Once There Were Bar Cars

by John Delach

When the 7:07 PM Metro North / Connecticut Transit train to New Haven left the Grand Central Terminal on time on Friday evening, May 9, 2014, it’s consist of cars included the last bar / lounge coach operating on any American commuter railroad. Officially dubbed, Café Cars, this forty- something years old unit was removed from service at the end of that run together with three other like lounge coaches.


They were rolling dinosaurs and only lasted this long because Connecticut deferred replacing their M-2 commuter car fleet well beyond other railroads had like Metro North and the Long Island railroads. Their very existence was odd as the Nutmeg State still chose to include Café Cars when they ordered new train sets in the early 1970s at a time  almost all other systems were eliminating these coaches as they modernized their equipment.


Like Chicago; Jim Hagelow recalled “We lost ours years ago and with them, many fond memories. Birthday parties, Cubs outings, ‘Oh Shit’ card games and singing Christmas carols. Every year for years, a fellow from Peat Marwick and I led the car singing carols during our rolling party.” Jim also admitted a universal truth: “I think my wife was happy when it went away.”


Geoff Jones remembered that the older pre-MTA equipment included lounge cars with upholstered chairs and couches that could be move around. “Some had service bars at one end, but there were others with long bars along one side of windows. The railroad had a bartender who rode south from Poughkeepsie in the morning running a continental breakfast service. At night he became the bartender for the northbound run to Poughkeepsie where they put him up in a small apartment. On weekends, he continued further north where his family lived.”


“When the new equipment arrived, booze carts on the platforms at GCT replaced the lounges. But drinks bought there didn’t last to Peekskill where a funny thing often happened on Fridays. The platform is located on a pretty sharp bend of the Hudson. The train emptied on the right so it took the conductor a long time to check it all to see if passengers were safely off. Just across the street was a pizzeria and thirsty commuters who still had a way to go pre-ordered pizzas and six-packs of beer from pay phones in GCT (no cell phones) to meet the train. A designated runner left with the first wave of exiting passengers to secure the order and re-board the train. Usually, the run went smoothly, but I do believe the conductor held the train when it didn’t. The pizza always smelled great but it was only ten minutes to my stop in Garrison so I didn’t join in.”


After the LIRR introduced their new M-1 coaches without bar cars in 1969, for a while they turned trains that went long distances into bar cars by putting a cart and bartender on one of the units. He maneuvered the cart taking over one of the two vestibules in that car. He disabled the doors behind him and the conductor would announce his location. Pity the passengers, especially non-drinkers in that car. A line would snake down the narrow aisle with thirsty patrons competing for space with others carrying their drinks back to their friends. If that didn’t create sufficient discomfort for regular riders, once the bartender came on board, that coach officially became a smoking car!


My own make-shift bar experience came on my son’s last commute to Port Washington before he was to be married and move to Fairfield, CT. I bought four cans of beer to share on our express run home, but while the train was still in Queens, we stopped at a station for what the crew described as a medical emergency. “EMS is on the way and will be here soon.”


The doors were open and I spied a bodega at the end of the platform across Northern Boulevard. “Watch my briefcase,” I said to Mike and made my way as quickly as I could. Dodging traffic, I replenished our diminished rations and made it back as the EMS fellows were removing the distressed commuter from the train. “Hey, is that for us?” one of them called out as I re-boarded.


“Afraid not fellas, but if you had let me know, I would have picked up four more.”