Back to sleep on the Corridor

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Heritage 10-6 sleeper waits in Penn Station, New York, to be picked up by the Night Owl in December 1991. Amtrak dropped overnight sleeper service in 2003 but is set to restore it, with Viewliners, on April 5. Bob Johnston
I clearly remember the reassuring feeling as I left the rat’s nest of Penn Station’s concourse and descended the stairs to a nearly empty platform. I normally wouldn’t be rapturous about a staircase, but the old railing I was hanging onto was one of the last small bits of the original Penn Station, and it felt good.

Better yet was the sight that lay ahead: gleaming in the subterranean dankness, a Budd 10-6 Heritage sleeper awaited, promising all the old familiar comforts. An Amtrak attendant greeted me by name in the vestibule and led me to a roomette in the middle of the car, where I found a made bed, fresh towels, and a bottle of water. I was home! At least for a few hours. 

As I recall, I retired around 11 p.m. and slept so soundly that I wasn’t disturbed when the car was switched onto the consist of the Night Owl, coming in from Boston at 3:08 a.m. and departing at 3:45. When I did finally wake up, sometime after 4 in the morning, we were doing track speed west of Newark, headed for arrival at Washington Union Station at 8:30 a.m. I credited Amtrak for a nifty bit of train handling. 

That was nearly 30 years ago, in 1993, when a brief business trip to New York and Washington allowed for use of the Executive Sleeper on Amtrak’s overnight Boston–Washington train. The car did just what it was designed to do: allow me to avoid a night in a hotel and arrive rested after a fast dash down the Northeast Corridor. The fact that I was practically the only passenger in the car made me feel, well, a bit special. 

A gate sign at Boston's South Station signifies the imminent departure of Amtrak's Night Owl for Washington. The date is April 30, 1972, and the Owl is making its first run — exactly one year after Northeast Corridor sleeper service ended with the discontinuance of Penn Central's Federal. Tom Nelligan
The opportunity to experience that feeling is coming back, thanks to Amtrak’s announcement it would revive Boston–Washington sleeper service on trains 66 and 67 beginning April 5, carded for either a 9- or 10-hour trip depending on direction. On Friday and Saturday, the sleeper out of Boston will be on train 65 on a slightly different schedule. The sleeping cars came off these trains back in 2003 during an equipment crunch.

As Trains’ Amtrak correspondent Bob Johnston has reported, the service will have a whiff of traditional service, with sleeping-car patrons receiving a complimentary box breakfast the preceding night and the ability to have the attendant bring coffee or juice to their room in the morning.

Not that there’s anything new about first-class overnight service on the Corridor. The tradition goes way back to the era when the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New Haven jointly offered sleeper service on the Federal, trains 172 and 173. Both were scheduled for roughly 9½-hour running times in the postwar years, with 172 departing Boston at 10 p.m. and arriving Washington at 7:30 a.m., and 173 departing Washington at 9:45 p.m., arriving South Station at 7:10 a.m. The Federal offered a wide range of sleeping cars, plus a lounge car; given the schedule, there was no need for a diner. Passengers did have the option of occupying their accommodations at least a half-hour early at both terminals.

Most of the sleepers went all the way through, but 172 included both a Washington–Springfield and a Washington-Providence car. On 173, everything was Boston–Washington except for a pair of Springfield–Washington sleepers. 

At 10 p.m. on November 9, 1978, Amtrak 176, the Senator, has just arrived from Washington, while on the next track an F40PH awaits the 10:20 departure time of 67, the Night Owl. An electric will take over at New Haven, and at Washington, two cars will continue west on the HilltopperTom Nelligan
If the name Federal rings a bell with non-Pennsy fans, it’s probably because of the famous accident of January 15, 1953, when train 173 suffered a brake failure coming into Washington Union Station and the train bashed through the gates, crashed through the stationmaster’s office, and spilled into the concourse, where GG1 electric No. 4876 dropped unceremoniously into the basement. Miraculously, no one was killed, although 43 were injured.

The Federal wasn’t the only sleeper train plying the NEC in those pre-Amtrak days: the New Haven offered its own Boston–New York service, trains 2 and 3, the Owl, with No. 2 departing Grand Central Terminal at 12:30 a.m. and arriving Boston at 6:25 a.m., and No. 3 leaving South Station at 12:30 a.m., arriving GCT at 6:15. Covering those 222 miles in just under 6 hours wouldn’t set speed records, but the business travelers who primarily used it — and maybe had a couple of martinis before heading for the station — most likely didn’t care. Between New York and Washington, the PRR fielded overnighters on similarly leisurely schedules that carried sleepers all the way as well as set-out cars for Philadelphia and Baltimore. 

The service I used back in 1993 — that cut-on, cut-off Executive Sleeper at New York — isn’t coming back. For this upgrade, Amtrak is offering only the full Boston–Washington through service with Viewliner sleepers, which makes me glad I worked that lone 10-6 out of Penn Station into my itinerary, if only just once.

Meanwhile, Amtrak has made a good decision. Soon passengers again will be able to douse the lights, lie back in bed, and watch the Northeast Corridor go blurring past in the night, this time considerably faster than the 80 mph of the New Haven-PRR era. I’m eager to relive the experience.

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