On the weekend of May 11th and 12th, 2013, Grand Central Terminal assembled a group of restored luxury sleeper, lounge, and diner cars that ran on various railroads countrywide as part of its Centennial exhibitions, ongoing until July 7th.
Countrywide train travel still exists, as washboards, VCRs, and Walkmen still exist, but the mode is no longer relied on in the age of jet airliners. Yet, jet airliner travel these days, for all but the richest business and pleasure travelers, is akin to being strapped into a metal tube and flung through space for several hours, with the old amenities, such as meals, having been stripped away long ago. The owners of the train cars seen today in this exhibit attempted to replicate a luxury hotel experience aboard moving trains. There was dinner service with table settings, floral arrangements and cloth napkins. For the right price, you had a bedroom that resembled the one you slept in at home. To pass the time you could lounge around in plush chairs and settees and read a book or a newspaper, or converse with your fellow traveler. (This was long before the time when people isolated themselves with personal machinery and devices on which they played video games, or yelled into personal wireless telephones.)
Several of the cars in the exhibit were employed on the Twentieth Century Limited, the most famed USA passenger rail service of all, which ran nearly nonstop between New York and Chicago from 1902 to 1967 and was the setting for a Broadway musical named for it in 1978. A special red carpet was rolled out to greet passengers entering the train in GCT (some say the phrase “red carpet treatment” came from this) and the carpet was duly exhibited here.
Parade of Subway Cars
A young woman poses in front of an R-33 World’s Fair car, #9306. As an added attraction, the MTA ran what was colloquially called the “Train of Many Colors” on the Times Square Shuttle on the two days of the GCT exhibit. This car was built in 1963 by the St. Louis Car Co. and served on the Flushing Line in Queens until November 2003. Though other R-33s were later painted maroon as part of the IRT “redbird” fleet, when placed into service they were bright blue and white in the “World’s Fair” paint scheme. Note the interlocking TA logo — you can still find a few of those at MTA shops around town.
Car No. 6239, part of the R-15 fleet, was in service from 1950 to 1984. The car was used to test early air conditioning schemes.
Car #5760 was one of the first R-12 cars and served from 1948-1981.
Before proceeding to the classic cars, let me indulge my predilection for lighting fixtures. Grand Central Terminal, for me, is an elusive beast to represent fully, thanks in part to its sheer bulk and vastness. Last spring I was taken for a tour (with other enthusiasts) of the terminal by tour director Dan Brucker, and though I had my camera along, I was more or less paralyzed by the spectacle. I also dislike taking pictures indoors using flash, which gets in people’s eyes. One of these years, I will do GCT justice with a page.
Here is just one facet of my fascination. Till its renovation in the 1990s, GCT was lit almost entirely by incandescent bulbs, which imparted a warm, almost sensual, glow (subway stations had likewise been lit by incandescents). To house the bulbs, GCT architects devised a diverse group of lamp stanchions and housings, many of them gilded as seen here to impart opulence. Lately, long-lasting fluorescents that burn yellow but a bit more coldly, light up the vast interiors.
Also seen here is a sample of a restored Twin freestanding lamp that had formerly been on the traffic ramp that wraps around the Terminal.
Parade of Trains
It was time to board the Parade of Trains. Or…not exactly time. On both days, the MTA estimated that over 40,000 guests arrived to view the cars, or double what was expected. Thus the Terminal was jampacked with people who were there for the Parade of Trains but also many other Centennial-themed exhibits. I arrived in GCT at noon and I estimate that I saw my first train interior around 2:30. The line, which begun in the entrance corridor near 42nd Street, snaked into the back of the terminal, past the Transit Museum, into the 45th Street entrance corridor, onto an unused platform, onto an idling Metro-North trainset (the air conditioning was turned on) then back into the 45th street corridor and finally, onto Tracks 34-37 for the exhibit. Here, I’ll show the car interiors I found most interesting, which were on tracks 34-35.
The Hickory Creek is a sleeper-observation car built in 1947 for the Twentieth Century Limited, and was christened on September 15, 1948 in GCT by future President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Among its advanced amenities for its time were fluorescent lighting, pneumatic doors that operated with the pull or push of a door handle and a raised lookout lounge.
The NY Central 43 was built in 1947 and served on the NY Central’s New England States train. It was one of a group of 13 Tavern Lounge cars.
Table setting in the Wisconsin, built in 1948 for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.
Tavern seating in the NY Central 448, built for the NY Central’s New England States train in 1948.
The Ohio River, a sleeper/observation car built in 1926 by Pullman (which had innovated the sleeper car in the 19th Century).
The Birken is a diner-lounge car built in 1954 for the Canadian National Railway by the Canadian Car & Foundry (see entry about the manufacturer on this webpage).
Babbling Brook, a sleeper-observation lounge car built in 1949 by the Budd Co. for the NY Central’s New England States train. See Ozark Mountain Railcar for this car’s history — it’s been around.
Dover Harbor was built in 1923 by Pullman for the Pennsylvania RR’s Broadway Limited and Spirit of St. Louis trains. This is the oldest Pullman car still in active service. It’s covered by a comprehensive website.
A place setting in the Tioga Pass car, built in 1959 for the Canadian National Railroad. Today it is an excursion car in California.
Streamline Moderne seating and lamp in the Overland Trail, built in 1949 by Pullman for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Would you get a haircut in a moving railcar? The Southern Pacific offered such a service on this trainset. Retired barber Jerry Gipple was on hand to explain the amenity.
The Overland Trail is equipped with (what is thought to be) the sole operating streamliner era railroad barbershop in the world. Once a common feature aboard the premier trains of old … the railroad barbershop succumbed to the realities of the jet age in the mid 50s. The honor of carrying the last barbershop probably falls to the famous Super Chief, flagship of the former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The train, affectionately known as “The Train to the Stars”, because of its Hollywood celebrity patrons, lost several premium services on January 10th 1954 including the barbershop.
Before the jet age, the business traveler made up a very important percentage of the railroads’ ridership … and they needed to arrive at their destination clean, well groomed and “dapper”, if they wanted to “make that sale”. The onboard barbershop made all that possible as quite typically, the barber not only provided the tonsorial arts at speed, but also presided over a shower, bath and clothes pressing services as well. Overland Trail, linked above
The Berlin, built in 1956 for the Union Pacific RR by Pullman was possibly the most richly appointed traincar in the exhibit. Once inside you will definitely notice the rich mahogany-finished walls and three master bedrooms with full size beds.
So I finished a long day at this point. I do feel that an exhibit of this type would be better done in an outside trainyard because exterior photography would be better there, and the crowds were so great that there were cries of “keep moving” single file through the occasionally cramped traincars. It was difficult to get a really good shot in several cars, which is why I didn’t get more. Still, this would seem to be a one-of-a-kind exhibit, especially in NYC, and it remains to be seen if GCT will do another one anytime soon.
I may have erred regarding identifying cars — I welcome corrections in Comments.