Remember the Twilight Limited?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, April 15, 2021

As of the postwar era, the New York Central’s evening runs in both directions bore this evocative name on the Chicago-Detroit run.  In addition to being “First Class” in terms of the operating timetable, they merited the description in terms of equipment and service, as well.  All seats were reserved; not only were there parlor cars, for on-board First-Class service, but one of the NYC’s classy Budd-built stainless steel observation parlor cars carried the rear markers.

Patrons of both classes of service could avail themselves of both a tavern lounge, for pre-dinner conviviality, as well as a full diner (and I believe, for much of this time period, one of the twin-unit variety, where one car had nothing but tables, for its full length).  For that matter, I suspect that some travelers returned the lounge post-dinner.

There were lots of streamlined coaches, principally those clad in stainless steel manufactured by both Budd and Pullman-Standard, plus a pair of the NYC’s elegantly-striped EMD E units up front (and I doubt if many of us would have complained had we found that our train was being sped across Michigan and northern Indiana by members of the Central’s relatively small fleet of Alco PA units).

These glory years can be re-lived, at least to some extent, by watching Green Frog video’s “New York Central Odyssey, Volume 1”, if you have access to it.  The Twilights, in particular, seem to go on forever, reflecting the heavy loads they carried in the 1950s on a routine basis.

The combination of the Interstate Highway System and jet airliners was  not kind to the Twilight, and others like it, however, operating in what we now would refer to as “corridor” type services, i.e. markets of at most several hundred miles, with multiple departures per day.  In 1967, the NYC adapted to the changing circumstances, and eliminated most of its remaining “overnighters”.  This was accompanied by the restructuring of its intra-New York State service into short, frequent trains powered by a single locomotive, with coach snack bars for meal and beverage service.

Many of the former corridors west of Buffalo had been eliminated, or severely downsized by then.  By the advent of the Penn Central, in 1968, Cincinnati-Cleveland was down to a sole round trip, typically operated by a single Budd RDC (Rail Diesel Car).  Cleveland-Chicago was down to a single daytime trip westbound, and two eastbounds, due to the timing of what remained of the combined Twentieth Century Limited/New England States in that direction. 

On the Cleveland-St. Louis NYC route, there was no service west of Indianapolis, and the westbound trip left Cleveland at 10:50 PM, and arrived in the Hoosier capital at 5:50 the next morning.  Only the James Whitcomb Riley remained between Cincinnati and Chicago.

Chicago-Detroit fared somewhat better, with three daytime trips, along with an overnight schedule (sans sleepers), due to the relatively large size of the market.  However, as “Amtrak Day” (May 1, 1971) approached, even this market was down to a pair of daytime runs, with less-than-august accommodations.

Take a look at number 356 (yes, the old Twilight’s number) departing Chicago Union Station on the afternoon of April 29, 1971: one tired-looking ex-NYC E7, and a former NYC snack-bar coach, which had 50 revenue seats.  There certainly were trains that merited mourning when they were discontinued at Amtrak’s advent; there also were those that made you wonder why they were still there at that late date in the history of the railroad-operated intercity passenger train in the U.S.

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