Classic Simplicity

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, February 15, 2018

As noted in my previous post (Still a Good Place to Watch Trains), there often is a tendency in the rail enthusiast community to look back fondly on the past.  This seems particularly applicable to passenger trains.

While there is no doubt that the heyday of the privately-operated intercity passenger train (i.e. non-Amtrak) did occur back when rail was the only practical, or economic, travel alternative, and the railroads competed vigorously with each other for passenger business, not everything associated with this portion of the business “back then” could be put into the “luxurious” category.  Delving into the subject in more detail likely will indicate that large portions of the passenger train business could best be described as pretty basic transportation.

It’s also useful to consider that, as a regulated business (economically), railroads essentially could not compete for the passenger trade on price, because fares were regulated.  As a result, other product features became more important, particularly in trying to attract customers that would pay other than the basic fare.  These included things like speed; excellent food service (don’t ask about its economics); sleeping facilities likely better than the comforts of home for many people; and amenities such as lounges and domes, the latter in the later stages of the game.

On the other hand, the majority of the customers traveled in non-reclining seat coaches until well into the streamlined, post-World War II era.  Indoor plumbing, heat and rudimentary lighting were included in the package, and coach patrons were generally welcome to patronize the diner, the question being whether they could afford it. 

Indeed, this was true even in the Pennsylvania Railroad’s New York-Washington corridor until the mid-1960s, when surplus postwar streamlined sleeping cars were converted to coaches for this route.  As the passenger business declined in the 1960s, the book To Hell in a Day Coach appeared; I suspect that many railroad patrons of some seniority wondered why the word “To” had been added to what they thought of their typical experience.

In reality, however, today’s railfans, almost all of whom were born after 1945, have little or no remembrance of typical coach travel prior to the postwar era.  There is an exception to this, however, if we expand the level of experience to include commuter, as well as intercity, service.

When commuter service was run by the railroads, rather than government agencies, it typically used the oldest “hand me down” equipment available.  Most commuter services were oriented towards peak AM and PM rush hours on weekdays, meaning that the relatively low equipment utilization wouldn’t have justified the acquisition of new equipment on economic grounds.  On the other side of the coin, low utilization in commuter service allowed old coaches to fade away, somewhat gracefully, rather than to die an otherwise earlier death.

Thus, as of the early 1970s, it was not unusual to see NYC heavyweight coaches dating from the 1920s on New York City commuter runs, and PRR P-70s of similar longevity on the other side of the Hudson River.  While there was newer equipment present in the Chicago area on the C&NW, for example, the so-called “Capone” coaches continued to labor on the Rock Island, and there were a modest number of P-70s in Chicagoland serving on the “Valpo Dummies”, as well.

West of Chicago, there was only one ‘real’ commuter operation, the Southern Pacific’s “Commutes”, between the City by the Bay and San Jose.  A modest number of bi-levels were used here, but SP’s earlier “Suburban (or Sub)” heavyweight coaches continued to fill out the rush hour services.  As shown in Mel Lawrence's interior photo of one at rest in San Francisco in 1974, above, these sturdy creatures were quite basic, from the standpoint of passenger amenities: straight-back ‘walkover’ seats; rudimentary lighting (no individual reading lamps); tiny overhead parcel racks; single-pane windows.  It doesn’t appear that there was much insulation, for either heating (don’t ask about cooling) or noise reduction.   

Today, of course, things have changed considerably.  Much of the nation’s commuter rail equipment is of fairly recent vintage, purpose-built and procured with government agency funding.  There are multiple rail commuter services now in place between Chicago and California, including Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.  So it isn’t possible to experience personally how people a century ago got to San Jose from Los Angeles, or, perish the thought, New Orleans, on the “Friendly” Southern Pacific.

Not only that, they had to do it without any sort of entertainment sans what could be seen out the windows; Wi-Fi was unimaginable, in addition to being unavailable.  Water still flows downhill, but now, with the exception of a few retained for excursions, or acquired by museums, old coaches do die; giving your grandchildren a visceral, personal experience of transportation history has become considerably more difficult.

[Thanks to Bill Hough for pointing out my earlier error that the Suburban coaches were "Harriman" equipment]

(Photo by Mel Lawrence, George Hamlin collection)

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