When a recent fast-moving winter storm coming our way was referred to as a “Clipper,” it got me thinking of the old names that used to be given to specific trains, like The Yankee Clipper. Of course, that name originally derived from the fast sailing ships, but trains have personalities too!
The Europeans do a great job “branding” their trains. There is, of course, “Eurostar,” the popular train between London and Paris via “the Chunnel.” There’s also “Thalys” from Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam, and “Lyria,” a super-fast service from Paris to Switzerland using French TGV’s.
All of these trains sound a lot more exciting than “Acela,” Amtrak’s best effort at high-speed rail. As one-time Amtrak President David Gunn once said, “Everyone knows what Acela is … it’s your basement.”
Amtrak still has some named trains though they are pale shadows of their historic namesakes: the Silver Meteor and Silver Star to Florida, The Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, The Adirondack to Montreal.
The old New Haven Railroad used to name its trains: The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and Senator. When Amtrak inherited The Owl, a night train from Boston to Washington, they renamed it “The Night Owl”. But it was so slow and made so many stops, it was better known to staff and passengers as “The Night Crawler.” It’s long gone.
Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur: Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all … big, NY Central and a dead-end. South Station and North Station in Boston give you a sense of location, like Paris’ Gare de Nord and Gare de L’Est. And Gare de Lyon tells you one of the big cities where the trains are coming from.
On Metro-North most of the station names align with the towns where they are located. But Westport residents still insist on calling their station “Saugatuck” in honor of the adjacent river. And Green’s Farms memorializes John Green’s nearby 1699 farm. But why is the Harlem line station “Southeast” actually far north of New York near I-84?
Though it no longer names its trains, some Metro-North Bombardier-built cars carry names tied to Connecticut lore: The Danbury Hatter (alluding to the city’s old industry), The Ella Grasso (named after our former governor) and my favorite, The Coast Watcher.
Even before Amtrak, America’s railroads similarly named many cars, especially sleepers, parlor cars and diners. Today’s long-distance, double-deck Superliners carry the names of the states and such historic figures as A. Phillip Randolph, founder of the Pullman porters union.
So the next time you’re on some generic Metro-North train known only by a number, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a train with a name like “The Silver Streak” or “The Weary Commuter.”
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You may reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.