Railroads & Locomotives History Commentary: A train with no name is just not the same

Commentary: A train with no name is just not the same

By Bill Stephens | June 30, 2024

| Last updated on July 1, 2024

Named passenger trains connect past and present

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A train with no name…

blue and silver Amtrak train on tracks by station
Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited pulls in to Union Station in Springfield, Mass., on May 8, 2024. Bill Stephens

With the world changing at an accelerating pace, there’s something comforting about standing on a station platform, putting your left foot on the standard Amtrak-issue yellow step stool, and climbing aboard a train. Not any old train, mind you, but a passenger train with a name.

A train that carries a name has a certain cachet lacking on trains — and flights, for that matter — that are identified only by number. Today it’s the Boston section of Amtrak’s westbound Lake Shore Limited, which squeals to a stop at Union Station in Springfield, Mass., at 3:19 p.m.

Moments before you board, a random thunderclap booms overhead. You’re due to step off coach No. 25124 at 11:23 p.m. in Rochester, N.Y., where the next day Genesee & Wyoming will celebrate the 125th anniversary of its namesake short line.

Like G&W’s original salt-hauling railroad, train names endure and even span centuries. You could have boarded Amtrak’s first Lake Shore Limited on Halloween in 1975 — and every year since. Of course, the name itself is a revival of the original New York Central Lake Shore Limited that began running between Chicago and New York on May 30, 1897.

The fact that you’ve ridden the Lake Shore many times enters your mind as the train eases out of Union Station three minutes early. Those memories will have to wait because the present demands your attention: The thunder was a harbinger.

Just past CSX’s West Springfield Yard, torrential rain comes down, followed by hail bigger than marbles. Up on the point, well-worn Amtrak veteran P42s No. 115 and No. 111 shrug it off. The deluge pelts the coach windows as CSX hoists a flood warning between mileposts 115 and 126 of its Berkshire Subdivision. By the time you reach the warning area, the sun is breaking through and neither the West Branch of the Westfield River nor its tributaries pose any risk of washouts at the base of Washington Hill.

With the threat past, the only flood comes from your memories of trips on named trains. And it dawns on you that you can remember every one of them. Ask me to call up a memory from a trip on a nameless train and you’ll get a blank stare. But named trains? They’re different.

Some trips included firsts, like the snug Slumbercoach accommodations on the westbound Lake Shore, followed by the flying sensation you experience from your seat in the Southwest Chief’s Sightseer Lounge en route to Kansas City. That trip, which began in the wee hours of April 2, 1995, at the Buffalo-Depew, N.Y., station, was an oddity. It was the night of the spring ahead to Daylight Saving Time. So the Lake Shore cooled its heels for an hour in Buffalo so it could maintain its published schedule at upcoming stations.

There were humorous episodes, like the time you boarded the Lake Shore in Grand Central Terminal, made your way to your sleeping car, pulled back the curtain, and were surprised to find an attractive blonde woman occupying your roomette. Somehow, the roomette had been double booked. Since she’s only going as far as Albany, the car attendant sends her to coach.

Man with shaved head wearing eyeglasses and blue open-collared shirt.
Trains Columnist Bill Stephens
Later, the Hudson River blurs by while you’re seated in the dining car with a couple of British blokes. They’re typical Brit hilarious, but they find nothing funny about their New York strip steak. One breaks his plastic knife while trying to cut through the overcooked slab of beef.

There have been family trips, too. Taking the Lake Shore from Buffalo to Springfield to avoid the hassle of driving through a New England snowstorm; opening the adjoining sleeper bedrooms on the Lake Shore and California Zephyr by day on a trip to Colorado with my in-laws; and a freezing trek home for Christmas on a snow-covered Maple Leaf.

Even work trips have been memorable. There’s no better desk than a business class seat on the Vermonter, where you glance out at Long Island Sound, sip wine, and snack on cheese and crackers while cranking out a the sidebar to a Trains feature.

Workaday numbered trains come and go rather anonymously. But named trains provide a sense of continuity, a connection to your own past, and evoke the rich history of railroading.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on LinkedIn and X @bybillstephens

4 thoughts on “Commentary: A train with no name is just not the same

  1. Well said! The names of trains ridden which I have trouble remembering are Northeast Corridor holdovers from the Pennsylvania-New Haven era: The Merchants Limited, Murray Hill, Colonial, Federal, Congressional, Senator. Amtrak appropriated the names but they all got junked in the mid-90s product line era into the Northeast Regional brand, wisely perhaps, because there were few differences between trains. The product line did create the Boston-Newport News Twilight Shoreliner with the arrival of Viewliner sleepers, but that one didn’t survive either

  2. DPM once related that passenger trains provide the window through which the public views the railroad. Those views have shaped opinions and influenced decisions. A public railroad should know that better that most others.

  3. The Desert Wind and Night Owl were two of my favorites in the Amtrak era. Rode the Night Owl many times from BOS TO WAS.

  4. Some train names just sound good rolling off your tongue. My favorite in this category is Tamiami Champion.

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