Echoes of the Seaboard on Amtrak’s 'Silver Star'

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 30, 2020

The sign says 'Silver Star,' but the Amtrak train at the station platform in Savannah, Ga., bears little resemblance to the Seaboard Air Line's postwar streamliner of the same name. Kevin P. Keefe
I went looking for traces of the Seaboard Air Line this week. So why was I standing under the skylight in the waiting room of an Atlantic Coast Line station?

Back in the streamliner era, when the two railroads were sworn rivals, you wouldn’t find SAL’s Silver Star on the turf of ACL’s Champion. Unthinkable. They fought each other like crazy for the lucrative New York–Miami trade, with dueling trainsets of gleaming stainless steel. 

But now we’re nearly 50 years into Amtrak and none of those old comparisons matters anymore. What counted a couple of days ago was that I was in Rocky Mount, N.C., standing inside the city’s stout Romanesque 1893 depot, awaiting Amtrak’s version of the Silver Star so I could finally, after years of waiting, accomplish a simple mission: ride what’s left of the SAL main line through the Carolinas.

It’s a trip I’d been hoping to make for more than 30 years. With its glamorous passenger diesels and iconic “Through The Heart Of The South” logo, the Seaboard held particular fascination for me, aided by all those great photos J. Parker Lamb made on the railroad back in the early 1960s, before it merged with the Coast Line. Long after CSX subsumed nearly every trace of the Seaboard, I still wanted to get a taste of it. 

I figured I’d blown it in 1986 with the news that Amtrak was obliged to reroute the Silver Star south of Petersburg, Va., to Selma, N.C., via the former ACL, thence over to Raleigh on Norfolk Southern. CSX was consolidating all its Northeast–Florida freight traffic via the so-called A Line, making redundant 75 miles of SAL north from Norlina, N.C., to Petersburg.

Seaboard's Silver Star races north at Indiantown, Fla., on Christmas Day 1963. Photographer David W. Salter estimated the three E units had their lengthy train moving at 100 mph.
Still, that left 340 miles of Seaboard on the Star’s current route, south from Raleigh to Savannah. This week, events conspired to help me get it.  

Joining me for part of a short little circle trip (North Charleston­–Rocky Mount on the Palmetto, Rocky Mount–Savannah on the Star, back to North Charleston on the next day’s Palmetto) was my friend and colleague Kevin McKinney, founder of Passenger Train Journal and now a columnist for the magazine. Way back in the 1970s I worked for Kevin, editing PTJ, and we’ve enjoyed the occasional train ride together ever since.

Now we were sampling the Silver Star. We had no illusions about Amtrak’s Star versus that of the Seaboard — the SAL train was passenger-train royalty. Inaugurated in December 1947, it was secondary to Seaboard’s premier train, the Silver Meteor. The main way to quickly differentiate the Star from the Meteor was the former’s preponderance of head-end cars. 

But in most ways, the Star was as good as the Seaboard had to offer. In the early 1950s it typically consisted of three coaches, a tavern coach, a diner, and two or three sleepers, usually 10-roomette/6-double-bedroom cars. The diner was known to serve excellent food, and passengers were pampered by uniformed “stewardess-nurses” that were a mainstay of all three SAL Silver trains, the third being the New York–Birmingham Silver Comet.

A Seaboard stewardess-nurse entertains a young Silver Star passenger during the train's mid-1950s heyday. Fraser Hale
Those trains are long gone, and what we have left begs unfair comparisons. Today’s Silver Star is basically a dressed-up Amtrak corridor train. Yes, it offers first-class service in Viewliner sleepers — if you can equate the term “first class” with CEO Richard Anderson’s steerage-style food service — but beyond that the train is unremarkable. It’s much slower, too: in 1954, the Star polished off the 202.5 miles between Raleigh and Columbia, S.C., in a brisk, 3 hours 50 minutes, or an average speed of 59 mph. Amtrak takes an addition 47 minutes — a 46 mph average — to cover the same territory.

Late that night, as we rocked down CSX toward Southern Pines in the café car, Kevin couldn’t help observing that “if those SAL guys could see this, they’d probably want to take the train name away, just like the Santa Fe did with the Super Chief in the early Seventies.” I agreed.  

All was not negative, though. Despite Amtrak’s downgrades of its Eastern overnight service, our crew went about their business with skill and charm, especially the on-board service team. I was especially impressed with the hospitality extended by café car attendant Donna and sleeping-car attendant Preston. They lived up to the old SAL slogan “Route of Courteous Service.” Don’t judge Amtrak employees by the management in Washington.

Kevin got off the train at Southern Pines to head home and I settled in for a brief night in my roomette. The schedule was brutal: I’d be obliged to detrain at Savannah at 4:13 a.m., hang around its blazingly lit, sparsely appointed waiting room for four hours, then depart on the northbound Palmetto at 8:20 a.m. With maybe two hours of real sleep, I felt like a zombie.

Still, the overnight ride was worth it. I felt like I got a feel for the old Seaboard. Unlike CSX’s A line, the former ACL route that crosses the flat Low Country on ruler-straight tangents, the ex-Seaboard S line is a Piedmont railroad, obliged to go up and down and around the foothills. It was a comfortable roller-coaster, punctuated by occasional and strangely comforting stretches of jointed rail.

The highlight of the night came about 11:15 p.m. when the station at Hamlet loomed into view. Built in 1900 by SAL partly to serve as division offices, the big rambling Queen Anne structure figured in countless photographs I’d seen in the pages of Trains. It makes a different impression now, having been moved in 2004 across the tracks of CSX’s Monroe Subdivision to the southwest quadrant of the diamond, but it remains a gorgeous Seaboard icon. Fittingly, the station was the last thing I saw before I drifted off to sleep. 

Postscript: My old dream of riding that northernmost end of the SAL isn’t necessarily dead. As Trains correspondent Bob Johnston reported this week, the state of Virginia’s massive $3.8 billion investment plan for passenger rail includes money to research putting the railroad back together north of Norlina for high-speed passenger service. The track is mostly gone and the right-of-way overgrown, and such a project would cost hundreds of millions — but nothing’s impossible, right?

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