The some-semblance-of-class passenger train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 5, 2011


Off we go again, on another victory lap around North America by train. Largely I’m retracing the path that resulted in the article, “Amtrak at Its Best (And Worst)” in the August issue of Trains.
One difference this time is that I am getting from Washington to Chicago via the Capitol Limited rather than the combo of Acela Express and Lake Shore Limited. Right now, outside my bedroom window, the Maryland countryside slides past on a hot, hazy summer afternoon as we near our rendezvous with the Potomac River at Point of Rocks. If this leg of my trip is anything but an enjoyable experience, I’ll be quite surprised.

The Capitol Limited and I go back a long way. My first encounter, in fact, was stunning. It was July 22, 1966, during a 43-day airline strike. Every piece of passenger equipment that Baltimore & Ohio could put behind locomotives filled up. The Capitol Limited I saw that day backing into Chicago’s Grand Central Station was 19 cars long behind three E units: eight sleeping cars (two of them budget-priced Slumbercoaches), five coaches (one a Strata-Dome), and a twin-unit diner that would double as a movie theater after dinner. A real jaw-dropper that was. I should add that a round-trip ticket to Washington in a Pullman sleeper cost about $125.
I didn’t get a chance to actually ride the Capitol until the autumn of 1967. The grounded airline passengers had deserted the Capitol the day the pilots reported back to work, naturally, meaning that the train was down to eight or nine cars. I bought a round-trip coach ticket from Chicago to Willard, Ohio, for about $25. Leaving Chicago at 4 p.m., I had a six-hour ride to Willard, most of it spent in the Strata-Dome. At Willard, I watched a switch engine plug a 10 roomette-6 bedroom sleeper and a coach from the Capitol-Detroit onto the train. Then No. 6 left, and I had more than five hours to kill before No. 5 came to take me back to Chicago. I tried to sleep, but it wasn’t easy on a wooden waiting room bench. Understandably, of the trip back I remember nothing.
About 1969 I rode the Capitol again, but this time all the way to Washington and in the single remaining sleeping car. The B&O’s listing in the Official Guide said the train contained three specific amenities: Chessie’s Tavern, Iron Horse Tavern, and Capitol Club. A year or so earlier these accommodations were the dining car, the snack bar beneath the Strata-Dome, and the lounge half of a sleeper-lounge, respectively. After dinner on that trip, I noticed that all three amenities remained, but were now encapsulated within a single car, the lunch counter-diner-lounge-observation built in 1950 for Chesapeake & Ohio’s stillborn Chessie streamliner. As I later wrote in Twilight of the Great Trains: “The first 26 feet of these cars held the kitchen and pantry, the next 16 feet a take-out counter and wet bar (Iron Horse Tavern), the following 28 feet dining space for 32 (Chessie’s Tavern), and the final 15 or so feet abutting the observation windows, lounge space for 10 passengers (Capitol Club).” It was a triumph in packaging, for sure.

Trains reader Wiley Spurgeon in 1968 nominated the Capitol of that period as “the only-really-complete-with-some-semblance-of-class passenger train” in the Northeast, and more than 40 years later, I still agree. Right to the bitter end in 1971, B&O ran a classy Capitol Limited. Amtrak revived the name a decade later, as the Pittsburgh-Washington section of the Chicago-New York Broadway Limited. In 1986 the Capitol began running separately the entire way. Finally, in 1994, the train got bi-level Superliner equipment. It remains today one of my favorite trains.

Please excuse me now. I’d rather look out the window at the Potomac than punch keys on a laptop. Be back to you soon. — Fred W. Frailey


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