Long Island Rail Road had bar cars on regular commuter trains until sometime in the 1990s. The railroad also operated “parlor cars” to the East End of the Island on Fridays and back on Sundays during the summer, until a few years ago. These cars were commuter clubs, at least unofficially, patronized primarily by managers who spent their summer week-ends together at the Hamptons and other seasonal playgrounds at the east end of the Island. The parlor cars are gone, but the LIRR still sells drinks on the seasonal Cannonball, a summer express train from New York Penn Station to Montauk on Friday afternoons, with a return trip on Sunday evenings. This service is for “Hamptons Reserve” customers who sit in two special cars with bar service. The equipment is the normal bi-level equipment used for the rest of the train consist, but the extra fare is $20 or $21. This season’s Cannonball made its first run this past week-end.Standardization, and a reluctance to spend public money on anything fancier than passenger accommodation that would violate the Geneva Convention play a role. But we're not in the Don Draper or Man in the Gray Flannel Suit world any more.
It appears unlikely that Metro-North eliminated the bar cars merely to save money. Illinois rail advocate Pete Loomis posted this reaction to their demise: “How … do you lose money (or not make enough) with a bar car? A captive, thirsty and mostly wealthy clientele at cocktail time? The profit on drinks is sky-high.” It also seems unlikely that passenger-carrying capacity was an issue. New York advocate Joseph M. Clift, former Director of Planning for the LIRR, told this writer: “The bar cars can hold more people than any other cars. Many of the riders would stand and hang onto a post while they drank.” Still, Metro-North is retiring the M-2 Connecticut cars and replacing them with the new M-8 cars. It appears that the railroad does not wish to spend money on special-order interiors for a few cars.
In some ways, commuting is not what it used to be, and neither is drinking. The bar cars were men’s clubs, and so were commuter trains generally. More women are commuting today, and young commuters were not flocking to bar cars as their elders did. Also, commuters do not necessarily take the same train every day, as their predecessors did in an earlier era. The unofficial “commuter clubs” that formed in the bar cars have been moving steadily toward the attic of history for several decades. Cultural attitudes about drinking have changed, too. It is not as fashionable an activity as it had been years ago. Drinking on a train, and then getting off and driving the rest of the way home, is a recipe for danger and possibly jail time.Or, in proper City of New Orleans fashion, "penny a point, no one keeping score, Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle." Bring your own is the Chicago going home tradition these days, except if Metra implements a container ban on trains, which is common during festival season.
Friday, May 9th marked the end of an era. Fortunately, the smoking that had been associated with drinking on trains for so many years is long-gone. Drinking habits have changed. Commuters have changed, too. Some, who emulated the fictitious Tom Rath, will miss the opportunity to unwind by having a drink with their bar-pals on the way home on the train. Others are more interested in getting home to their families and other aspects of their lives. Many no longer commute at traditional peak-commuting times. Whenever they travel, there are plenty of places where they can grab a drink, either before leaving the City or after getting off the train.