleeping car passengers. Bob and Carol join Ted and Alice in the dome lounge and remain there through an on-time departure, crossing the new Long Bridge and rolling into the graceful and scenic Virginia countryside.

C&O’s The Sportsman at picturesque Crozet, Virginia. A companion train to the George Washington, The Sportsman carried heavy front-end mail and express business. Internet photo.

Dome seating is a combination of single swivel seats and side-by-side seating for two. The dome lounge has two attendants; one attendant handles drink mixing and light food preparation and the second attendant primarily serves and acts as an onboard concierge for train and station services.

All onboard car attendants and dining car crew work under the supervision of the passenger service agent. Each car has its own attendant, but all attendants are trained to work in any area of the consist if a need arises.

Since the dining car is open 24 hours a day, terminal to terminal, there is no need for reservations at any meal. Passengers come and go as they are hungry and do not have to adhere to a rigid schedule.

The Cardinal calls at Prince, West Virginia. The C&O had an eclectic assortment of passenger stations along the George Washington route. Internet photo.

The dome lounge cars also offer light food service such as a choice of three sandwiches and a casserole dish as well as a modest assortment of dessert items.

Charlottesville is past and Staunton is coming up; the two couples decide to have a full luncheon service in the dining car. The diner has a combination of two and four seat tables with one exclusive booth designed for up to six passengers dining together.

As is customary on the new George Washington, the steward, after seating the guests offers a pre-luncheon cocktail to enjoy as they are surveying the menu. Drink and food choices are made and luncheon is served at a comfortable and leisurely pace.

The diner has been designed with large windows for the passengers enjoying a meal to be able to equally enjoy the passing scenery.

Chessie, the C&O’s kitten mascot used in C&O publicity materials for decades. C&O wanted its passengers to know the ride was so smooth they would sleep like a kitten. Today, the C&O Historical Society publishes an annual calendar featuring Chessie. Internet image.

After luncheon both couples retire to their separate accommodations for a brief respite. Later in the afternoon Bob and Ted will meet in the rear sleeping/dome observation car where they will enjoy a lengthy conversation. Carol and Alice will meet in the same dome lounge car they enjoyed that morning. Because they, too, desire to have a conversation they choose to sit on the lower level which has been designed like the former Seaboard Air Line Pullman Sun Lounges with large side windows and ceiling windows which allow for viewing scenery at all angles without being up in the dome.

Late afternoon brings special services in the three lounge cars. The forward lounge car offers a craft beer tasting session, sampling several beers from specialty breweries along the route of the George Washington. The mid-train lounge offers an afternoon formal tea service. The rear lounge offers the traditional wine tasting, again featuring wines from vineyards along the route.

For first class coach, parlor car and sleeping car passengers all food and non-alcoholic drinks are included in the cost of their accommodations. The beer and wine tastings are included, as well. Passengers may choose to include alcoholic drinks in their travel packages for an upcharge.

Coach passengers may use any of the services a la carte at menu printed prices.

1940 C&O advertisement promotion for “George Washington’s Railroad.” Internet image.

Room service for all meals, snacks and drinks is available 24 hours a day.

Even though the new George Washington is primarily designed as a train for the passing mountain scenery, each car has full WiFi internet connections. Each coach seat and accommodation has a video screen with a selection of entertainment. While the dome areas and lower level lounge area with large windows feature dimmed lights at night to allow passengers to enjoy “night viewing” of the passing countryside (a very calming and interesting travel experience well known to those who have traveled at night in dome seating), the video screens offer other entertainment choices.

Dinner service begins at 5 p.m. for those desiring a lighter meal and morphs into full Table d’ Hotel service with several choices.

At 9 p.m. the dining car steward announces to the train that evening’s late night/before bed dessert special available simultaneously in the dining car and each lounge car or by room service.

Overnight, the lounge car services end at 11 p.m. and resume at 6:30 a.m., but the dining car stays open for full beverage service and an overnight late night/early breakfast menu.

The next morning, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice detrain in Chicago after a light breakfast in the dome lounge car. Later that day the two couples will make a connection to the new train service to Petoskey, Michigan where they will enjoy a few days at a resort on the shores of Little Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan.

The new George Washington continues to its Minneapolis/St. Paul terminal, arriving late afternoon. The return trip is again scheduled for maximum scenery viewing east of Cincinnati through Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, terminating in Washington Union Station.

Breaking the tradition of Chicago being a “natural” endpoint terminal is proving both profitable and pleasing to passengers. Trains and passengers know no borders; they only know where they wish to travel.

Click here to access the Cincinnati Union Terminal article and numerous photos on Wikipedia.

One of civilized man’s greatest achievements: The dome car

C&O’s George Washington never carried dome cars. Post-war, at the beginning of the streamliner era, C&O ordered dome cars for The Chessie, the train-that-never-was because after the equipment was ordered and being built C&O management belatedly sensed the passenger train era was about to shrink considerably.

One of three domes originally built for C&O’s The Chessie, but sold to B&O because The Chessie was cancelled. B&O used the domes on the Capitol Limited. Here, the dome is used on Seaboard Coast Line’s winter season Florida Special. One of the three original C&O cars is now part of the CSX executive train fleet. Internet photo.

As a result of cold feet by C&O management and cancelling The Chessie, most of The Chessie’s newly delivered equipment was sold by the C&O to other railroads, including rival Baltimore & Ohio. The Chessie’s not-to-be domes ended up as highly-publicized feature cars which survived into the Amtrak era as part of B&O’s Washington-Chicago Capitol Limited. Later, in the 1960s, the C&O would merge with the B&O (the C&O was the surviving entity) and the dome cars once again became part of their original owner. But, they still eventually ended up in foreign-road use as Seaboard Coast Line used them in the late 1960s and just before Amtrak took over in May 1971 on the seasonal Florida Special between New York Pennsylvania Station and Miami. The dome was added to the Florida Special consist as the trailing car in Richmond, Virginia after the train was safely off the NEC and away from catenary. Today, one of these same dome cars is part of the CSX executive train fleet. CSX uses the classic and distinctive former B&O passenger car livery on its executive train fleet as a nod to its heritage as a several-generations-down successor to the B&O.

A Missouri Pacific 1961 publicity illustration for its Planetarium Dome service found on The Eagle. Internet photo.

Tracing their beginning to the passenger car building boom which began in 1945, dome cars were believed to be passenger-magnets which would draw passengers to the new streamliner fleets being delivered all over the country. Dome cars were a hit with those passengers still riding trains, but regrettably they did not have enough attraction to keep passengers from migrating to the new Boeing 707 jets the airlines were introducing. Dome cars are unilaterally the most civilized way to travel on a passenger train. The view is much more accessible than even in a Superliner Sightseer Lounge car.

The main reason for dome cars: enthralling and spectacular scenery on first class trains such as this photo taken on a Union Pacific train. Internet photo.

Both the Santa Fe Railway and Great Northern Railway chose full-length dome cars for their trains, including the forerunner of today’s Empire Builder. Many of the other western railroads chose the smaller bubble domes which enchanted passengers on such notable trains as the California Zephyr, North Coast Limited, City of Los Angeles, Super Chief and Eagle. Domes were built as Pullman lounge cars, dining cars and as revenue cars for coach passengers, but the seats in the dome were not sold as revenue seating.

The most famous train today in North America fielding a full fleet of dome cars both for sleeping car and coach passengers is VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, using Budd domes. The cars were originally built for Canadian Pacific Railway’s Canadian, and have been loving maintained and renovated as necessary.

Union Pacific had a contemporary habit of covering some of its dome seating in plaid, which would soon resemble the plaid seats found in Volkswagen campers in the 1970s and 1980s. Internet photo.

Dome car utility was limited in the East because of two tunnels: The former B&P tunnel in Baltimore on Pennsylvania Railroad’s Northeast Corridor (now Amtrak) and the tunnel under Washington Union Station.

In the 1990s the floor of the tunnel under Washington Union Station was finally lowered which allowed Superliner equipment to be used on the Cardinal, and would have allowed a Superliner-equipped Capitol Limited to be extended to Florida if intra-company squabbling would not have killed the initiative. The B&P Baltimore tunnel is just now on a list for replacement. The lowering of the tunnel floor has also allowed Virginia Railway Express commuter trains to enter Washington Union Station with bi-level passenger equipment.

The B&O used domes from Washington to Chicago on the Capitol, but restricted entry into the domes until the trains left tracks under the NEC’s catenary. The company feared a sagging catenary wire with high-voltage electricity throbbing through it would touch the top of the dome bubble.

Wishing for a single-level feature car to have the aura of a dome, Seaboard Air Line Railroad ordered three Pullman-Standard Sun Lounge cars for Silver Meteor Pullman sleeping car passengers to operate between New York Pennsylvania station and Miami. The popular Sun Lounges, one of which is still extant, would prove to be the prototype for Budd Company’s Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge cars which were built for the El Capitan in the mid-1950s. All six of these cars are still operable; five were renovated and used as Pacific Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight, operating between Los Angeles and Seattle for decades until pulled from service in the past few years.

A circa 1950/s1960s publicity photo of the Pullman Sun Lounge used exclusively on Seaboard’s Silver Meteor. The large windows on the side of the car’s lounge area and unique rooftop windows designed by Pullman-Standard would prove the Sun Lounges to be the grandfather of Amtrak’s Superliner Sightseer Lounge cars. Internet photo.

The Hi-Level lounges, in turn, served as prototypes for today’s Superliner Sightseer Lounge cars, originally built by Pullman-Standard in the 1970s. The entire Hi-Level fleet served as a proving ground which led to development of today’s rapidly shrinking Superliner fleet. No new Superliners have been built since the second order was completed in the late 1990s.

Circa 1960 Santa Fe’s Hi-Level El Capitan lounge car, which would be the parent of the Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge cars. Internet photo.
Original 1950s configuration of the Hi-Level lounge car, designed exclusively for the all-coach, transcontinental Santa Fe El Capitan. Internet photo.
Santa Fe circa 1960 publicity photo for the El Capitan Hi-Level lounge cars. The El Capitan also carried a full dining car offering a complete menu for all three meals. Six Hi-Level lounge cars and six Hi-Level dining cars were built. All still survive. Internet photo.
Santa Fe was serious about maintaining passenger train standards, even on all-coach trains. Clean windows were a necessity so passengers could enjoy the passing scenery on the transcontinental El Capitan. Internet photo.
Recently renovated Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge car. Amtrak publicity photo.
Casual seating area of a recently renovated Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge car. Amtrak publicity photo.
Another view of a recently renovated Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge car. Amtrak publicity photo.
A Rocky Mountaineer consist using a similar window configuration mimicking dome cars, Hi-Level lounges and Amtrak Sightseer Lounge cars. Rocky Mountaineer publicity photo.
VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian bubble dome car, the most exciting feature car being operated in North America. Photo from Camels & Chocolate Canada By Train website.
Please share with others