Sleeping Cars on a Commuter Train?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, March 1, 2021

Sans sleeping accommodations, however, as seen on Virginia Railway Express train 338 at Alexandria, Virginia on July 13, 2001.  They are now coaches, of course.

As discussed in a previous post (“Strangers in a Strange Land, on Multiple Levels” on February 1, 2021), as intercity passenger service in the U.S. declined during the latter part of the 1960s, a number of former long-haul coaches were converted for service on commuter trains.  The New York Central, for example, re-purposed some of its own equipment for this purpose even before Amtrak was established.

This process accelerated once Amtrak took over, creating an even greater surplus inventory of postwar streamlined coaches; as we saw in the referenced post, former “Empire Builder” equipment ended up in suburban service in New Jersey, for example.

Following the crush of passenger traffic handled during World War II, the railroads were optimistic that they could retain a good portion of this business following the end of the war, and proceeded to place massive orders with the passenger car builders.

Some portion of this optimism was based on the advent of lightweight, streamlined equipment, which had begun to be utilized in the 1930s.  Along with this, private-room sleeping accommodations had begun to replace the previously-ubiquitous upper-and-lower-berth “open sections” in sleeping cars, including the innovative “roomette” for individual travelers.

Since there was still extensive use of overnight sleeping cars for short and medium-haul business travel, the two primary northeastern roads, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania, ordered quantities of new cars with only this type of accommodation.  The NYC placed orders with both Pullman-Standard and Budd for 22 Roomette sleepers, while the Pennsy chose to acquire a version with only 21 rooms from Budd. 

As the 1950s progressed, however, significant overnight business travel began to be lost to the rapidly-expanding airlines.  As a result, in addition to lower overall traffic, there was greater demand for bedrooms than roomettes for what remained of the sleeping car business.  Thus, the 21/22 roomette cars became increasingly surplus; the NYC had Budd convert ten of its cars to “Sleepercoach” economy-room configuration, and sold off the Pullman-Standard 22s, including a number that the Illinois Central bought that were converted to RPOs (railway post offices) and baggage cars.

The Pennsylvania chose to have Budd convert the entire group of its 21 roomette sleepers to coaches in 1963; two were configured as snack-bar coaches.  These were used primarily, at least at first, in the New York-Washington corridor, essentially replacing heavyweight P70 coaches of long duration.  (The PRR had acquired streamlined consists from Budd for the Congressionals and the Senator, which operated Washington-Boston in conjunction with the New Haven, but did not acquire postwar lightweight coaches specifically for the rest of its corridor service in the northeast.)

The cars, now known as “Roomette coaches,” continued through the Penn Central and early Amtrak eras, but the National Railroad Passenger Corporation ultimately chose not to acquire them.  Thus, they also became available for commuter services, including SEMTA (which was operating the former Grand Trunk Western’s modest Detroit commuter service), Maryland’s MARC, and ultimately, at least for a brief period, the Virginia Railway Express, as seen in the photo above, albeit still in MARC colors.  More recently, a few have been seen in excursion services, also.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)


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