Short-Haul Sleepers

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, June 16, 2019

While perusing Amtrak’s Five Year Equipment Asset Line Plan (FY2019+) recently, I was surprised to learn, on page 27, that arrival of the new Viewliner Sleepers will be used to “Reinstate sleeper service on Northeast Regional Trains 65, 66 and 67”. These trains (and their predecessors) once provided overnight first-class service on what had become the “Twilight Shoreliner”, operating between Boston, New York City, Washington and on to Newport News, Virginia.

In doing so, they were carrying on a long-time railroad passenger service tradition, namely sleeping car service departing late in the evening and arriving in the destination at, or sometimes, before breakfast time.  While virtually all of Amtrak’s long-haul trains offer this type of accommodation (the exception being the “Palmetto”, between Savannah, Georgia and New York City), for the most part they don’t serve market pairs that fit the late evening/early morning paradigm, particularly on a round-trip basis.

Prior to Amtrak, this type of service served hundreds of city-pairs in the U.S. (as well as Canada, where it persisted until fairly recently in the Montreal-Toronto market), and was the backbone of business travel back when most of that entity relied on trains, rather than airplanes, or the Interstate Highway system.  Now, air travel has become almost ubiquitous, and, the Interstate system, due to the relatively high average speeds possible on many trips, has caused some business travelers, particularly on shorter routes, to set out early in the morning, and return, either the same day, or multiple days later; this does offer the advantage of fewer nights away from home, in many cases, as does the air mode. 

Even post-World War II, in the 1950s, however, there were a plethora of overnight rail options. In many markets, particularly in the east and Midwest, there were competing services in terms of railroads and routes in a number of markets.  Peter T. Maikens’ excellent book Night Trains, subtitled The Pullman System in the Golden Years of American Train Travel, provides an in-depth look at this sector of rail travel, including, a final chapter titled “Midnight Sleepers” that shows where each of these conveyances were as of midnight on a typical night in the early 1950s, using the July 1951 and March 1952 issues of the Official Guide of the Railways as reference sources.

As an example, the New York Central’s train 417, the “Midnight Special” from Cleveland to Cincinnati was awaiting its 12:10 A.M. departure in the Forest City’s downtown Union Terminal.  In addition to cars from both Cleveland, and via a connection from NYC train 5, from Buffalo, to Miami, Florida, there were also local Pullmans: a pair of 12 section, 1 drawing room heavyweights, and a postwar, streamlined 22 roomette car, all terminating in the Queen City.

Sleeper passengers would have been allowed to board early, probably at 10 P.M., and hopefully, are already slumbering when 417 gets underway.  In addition to the Cincinnati cars, there are two more 12-1 heavyweights in the train’s consist, one each from Cleveland to Columbus and Dayton.  These will be “set out” at their destinations, with passengers being able to occupy their space until, typically, 7 or 8 A.M., quite a bit after the arrivals in Columbus (3:20 A.M.) or Dayton (5:35 A.M.).  In total, seven Pullmans will depart Cleveland on this train.

By the late 1960s, virtually all of this once-extensive network had vanished, due to the encroachments of air and highway travel.  Consulting the June 1969 Official Guide indicates that not only was there no sleeping car service from Cleveland to Cincinnati, there was no overnight train in this market at all.  Chicago-St. Louis, once a robust, competitive rail travel market, was down to a single railroad (the GM&O); its’ “Midnight Special” still operated, but sans any sleepers.  The Post Office’s large-scale removal of mail from passenger trains in 1967 resulted in the loss of most of the remaining Railway Post Office services, and did nothing to help the economics of short-haul overnight passenger trains, either.

In the populous Northeast, there was still overnight sleeper service between New York and both Boston and Washington, as well as between Boston and Washington.  New York-Pittsburgh, and New York-Montreal, the latter typically with multiple cars, continued to persist.   One of the last vestiges of competition existed in the Chicago-Twin Cities market, still served by both the Milwaukee Road’s “Pioneer Limited” and the Burlington’s “Black Hawk”, although the latter could muster only a Slumbercoach, rather than a “real” sleeper.  In short, this product was well on its way to oblivion, even fifty years ago.

Which brings us back to the upcoming restoration by Amtrak.  Will there be a market?  There certainly are numerous potential strikes against it, including the history cited here, and the fact that few of today’s travelers have any experience with this type of travel, or even any memory that it existed.  This suggests that there might be an opportunity to experiment with features and fares, as well as promoting short-haul sleeper service to see if there really is still a market for this type of product offering (including its “bathroom down the hall”, for most occupants).  Time to turn on the creativity and find out; the likely results range from no real demand, through the limited service mentioned in the Equipment Plan, to maybe there’s a real need/desire for this type of travel.  Time will tell!

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