25.4.10

AUTHORITIES AND AMENITIES. An American Heritage article on interurbans, written by longtime traction expert William D. Middleton shortly after the North Shore Line quit business and sold its Electroliners to Philadelphia Suburban, noted that the 'Liners' tavern lounges probably faced an uncertain future after the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority takeover. "The new trains contain a vanishing amenity, a bar-lounge section for suburban commuters. How long this service will last is problematical, especially in view of the impending takeover of the line by a transit authority. Authorities and amenities rarely go together." The bar cars remained in service as long as the 'Liners did. Mr Middleton, however, was a prophet. The last common carrier commuter bar cars, on the New Haven line to rich peoples' country, may not be replaced.

Having survived numerous attempts at prohibition and outlasted its brethren in the suburbs of Chicago and New Jersey, the bar car out of Grand Central Terminal is now facing its gravest threat: the great recession.

A new fleet of cars will soon replace the 1970s-era models now used by commuters on the Metro-North Railroad line heading to Connecticut. But with money tight, railroad officials said they could not yet commit themselves to a fresh set of bar cars, citing higher costs for the cars’ custom design.

“They’re being contemplated,” said Joseph F. Marie, Connecticut’s commissioner of transportation. “But we have not made any final decisions.”

Notice my use of "common carrier commuter bar cars." Metra removed the sales racks from the vestibules of selected cars assigned to the Milwaukee North and West, Wisconsin Division, and Rock Island lines in order to provide more seats and more vestibules for in-a-hurry commuters to block. But one subscription club car (the article incorrectly states its age, it's rebuilt from a postwar lounge car once assigned to the Overland Route) continues to roll from Chicago to Kenosha, primarily for Lake Forest swells.

Authorities have to consider the opportunity cost of amenities.

Defenders of the boozy commute say it helps raise revenue: After expenses, bar cars and platform vendors made $1.5 million last year, up from $1.3 million in 2008. (Officials would not say if a bar car makes more money than a car with the normal number of seats.) So far, 300 new train cars have been purchased, featuring airline-style headrests and graceful luggage racks. But officials say the bar cars remain a low priority, and may not be ordered.

“A decision was made early on that more seats on the trains was our top priority and that bar cars — as popular as they are — could wait,” said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for Connecticut’s department of transportation, which operates New Haven Line trains in conjunction with Metro-North. “It was about that simple.”

That "more money than a car with a normal number of seats" is significant. The Dining Department of the North Shore Line operated at a profit right up to the end, but there weren't enough riders buying Electroburgers, Mellow-tang Wisconsin cheese sandwiches, and cold Blatz with their tickets to save the railroad. But catch that "A decision was made." Mr Everhart doesn't want to be the target of the swells' wrath.

Among the anxious is Cesar Vergara, a Ridgefield, Conn., resident and a veteran train designer who created the interior of Metro-North’s new commuter cars, known as M-8s. As part of his contract, Mr. Vergara designed several concepts for a modern-day bar car, including more space for group seating and a smaller, more streamlined bar to replace the current cramped setup. But he acknowledged that his vision may never become a reality.

“The M-8 bar car, right now, is in a very political realm,” Mr. Vergara said. Indeed, Connecticut rail officials would not provide images of the prototype designs, which have been reviewed by focus groups, although Mr. Marie, the commissioner, mused a bit on what might work. “It would be nice to create a row-bench type of environment,” he said. “Kind of like in a pub.”

Mr Vergara is better known as the stylist who came up with the slab-sided Genesis diesels detracting from the front end of Amtrak trains everywhere outside the electric zone. "Kind of like in a pub" is unlikely to work in a rail environment, although a configuration with a passageway along one side of the car, a serving counter in the middle, and lounge areas to either end has possibilities.

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