A very sad day for railroading-Commuter's bar car rolls into history

After the previous post I thought it best to get a little more serious and this is a very sad story indeed.

Take it from me who has passed a lot of time in the club car, tavern car,  bar car, Pacific Parlor car on the Coast Starlight, I find this quite a tragedy. My family traveled by train almost exclusively when I was very young and from age 3, I have traveled 98% of time by train. I have never ridden commuter trains to work and back but I have known people who have. I am sure if I lived in this region and rode any commuter train that had a bar car, that is WHERE you would FIND ME especially on the commute home. Seems that nothing is safe nor sacred anymore. PatriotUSA


Last call for commuters’ bar car

Commuters in the bar car on the New Haven Line out of New York City, Feb. 29, 1968. The Metro-North Railroad retired what were thought to be the final bar cars in America on Friday, for decades an anachronistic haven for weary commuters looking for a drink or camaraderie.  Photo from Barton Silverman / New York Times News Service

By Matt Flegenheimer • New York Times News Service / 


There are those who sip discreetly on subway trains, reaching for the paper bags in their coat pockets, or pull flasks from their knapsacks in the darkened back corners of a city bus.

Such is the stigma of drinking in transit, where the sloshed are supposed to have boarded that way.

But for decades, passengers on the Metro-North Railroad have found a workaround amid the fake wood panels and lounge-style seating of the bar car — the space where everybody may or may not know your name, but none would dare cast a judgmental glare about that fourth beer before the Stamford station.

“The two words you don’t want to hear on the bar car,” said Steve Schleier, clutching his beer can en route to Fairfield, Conn., on Thursday evening. “Last call.”

And yet, for the last commuter-rail bar cars believed to be operating in the United States, it is indeed the end of the line. The last of Metro-North’s old car fleet, introduced in the 1970s, has aged out of the system; the 7:07 p.m. train Friday from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven was the bar car’s final ride before its retirement at the hands of a new, barless model.

Since before World War II, when rail was king and Prohibition was dead, the rolling saloon has been a national staple — its contents relied upon to make the strangers less strange, the commutes less interminable. At the end, there were only four bar cars left, according to the American Public Transportation Association, all on Metro-North.

On Thursday, the regulars were left to reminisce, toasting the traveling Christmas parties and medium-stakes sports wagers, softball league allegiances forged on the rails and love stories that owed their start to the spirits of the New Haven line.

“There’s also been affairs,” said Terri Cronin, chairwoman of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council and a bar car veteran from the East Norwalk stop. “I’ve heard.”

Aboard the 5:26 p.m. train to Bridgeport, riders traded hugs, fist bumps, tales of golf course conquests.

Somewhere near South Norwalk, the bartender, Danny Wickline, 55, hushed the masses as they held cups aloft, interrupting a well-attended dice game on his countertop.
“You’ve taken very good care of me,” Wickline said, looking up and down the bar. “I appreciate it. I love you all.”

The people loved him back, they said, many forming a line to kiss the bartender on the cheek, mouth or both.

An unfamiliar quiet curdled, briefly.

“Back to work!” a rider shouted, adding a profanity, as the crowd roared anew.

Even to defenders, the car is a curious anachronism, culled from an era of liquid lunches and onboard cigars. Smoking was banned inside cars in the 1980s, over some rider objections, but the New Haven bar car has survived, outlasting vanquished drink service carts on other commuter rail operations in the New York area — Metro-North’s Harlem and Hudson lines, and the Long Island Rail Road.

At their peak, Metro-North said, there were 10 bar cars. As the number has dwindled, travelers have grown fiercely protective of the privilege, coordinating rides via emails and texts in recent years to ensure the cars would fill.

A website, BarCar.com, founded in 1997, has dedicated itself exclusively to celebrating “this social phenomenon that exists in limbo between work and home.”

An onboard cocktail, the site reads, is “the perfect antidote for the grind that is business in the 20th century.”

That no one bothered to change the date is telling. The bar car seems to have proved too much for this century, its romance bewildering to detractors who saw little but a rolling office party with overtaxed cup-holders and cushions absorbing wayward suds.
“Society has changed, DWI laws have changed, the relationships of men and women have changed,” said Mitchell Pally, a board member for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North. “You can wait the hour to get off the train and do what you’re going to do.”

The bar car’s less social descendant, the cafe cars of Amtrak, still sell beer and liquor amid the sandwiches and chips, but offer little in the way of kinship, with travelers often returning to their seats to imbibe in solitude.

Even the drink carts at Grand Central, where Wickline will now work exclusively, have been subjected to modern flourishes. Trail mix, protein bars and energy drinks are now available.

“It’s a rebranding,” said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the transportation authority.
Many riders were adamant that the branding had been fine the first time. The bar car’s attraction was not the drinks, they said, but the people who hoisted them, all while respecting a strictly enforced code.

Extreme overindulgence was rare and diligently policed. Morning interactions were brief, if they happened at all, lest “you get a cup of coffee over your head,” Mark Ludlow, 43, from Fairfield, said.

Riders recalled a fistfight or two, but those in neighboring cars could most likely say the same.

Some residents had turned to the bar car to network between jobs, or conduct business with potential clients.

And the specter of impaired driving, travelers insisted, was never cause for concern.
“These are professional people,” said Jesse Foote, 48, an energy broker from Fairfield, who drank water Thursday. “Make sure your breath is good; drive right home.”

Many held out hope that the bar cars could return, despite the high cost of their custom design. Officials in Connecticut have summoned a team of consultants in a bid to conceive an affordable bar car that could be retrofitted on the new models, known as M-8s, though it is unclear if this is feasible.

Absent such an intervention, the regulars have designated an unquiet car, second from the head, as the de facto bar on each train, with promises of shared six-packs and undiminished cheer.

“They’re putting us out in the general population,” Paul Collins, 60, from Monroe, Conn., said by way of a warning.

Collins stepped out of the car, now filled with the empty cups and stale air of a fraternity party as it neared Bridgeport. Last stop, the speakers said moments later, last call. And then the bar car chugged away.

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6 Comments - Share Yours!:

Nick said...

Drinking and trains do go together ... well, not always ... waking up at the last stop on the south coast of England is not good, obviously ...

Nick said...

Nor is getting drunk in one country, jumping aboard a train with "a wee cerry-oot" to keep your buzz going, then blacking out and remembering nothing until you wake up a few days later.

In a different country.

In a phone box.

Wearing a pair of shorts.

Nick said...

Those were happy days ...

PatriotUSA said...

I don't suppose you might have pictures of your adventure? In shorts, must have been a ball burner my friend.

Nick said...

You mean is there any incriminating evidence? Not any more, haha ..

PatriotUSA said...

Awww...darn it.