20th Century Limited


New York Central 20th Century Limited along the Hudson

This was probably the all-time most famous train

Bruce Wolfe collection, courtesy of Bernie Rudberg
In 1947 a trio of EMD E units are powering the 20th Century Limited southbound along the banks of the Hudson River. This train had just thundered through Beacon and was heading for the engine change at Harmon. Since these diesel engines were not welcome under the streets of Manhattan, an electric engine would pull the limited the rest of the way into Grand Central Terminal.

The Twentieth Century Limited

The Twentieth Century Limited ran as an all-Pullman luxury extra charge sleeper train with a running time between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station (or reverse) in 15 1/2 hours – guaranteed or the passenger would receive some monetary adjustment for lateness. Pulled by a single steam locomotive (except electric motor between Harmon and Grand Central), it made only a few brief stops, mainly for water and crew change. Water was scooped at track speed from pans in the gauge of the rail, but it would have taken much too long to fill the tender with coal at a station stop. During the latter days of steam, upon the introduction of the huge PT tenders, the engines could and did traverse the entire non-electrified route (Harmon-Chicago) without change. An ingenious venting system allowed the tenders to take water on the fly at speeds up to 80mph. With track pans to quench the locomotives’ thirst placed at frequent intervals, they were able to design the tender with a reduced water capacity and an increased coal capacity. Typically, a J3 had only to refuel once per trip.


The Century Girl, or, if you prefer…The Girl of the Century

Joan Jennings Scalfani

Frank Sinatra called her “doll” and mesmerized her with his blue eyes. President Harry Truman cheerfully asked her to join him and his wife, Bess, for breakfast. But Ernest Hemingway was uninterested in her greeting, and Lena Horne, though beautiful, seemed icy.

Getting ready to reprise her role as a “Century Girl” for the 20th Century Limited express passenger train brought back these memories and more for Joan Jennings Scalfani.

“It was a fabulous job because I love to talk and I love to listen,” said Scalfani, 80, recalling her days in the early 1960s as a hostess aboard the historic line. “Those were happy days.”

The Williamsville resident returned to New York City’s Grand Central Station recently as a featured guest for one of the events of the iconic hub’s centennial celebration. A collection of railway cars, including an observation car from the 20th Century Limited, was on display.

Scalfani beamed just thinking about her trip back in time. “This is the highlight of my life,” she said.

On a recent afternoon, the Scalfani sparkle that once charmed Sinatra, Truman and others was working on a young designer who flew in to fit her with a muslin form that would be used to re-create her old Christian Dior uniform in, as she remembers, a “rivermist” blue.

As Scalfani held still so the designer could pin together the pattern and remake her uniform in time for the celebration, the story of her serendipitous career spilled out.

Alex Hartman, working fast to finish the measurements so she could catch a plane back in a few hours, admired her subject’s age and grace.

“You’re my goal,” she said smiling. “You have such a great hourglass. So we’re going to try to keep it.”

Scalfani’s smile fit the glamorous black and white publicity photo from her time as a Century Girl in 1960 and ’61. Scalfani, then 27 and 28, was one of five young women with the public relations job of making sure passengers, famous or otherwise, were comfortable and attended to with services such as sending telegrams and baby-sitting.

The posh train, featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” was known for its passenger-welcoming gifts of small bottles of Chanel No. 5 perfume.

The line ran between New York and Chicago, and made special stops to let on celebrities out of view from the crowds, as it did when Sinatra made his way east to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

“They would kind of slink in,” Scalfani said.

She put her hands together and looked up, as if in prayer, when she recalled meeting Sinatra. She found herself staring at the singer and actor.

“When that door opened and I looked into those blue eyes, I just about fainted,” she said. “He was standing there with a smile on his face because he knew what was going on.”

She asked if he needed a postcard stamp. He smiled.

“Doll, if I want a postcard mailed, I’ll be sure and call you,” he told her.

Then she ran into him a second time when he took the train back to Chicago. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ ” she said. “I got out of there so fast.”

“You shouldn’t have left,” a porter told her later. “He had nice things to say about you.”

The train would leave Grand Central Station at 6 p.m. and arrive in Chicago by 9 the next morning. It had about 26 cars with staterooms, smaller compartments, and dining and lounge cars.

One Century Girl was assigned to each trip.

“The train was beautiful,” she said. “In the center lounge car there were love seats. … It was a very classy-looking interior. It wasn’t trainlike; it was like a living room,” Scalfani said.

During the recent weekend, the collection of train cars at Grand Central Station  included the “Hickory Creek.” It was the last car on the 20th Century Limited, with an observation lounge and wraparound windows.

It was the sort of car where Harry and Bess Truman might have stayed when she asked them during their breakfast whether they had rested well.

“The president said, ‘Won’t you join us?’ And I certainly couldn’t say no,” she said. “They were very pleasant and very down-to-earth.”

Silent-movie comedian Harold Lloyd asked her to join him for lunch. “You’ve been so kind to me,” he told her. “I’d love you to join me for lunch.”

“He really appreciated the fact that I spent so much time there at his doorway,” Scalfani said.

Decades later, she still regrets not accepting his offer.

As she remembers it, Hemingway was less talkative. The author “was more interested in having dinner,” she said. “I didn’t stay too long.”

Horne, traveling with her jazz pianist husband, Lennie Hayton, was lovely but even less interested. The singer and actress “looked like she wanted me to get out of there,” Scalfani said. “In person, she was even more gorgeous.”

In 1961, after 15 months on the job, the Century Girls were among the thousands laid off after a railroad strike. Scalfani, who grew up in Baltimore, eventually moved to Buffalo in a marriage that ended in divorce. She raised two daughters here. Her career in nonprofit management included almost a decade as director of Episcopal Charities.

During the weekend, for the first time since the 1990s, she traveled back to Grand Central Station and her Manhattan neighborhood.

She talked with people, autographed photos and read a story – “Two Little Trains” – to children. A videographer interviewed her, and she participated in a panel of railroad people to explain what train travel used be like.

Scalfani said she found train passengers to be in-depth people with a leisurely attitude. They had time to sit, look out the windows and think about the towns and countryside rolling by. And they talked.

“It’s like, ‘We’ll never see each other again, so I can bare my soul,’ ” Scalfani said. “They took the time, and it was just special.”

She looks forward to putting on the Century Girl suit that always made her feel stylish.

“It’s like being able to turn the clock back,” she said.

See a YouTube presentation featuring Joan Jennings Scalfani in Grand Central Terminal




Interested in Signal Stations on the Electric Division?

 See this blog:



In “The Run of the Twentieth Century” by Edward Hungerford (published by the New York Central System in 1930), shows outside of the change to steam from electric at Harmon, changes at Syracuse, Buffalo and Toledo. Running time under diesel power was, at one point, cut from 16 hours to 15 1/2 hours. Stops were made primarily for crew changes, otherwise the Century “had the road” – it was allowed to proceed unimpeded. The schedule was so precise, waypoints were occasionally timed at the half-minute. As well, the rule which forbade a train from passing a station or timetable waypoint before its scheduled time was modified to allow it to leave a point five minutes ahead of its timetable right.

There is also an old New York Central promo film called “The Flight of the Century”. It’s very much a commercial, rather than a reference work. One could also rent Hitchcock’s classic thriller North By Northwest and follow Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau from Grand Central to Chicago. You join Mr. Grant at ticket window #57 on the upper level of Grand Central, catch the red carpet treatment out on the platform, get a look-see at the club lounge car, the dining car (highly recommend a Gibson with the Brook Trout! ), the sleeper car accommodations as well as a brief look at the E-units on the point upon arrival in Chicago. Also, there is Lucius Beebe’s classic book “The Twentieth Century”, dated about 1962. The train pretty much ran the same route as Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited (including the route to Boston when it had a Boston section). Differences basically include around Albany, where the south bridge across the Hudson into Albany Union Station was demolished, and the entries into both Manhattan and Chicago, where the Century operated out of Grand Central and La Salle Street Stations respectively whereas the Lake Shore uses Union and Penn Stations.

I believe in the late 1930’s, at least, the Century did make a few conditional stops. #25 picked up passengers at Harmon and #26 discharged them. Similarly in reverse, outside of Chicago (Englewood). During the 1940’s for awhile, the Century used the West Shore bypass around Rochester. Westbound passengers were received at Harmon, Albany and Syracuse and discharged short at Englewood. Eastbound passengers were received at Englewood and Toledo and discharged short at Harmon. I have seen a timetable entry where #26 will stop at Gary and South Bend on signal for passengers for Albany and beyond, also #25 will stop at Gary and South Bend to discharge passengers.

Today, the abandoned hulk of Union Station in Gary, Indiana awaits an uncertain future. The station sits among a multitude of elevated railroad mainlines. While the adjacent railroad tracks are alive with freight trains, the station itself is a desolate, lonely place, inhabited by silence, dirt, decay and the occasional vagrant. The once magnificent interior has been stripped of anything of value. The grand hall is now home to pigeons. One hundred years ago, Gary was not the decrepit place it now is. By the early Twentieth Century, Gary was becoming a leading industrial boom town. Steel making on the south shore of Lake Michigan took advantage of the easy access to a multitude of railroad trunk routes that converged in the area and of lake shipping. United States Steel’s Chairman, E.H. Gary was involved in the decision-making that saw the founding of the planned industrial city of Gary. In 1910, a new Union Station was erected along the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and Baltimore & Ohio’s lines through the city. Beaux Arts style was still in vogue but construction utilized the latest in 20th Century cast-in-place concrete. The concrete was scored to resemble stone. Even today, the exterior is in remarkable condition, almost pristine compared to the rest of the structure. Connections were available to the Pennsylvania RR station further down Broadway via convenient electric trolley. On the elevated rights of way, a multitude of freight and passenger trains hustle along the old LS&MS and B&O.

Union Station, South Bend was shared by the New York Central and Grand Trunk Western Railroad. Opened in 1929, its Art Deco facade is immediately pleasing, and is related to other famous stations of the same era. South Bend’s Union station was built at a time when the city was an important industrial center. NYC hired architects Fellheimer & Wagner to design a medium sized station, one that reflected the mood of the country just before the Wall Street crash. Behind the station rises the former Studebaker automobile manufacturing plant, once the source of much of South Bend’s wealth and status. Ideally situated on NYC’s Water Level Route, South Bend prospered, and its Union station was a very busy place. The curving roof resembles the dome of Cincinnati station. The brickwork details and window treatments echo Buffalo’s station. Passenger service for Notre Dame University located in the city must have made the depot especially busy. No doubt football specials each autumn were a part of the ritual. South Bend has always been a hub city in this part of the state. In addition to the NYC & Grand Trunk, the Pennsylvania RR also entered the city. However it did not use Union Station, opting instead for it’s turn of the century depot a few blocks away on the opposite side of the Studebaker plant. Today Union Station is in private use. Amtrak moved to the former 1970 CSS&SB depot.

Some additional items about trains 25/26 from NYC Form 1001 in 1944:
· “Tickets bearing endorsements, i.e. Charity, Clergy, DVS, VAH, Blind and Attendant, Railroad Employee, Furlough will NOT be honored on the Empire State Express, the James Whitcomb Riley, Twentieth Century Limited, and the Mercury except as otherwise shown in note.” The note goes on to list exceptions – there were NO exceptions for the Century.
· “New York Central System passenger trains are frequently operated in two or more sections. It is therefore necessary that friends who expect to wire you en route, or meet you at stations, should know the number of your Pullman car as well as the number or name of your train. When more than one section if a train is operated, it frequently happens that only the regular section will make all the advertised stops. Passengers expecting others to accompany them part of the journey, pr to join them en route, are requested to inquire at starting point what stops will be made.”

I understand the record for the Century on one day was either 7 or 8 sections. In addition, sections of the Century sometimes ran as sections of other trains because of timetable rights. The last section on any given day carried 25/26 number and was the one that made all the scheduled stops.

There were, of course, special service charges on 25/26. These were $3.00 between Chicago and NY, 2.90 between Chicago and Harmon, $2.55 Chicago-Albany, $2.10 Chicago-Syracuse and $1.65 Chicago-Buffalo.

In 1944, train 25/26 listed the following consist – all Pullman, of course
· one drawing room/compartment/2 double bedroom buffet car
· one 18 roomette sleeper
· three 10 roomette/5 double bedroom Pullmans
· three 4 compartment/4 bedroom/2 drawing room Pullmans
· four 13 double bedroom sleepers
· dining car

Multiply that times the number of sections operated and you get an idea of what was required just for this one service, let alone everything else the NYC operated.

Apart from the Central, only a handful of other railroads had “DO NOT DELAY” passenger trains, complete with (employee) timetable schedules down to the half-minute. The New Haven’s Yankee Clipper and Merchant’s Limited were two such trains.

As for timetabling the Century; Numbers 25 and 26 had the singular distinction of being permitted to depart a station fully FIVE minutes ahead of its scheduled time. They had a lot of confidence in the rest of the railroad’s ability to stay clear!

At Grand Central Terminal, the track that the Century routinely departed from did change from time to time. I’ve identified three: 29, 34 and 27.

Whenever there was a problem on the Hudson Division that blocked service, the NYC had a backup route – all main line trains were re-routed on the Boston & Albany to Chatham, NY, where they swung down the NYC Harlem Division for the 127-mile trip on that line into GCT. Rather than getting to ride along the shore of the Hudson River, through the beautiful Hudson Valley, passengers on all of the main line trains including all of the famous name trains of the Great Steel Fleet, then got a chance to see what was then some of New York State’s richest dairy country, the rural Harlem Valley, passing through numerous beautiful little rural towns in Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and northern Westchester Counties before racing through the old suburbs outside of the city in southern Westchester County, and then into Grand Central (and of course vice versa for westbound trains). Overall, this was quite a change of scenery from what would have otherwise been seen along the Hudson Division! I believe the last time a main line train was re-routed down the Harlem Division as a result of a blockage on the Hudson Division was in 1971, not long after Amtrak took over passenger operations from PC. By then of course, the 20th Century Limited and the other great name trains were gone, and the old Upper Harlem Division was slowly falling apart, by then only a shadow of the line it once was.



An advertisement in World War 2 showing the staff of a typical Century
(Photo clipped from an old New York Central Headlight)



The New York Central used these huge Niagara locomotives to haul the Century in the late 1940’s

(Photo clipped from an old New York Central Headlight)



The Century’s pass in the Night



The New York Central kept the Century running when nothing else moved.


Twilight of American Rail Travel
“Twilight of American Rail Travel” means different things to different people. To me, it meant the period in the 1960’s until Amtrak when passenger service went downhill. More specifically, it was the “Empire Corridor” running along the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers to New York City. Before the “twilight”, well maintained, well patronized New York Central trains ran this route. When Amtrak began in 1971, service was sloppy, not as well patronized, and equipment was very “worn”.



Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

The Pullman Porters organized and founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The BSCP was the very first African-American labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation. A. Philip Randolph was the determined, dedicated, and articulate president of this union who fought to improve the working conditions and pay for the Pullman Porters.



Telephone on the 20th Century Limited

Doesn’t sound very impressive in today’s cell phone environment, but when the 20th Century Limited added telephone service, it was really quite an achievement.

What was the phone number for the 20th Century Limited?
When the train was at Grand Central Terminal, it was: MU9-8000. For LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, it was: WA2-4200, and for Boston, it was OX3-1029. Supposedly, these were the phone numbers since the heavyweight era and up until the Century was discontinued, although the proper area codes would have to be appended at some point in time, depending on the origin of the call. In the telephone operator era, you would ask for “Murry Hill 8000”, “Wabash 4200” or “Oxford 1029”. To get the radiotelephone number (post-1946), just ask the overseas operator for “The 20th Century Limited”. The Bell Phone number for the entire NYCRR at GCT, 466 Lexington Ave, and the entire Electric Division PBX, was MUrray Hill 9-8000. Every incoming call was answered by a PBX operator who routed it to the proper extension. If No. 25 was running in two or more sections, the operator would have to consult the reservation office to locate the correct extension. I suspect that the service was seldom used by most passengers, but was held for “celebrities,” and the passenger service department folks were primed to protect their moves (and phone service.)


Interesting Stuff – Ecology and railroads

January 7, 1929 The New York Central Railroad’s “20th Century Limited” runs a record seven identical sections. Eight hundred twenty two people pay the extra $10 fare to ride The Century. An automobile show in New York City gets the credit for this sudden increase in traffic. Combined with other special trains arriving for the show, a record 266 sleeping cars arrive at Grand Central Terminal between 5:00 am and 9:50 am. This is very interesting. It was a harbinger of things to come: the impact of the auto on passenger train travel.  I bet Al Gore understands what a high speed rail system (plus good commuter rail systems) would do for the “fuel bill”! DO YOU?


Empire State Express Equipment

A 1941 issue of Railway Age (Vol. III, no. 25) discussed the new equipment that was being put in service on the Empire State Express.

One article features floor diagrams and pictures of the new cars. The second article goes into the justification for purchase of the new equipment. In doing so, it discusses some of the changes taking place in the industry.

One aim was improved coach travel. It states that 85 percent of the Empire’s revenue was from coach travel, justifiying the switch of the observation from a first class car to a public car. It implies that the standard for the heavyweight train had become (or was becoming)coaches with reclining seats. The eight new Budd coaches in each trainset would seat 448 passengers, whereas eight heavyweights with the old style walkover seats would seat over 600.

It is also interesting to note that a “dedicated” second section was required during the war in the form of the “Advanced Empire,” a train that lasted until the lated 50s.



Twentieth Century Limited Wreck 13 March 1912

Richard Teed collection

The Hudson River seems to be frozen over. There are people walking on the ice.

Click on picture above to see more New York Central pictures in the Fishkill/Beacon area.

Another wreck was at Little Falls (which had the sharpest curve on the New York Central’s “Water Level Route”) when the Westbound “Lake Shore Limited” derailed in 1940 killing 31



Important Dates for the 20th Century Limited (and its “home”:Grand Central)

June 20, 1875 The New York Central & Hudson River Railroad opens the entire Fourth Avenue Improvement in New York City with two of the eventual four tracks in service. The project eliminates grade crossings between Grand Central Station and Harlem River.

June 15, 1902 The “20th Century Limited”, a “train a century ahead of its time” according to contemporary accounts, begins operation. The average speed is 49 mph between New York and Chicago resulting in a 20-hour journey.

January 7, 1929 The “20th Century Limited” runs a record seven identical sections. Eight hundred twenty two people pay the extra $10 fare to ride The Century.

June 14, 1929 The New York Central inaugurates its transcontinental rail-air service to Los Angeles. The route is formed in conjunction with Universal Air Lines (predecessor of United Air Lines) and Santa Fe via Southwestern Limited. Air travel is between Cleveland and Garden City, KS using Fokker Trimotors. Four passengers make the first westbound trip. Also on board: a silver container of Atlantic Ocean water from New York Mayor Jimmy Walker to be presented to the Mayor of Los Angeles.

May 11, 1934 “Twentieth Century”, a movie by Howard Hawkes based on the Broadway play opens nationwide. Considered the first of the “screwball” comedies, the second half of the film is set on New York Central’s premier train.

June 15, 1938 The “20th Century Limited” is equipped with new streamlined equipment and a new schedule that averages 60 mph.

September 15, 1948 New York Central’s postwar “20th Century Limited” is put into service in ceremonies attended by several dignitaries, including General Dwight Eisenhower (ret).

January 9, 1955 The departure of the 20th Century Limited from New York is broadcast live on the Television show “Omnibus”.

December 3, 1967 Last run of New York Central’s “20th Century Limited” as the railroad cancels all but two long distance trains.

Other important or interesting New York Central dates.


What Diesels Pulled Streamliners?
As far as I know, the only NYC passenger train pulled by F units was the streamlined 1948 version of the New England States, which started with sets of 3 F3’s. Probably the reason for this was that the States had to negotiate the Berkshire Mountains and railroads were finding that the early E’s did not do well in mountainous terrain. Trains such as Great Northern’s Empire Builder and Santa Fe’s Super Chief, both of which started out with E units, ultimately were switched to F units.

The E8, however, did much better in mountainous terrain and in short order, the Central stopped using F units on their trains. In fact, I believe the Central never used any builder’s freight model locomotives on its passenger trains, except for the GP7 in later years.

The Central used primarily EMD E units on its passenger trains, though it did also use Alco PA’s, Fairbanks Morse “Erie Builds” and some Baldwin “Baby-faced” passenger units. All were configured with A1A passenger trucks. Eventually, the passenger units from other builders were scrapped and the job of handling the Central Varnish was left to its E7’s and E8’s.


The Century: 1938 and 1948

The 1938 20th Century Limited was a great example of industrial art deco design by famous industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. The classic paint scheme applied to the streamlined Pullmans and the ten Dreyfuss-styled streamlined Hudson’s lasted barely a year before it bagan to be changed. What followed until the introduction of the 1948 Century was a train of continually altered paint schemes and the wear and tear of running through the war years. The 20th Century Limited in 1947 bore little resemblance to the original 1938 train.

The streamlined “Century” debuted in 1938 as 13 car consist. There was enough equipment ordered to run a 2nd section of slightly smaller size. There were two diners in the each of the two regular cars, for a total of four diners in every day service. There were only two spare cars for second section operation.

During the 2nd World War, the train was limited to one section, but the regularly assigned length increased to between 16 and 17 cars. To accommodate a train of this size, the two dining cars in each consist had seating capacities increased from 38 to 44. The barbershop was closed in the club car and used to sleep extra dining car staff. This consist was hauled by diesels toward the end of the war.


From the pages of the Official Guide, September 1938 The 20th Century Limited, New York Central System, August, 1938 timetable,

From the pages of the Official Guide, July, 1956 The 20th Century Limited, New York Central System, July, 1956 timetable,



These streamlined Hudsons hauled the 20th Century Limited before diesels



The observation car inside Grand Central Terminal


Name Trains in the Empire Corridor

Before the world of passenger trains collapsed in the 1950’s, the New York Central was one of the nation’s premier passenger railroads. Its 10,000 miles reached from Boston to St. Louis, but its heart was the four-track mainline from New York City to Buffalo. During the 1920’s, 37 name trains traveled the “Water Level” mainline. This huge mass of trains was sometimes referred to as the “Great Steel Fleet”. The New York Central was traditionally a passenger-oriented railroad. The magnificent four-track main line across New York State carried a profusion of famous and lesser-known limiteds between the major cities of the East as well as trains serving the cities of upstate New York. The years just after World War II saw passenger service hit its peak. Most of the 20 westbound passenger trains between New York City and Buffalo in 1952 were scheduled with the long-haul passenger in mind.

Multi-wheeled third-rail electrics sparked out of the darkness of Grand Central Terminal to begin the march up the Hudson Valley. At Harmon, power was changed to streamlined steam and later to lightning-striped “E” units. At Albany, the trains made a left turn and climbed the only mainline grade. They rolled onward through the Mohawk Valley to Utica, then across dairy farm country to Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. The railroad’s course then followed the Great Lakes to Chicago.

The top-of-the-line train was, of course, the ‘Twentieth Century Limited’. It, and other outstanding New York Central trains, were scheduled for overnight travelers and passed through upstate towns in darkness. The best “day” train for New York State travelers was the ‘Empire State Express’.

The ‘Twentieth Century Limited’ and the ‘Empire State Express’ were originated by George H. Daniels who was the General Passenger Agent and later the first advertising manager of the New York Central. His many contributions to the success of the Central rank him as one of the greats of American advertising. Daniels worked on Mississippi steamboats as a youth and sold patent medicine before joining the railroad in 1889. He was a great publicist and did such things as give “red caps” their name and put the ‘Empire State Express’ on a postage stamp.

The ‘Twentieth Century Limited’ began operation in 1902. It was the ultimate in extra fare luxury train travel. It covered the almost thousand miles between New York and Chicago on a 20-hour schedule. Its experimental forerunner was the ‘Exposition Flyer’ of 1893. In its heyday, it even had a separate ticket window at Grand Central. Because the ‘Twentieth Century’ was all sleepers (solid Pullman), it couldn’t carry a lot of passengers. The record carried was in 1929 when it went eastbound in seven sections and carried 822 passengers – all paying an extra fare. Departure from Grand Central literally received the “red carpet treatment”. A red carpet was rolled out on the platform for the passengers to walk on. The design on the carpet of the train’s name with bars in gray on red background appeared on the tail sign, in promotional literature, on matchbooks and on the train’s chinaware.

Its real role was to serve New York and Chicago. Going west, it picked up passengers only at Harmon, Albany and Syracuse. It didn’t even pass through Cleveland. Eastbound, it picked up at Toledo and discharged at Albany. In the days of steam, it made two locomotive changes – at Harmon and Collinwood. Engine crews changed at Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Collinwood, Toledo and Elkhart. Pullman crews ran the entire trip while other trainmen changed at Buffalo and Toledo.

The equipment on the ‘Twentieth Century’ got better and more expensive as time went on. In 1902, a trainset cost $115,000 and included three Pullmans, a diner and a mail-buffet car pulled by an Atlantic-class engine. Equipment became all-steel by 1912. By 1922, the cost had more than doubled to $250,000. Now pulled by a Pacific, the train included a club car with barber, valet and stenographer. Two diners were required because there were more sleepers. By 1930, the basic consist (including the Railway Mail Service car) was twelve cars, but many times two additional sleepers were needed. The average section of the ‘Century’ had at least one sleeping car divided exclusively into rooms – of both the compartment and the drawing room types – together with an indefinite number of cars into which a varying number of compartments and drawing rooms were introduced into a standard car of upper and lower berths. 14-section cars with nothing but upper and lower berths were popular also. By 1940, the $1,384,000 train was pulled by a streamlined Hudson and had become an all-room train meaning that it had no open sections with upper and lower berths. It even had luxury suites with drawing room, bedroom and shower bath. The heavyweight equipment had been replaced by lightweight alloy-steel cars in a distinctive exterior two-tone paint job with unique striping. Even its schedule had been shortened to 16 hours. This amounted to 961 miles in 960 minutes. 1946 saw the introduction of passenger diesels. It is unclear what train was first pulled by the new GMs. It could have been the ‘Empire State Express’. However, within a few weeks, they were pulling the ’20th Century’ Limited on a steady basis. 1948 saw new rolling stock which included an observation car with a raised “lookout lounge”.

The ‘Century’ usually ran in several sections. An ‘Advance Twentieth Century Limited’ left a half hour or more ahead but the main train could have several sections leaving from parallel platform tracks at about the same time. Since the schedule was important to maintain, winter weather could mean shorter trains and more sections. The early sections of the ‘Century’ often ran a little ahead of the announced schedule and arrived in Lasalle Street Station in Chicago ten or fifteen minutes early. This was because they omitted the intermediate stops and left the final section to strictly adhere to the schedule.

The ‘Empire State Express’ began operation in 1891. Special cars were built for the train by the Wagner Palace Car Co. of Buffalo. 4-4-0 locomotives were built by the Schenectady Locomotive Co. (predecessor of ALCO) using designs by William Buchanan, the road’s Superintendent of Motive Power. It traversed the 436 miles between New York City and Buffalo in 7 hours and 6 minutes (61.40 miles per hour average). Its real job was a a New York to Buffalo day train but it was more famous for setting speed records. In May of 1893, Charles H. Hogan ran the 36 miles between Buffalo and Batavia at 112.5 MPH. His engine, the “999”, was built in West Albany and exhibited after its run at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Advances in equipment were not confined to the ‘Twentieth Century’. The ‘Empire’ became streamlined in 1941. Its open platform parlor-observation cars were replaced with all-weather closed versions. The streamlined ‘Empire’ was stainless steel with fluted sides as opposed to the smooth painted sides of the ‘Century’.

Many track improvements were made over the years. Most notable was the elevation of tracks through Syracuse which eliminated 62 grade crossings and a stretch of track running right down the middle of Washington Street at 15 MPH. When the tracks were taken up in 1936, 39 name trains passed through Syracuse. One impediment that slowed up name trains was the hill west of Albany that required pusher locomotives in the days of steam.

Some of the other name trains which roared up the Hudson and Mohawk valleys were: the ‘Southwestern Limited’ which went to Indianapolis and St. Louis; the ‘Pacemaker’ which went to Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago; the ‘Ohio State Limited’ which went to Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati; and the ‘Commodore Vanderbilt’ to Chicago. Trains westward from Boston joined the mainline at Albany. The most famous of these was the ‘New England States’.

The standard practice during the era of great trains was that (with the exception of dining cars, baggage cars and mail cars) the Pullman Company owned, maintained and furnished the cars. Similarly the crew for the cars (conductors, porters, barbers, maids and secretaries) were furnished by the Pullman organization. The actual train crews (engineers, firemen, conductors, trainmen and baggage- masters) were furnished and paid by the railroad. The railroad crew only exerted an indirect control over the Pullman staff. It is hard to appreciate the size of the train staffs that were required. For instance, a diner (the New York Central operated over 150 at one time) had a steward, eight waiters, a chef and three assistant cooks.

The 1964 Official Guide still showed the railroad in a good light even if passenger service had started to deteriorate. There were nine trains featuring “Sleepercoaches” with single and double rooms. The ‘World’s Fair Special’ carried a “Meal-A-Mat Car” from Buffalo to New York which had continuous service of hot and cold foods and beverages. West of Buffalo, your ticket bought a buffet breakfast. The ‘Empire State Express’ had combined forces with the D&H ‘Laurentian’ to give the rider an impressive array of equipment. ‘The Iroquois’ and the ‘Fifth Avenue/Cleveland Ltd’ carried sleepers to and from Utica for a Lake Placid connection. Service to Malone had ceased and all Montreal passengers went via the D&H. As well as the ‘Ontarian’, at least six other trains featured a Toronto connection. As well as Chicago; Detroit, Cleveland and even St. Louis were an easy route from New York or Boston. Reclining seat coaches were advertised on all name trains. Some typical economy “Sleepercoach” fares (including one-way coach fare and single room charge) were Boston to Chicago $54.85, New York to Chicago $49.16, New York to Detroit $39.54, and Cincinnati to New York $41.83. As well as name trains, the Empire Corridor even had a “Beeliner” between Albany and Hudson that fitted a commuter very well timewise. By then, service to Troy had been replaced by a note in the timetable that frequent connections were available by United Traction Co. busses.

By 1967, the passenger problems that plagued the nation’s railroads had not missed the Central. There were still nine Buffalo trains plus two Albany trains, but many of these had degenerated into mail and express runs with passenger cars tacked on the rear. Additionally, the deficit was high, the equipment was run down, the timekeeping was poor and the railway post office got discontinued.

1967 saw the end of “name” trains on the New York Central as the ‘Twentieth Century Limited’, ‘Empire State Express’, and others were replaced by numbers. The railroad petitioned the Public Service Commission to end all long-haul passenger service and concentrate on serving the less-than-200-mile intercity markets. The New York Central, then Penn-Central’s so-called “Empire Service” was an honest attempt to provide a service that was acceptable to the public and at the same time not a big financial drain on the railroad. Some of the ideas developed at that time were adopted by AMTRAK when it took over the service in the early 1970’s. One of the “near great” trains of the New York Central was the ‘Lake Shore Limited’. AMTRAK revived this name for its New York-Chicago train. The first revival in 1971 only lasted to 1972, but a 1975 restoration is still hanging in there.



20th Century Limited rolls along the Water-Level Route



20th Century Limited passes under the Castleton Bridge



20th Century Limited rolls along the Water-Level Route



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