What's in a Name?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, June 01, 2017

Once, many of the passenger cars in the U.S. displayed distinctive names, in addition to  indicating the railroad that owned them.  In some cases, the naming custom effectively replaced the more mundane assignment of a specific number as an identifying device; sometimes both were used, an example being the New York Central, which by the 1960s was routinely including both on the sides of its by-then mostly streamlined fleet.

Utilizing a custom that began with the widespread use of sleeping cars, and spread to other types of passenger equipment, the names generally came to be organized into two-word series, where either the prefix or suffix indicated the cars’ configuration.  In the Pullman/heavyweight era, one of the most prolific designators for cars containing 12 open sections and 1 drawing room was the “Saint” series, abbreviated to “St.” There was no overt identification of a particular religious group, and it’s likely that Pullman patrons were more interested in getting a good night’s sleep on board these vehicles rather than being concerned about eternal salvation.

At the start of the streamliner era in the late 1930s, Pullman had chosen to identify its new types equipment with several different series’ names, including “Cascade” as a prefix for 10 roomette 5 double bedroom cars; “City of” for those containing 18 (or sometimes, 17) roomettes; and “County” for 13 double bedroom cars.  This paradigm allowed for a modest degree of customization by individual railroads in the choice of names.  Finally, the other large group of sleepers in this category, 4 double bedroom, 4 compartment, 2 drawing room cars, had names in the “Imperial” range, reflecting their more exclusive status.

Post-World War II, there was an enormous proliferation of new streamlined equipment, and the custom of letting individual railroads choose the names of their equipment took over.  In addition to sleeping cars, coaches also participated, in some cases.  Geography often played a leading role; the car’s in B&O’s “Cincinnatian” reflected neighborhoods or locations in its namesake city.  Similar series names were used by multiple railroads in some cases; both the Southern and New York Central, for example, used “River” as a suffix; there was essentially no confusion between the cars of the two roads, however.  The NYC, adhering to its “Water Level Route” slogan, had, in addition to Rivers, Creeks; Streams; Harbors; Lakes; Ports; Brooks; and Bays.  Some of the pre-war “Imperial” cars were re-named for Bridges, as well.

Early in its career, Amtrak simply chose to keep, for the most part, the car names that it inherited.  Eventually, they developed a few of their own, particularly for cars where the interior configurations were modified, although by the end of “Heritage” car operations, numerous “Pine” (former Santa Fe) and “Pacific” (Union Pacific) 10 roomette 6 double bedroom cars still bore evidence of their original owners.

One of the more interesting name associations between a railroad and its equipment was the prolific use of “Silver” by the Burlington (CB&Q) and their partners for a wide variety of car types.  This stemmed from their pioneering use of both diesel engines to power passenger trains, and their initial, and extensive, use of Budd’s stainless steel passenger cars.  As a result, cars with a “Silver” prefix were seen far and wide beyond the Q itself, including all the way to the west coast, on the “California Zephyr”, and beyond Amtrak day (May 1, 1971) on the “Rio Grande Zephyr”.   The CZ had the uniquely-named Silver Rapids in its consist, which was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s contribution to transcontinental sleeping car service for this train, the “Rapids” suffix coming from the PRR’s naming of its own 10-6s.

So, what’s in the name of the car in this view of the diner on Amtrak’s southbound “Crescent” at Manassas, Virginia on July 13, 2013?  History, and at least at first, a little mystery.  Amtrak had long-ceased to refer to this car by name, and its Amtrak-assigned number (8531) appeared below the windows, instead.  Fortunately, the more prosaic designation vanished on this side or the car, revealing the history underneath.  Although apparently there was at least an attempt to remove the words, it’s not difficult to discern that this once was the Silver Bit.

Yes, the “Silver” prefix connotes a car that began life in the greater Burlington empire.  However, the suffix “Bit” (as in something to put between one’s teeth, at least for horses) doesn’t seem to be particularly appropriate for a meal service car; indeed, Robert Wayner’s marvelous passenger car reference, Car Names, Numbers and Consists, indicates that it was built as coach 4737 for the Burlington’s 1956 re-equipping of the Denver Zephyr, the last new single-level streamliner to enter service.

Another excellent reference source, David Warner and Elbert Simon’s Amtrak by the Numbers, solves the problem, however. “Silver Bit” was acquired by Amtrak in its original configuration and assigned the number 5014.  Shedding more light on the car’s original naming, other similar “Silvers” were acquired by Amtrak, including Shaft, Shield, Sword, Halter, Cinch and Rein. 

When Amtrak modified its remaining “Heritage” cars to HEP (head-end power), seven former “Silvers” were converted to Cafeteria Cars, including Silver Bit, which was assigned the number 8711.   Finally, the car is last listed as a “Rebuilt Diner”, carrying the number 8531.

And thus, nearing its 60th year in service, Silver Bit had become a restaurant, rather than a place to spend the night sitting up, although it continued to try to assert the good name that it entered life with.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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