For the Metroliner, 50 candles

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Half a century ago today, high speed rail as we know it in this country was born. The Metroliner made its first round trip between New York and Washington over Penn Central. The Metroliner was father of the Acela and grandfather of whatever Amtrak will call its successor when it enters service in 2021. A first-class seat in the club car cost $19.90. The occasion—at first, a single round trip, to be increased as more cars came from Budd Manufacturing—made page 93 of the next day’s New York Times.

Penn Central spent $35 million improving its track for 110-mph trains and $21.5 million for the electric multiple-unit cars. The federal government would chip in $11.3 million as its part of this two-year demonstration.

Time flies, doesn’t it? The service found lots of fans but the equipment itself never could be made really reliable. My first exposure was in 1970, on one of the early nonstop runs, which took two and a half hours instead of the usual three. Or rather, was supposed to. East of Trenton my train’s underbody caught fire and we waited 90 minutes before being picked up by the Silver Star. I got to Penn Station in a budget roomette.

That inaugural trip to Washington arrived 7 minutes late but nobody seemed to mind. The Times reported that passengers mostly enjoyed the speed and the novelty. Yet, “You still know you’re on a train,” the paper quoted one young lady, who referred to “abrupt swaying motions.” But a coach passenger, David Sachs, spoke for the larger number of passengers: “The luxury is terrific. There’s no worry about stacking up on the airlines. The phones are terrific. I called my wife and made two business calls for appointments. I couldn’t believe it when they announced 110 mph. It didn’t feel like it.”

This was a pivotal moment in rail passenger travel in this country, a tiny baby step in the direction of renewal of passenger traditions, at a time when railroads stampeded to be rid of such trains. The hope that it engendered was pivotal in the formation of Amtrak two years later. Without the Metroliner, the U.S. passenger train might have gone the way of the Mexican passenger train.

So yes, the Times blew it by burying the story on page 93. But how were its editors to know? Now we understand the significance of the Metroliner. And what is Amtrak doing today to observe the occasion? Nothing.—Fred W. Frailey

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