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December 20, 2018

"Getting There" - The Twentieth Century Limited

It was possibly the most famous train in American history:  The Twentieth Century Ltd ran between Grand Central Terminal and Chicago for 65 years, offering the finest in accommodations and services.

The first train of this name ran in 1902, making the journey in 20 hours, four hours faster than before.  By 1905 the running time was cut to 18 hours.  So confident was the operator, New York Central RR, of delivering on-time performance, they offered each passenger $1 per hour for any delays.  And that’s when a one-way fare was about $50 for a sleeping section.

The train was like a land cruise, complete with two-car dining car, observation lounge and bar, a valet, barber and even a secretary who could take dictation.  By 1928, its peak year, the Twentieth Century was bringing in $10 million a year, making it the most profitable train in the world.

It was so popular, it didn’t just run one train a night but as many as seven different sections, each outfitted with the same equipment and staff.  By the end of the decade departure was pushed back to 5:30 pm as passengers boarded from a purpose-built red carpet rolled out each evening on the GCT platform.

All of the premium compartments and bedrooms were arranged so they faced the Hudson River so passengers could enjoy the view.  The powerful Hudson class of locomotives could pull the 18-car train at a steady 90 mph.  To save time in refueling, it even took on water for its steam boilers running at speed using a pan and scoop system built in the middle of the tracks, still visible today south of Albany.

Billed as “the water level route”, the NY Central competed well against its arch rival The Pennsylvania RR’s “Broadway Limited”.  Travel times were similar, but the Century promised a smoother ride compared to the Pennsy’s which crossed the Allegheny Mountains.

In 1939 the Century got a major makeover by Henry Dreyfuss, a theatrical designer who had moved into industrial design.  Dreyfuss went on to bring streamlined design to vacuum cleaners, telephones and dozens of household items.  His remake of the Century included everything from car interiors to dinnerware.

Service continued during World War II and by 1948 another redesign saw steam locomotives replaced with diesels.  The NY Central ordered 500 new cars and its flagship train now offered such innovations as fluorescent lighting and an onboard shower. But increased competition by airliners was eating into the train’s profits.

A three hour flight between NY and Chicago required a crew of six.  But a 16 hour train ride on the Century had a crew of 50 and the engineers would change shifts every 100 miles and receive a day’s pay.  This was an expensive train to operate.

By the mid-1950’s the train lost its Mail & Express cars while construction of the NY Thruway, paralleling its route, saw a further loss of passengers and revenue.

On December 2, 1967 the once glorious Century made its last run from Grand Central, only half-full and almost 10 hours late into Chicago.

Today Amtrak offers a similar run, The Lakeshore Ltd, which completes the journey in 19 hours… and is usually late.  It has sleeping cars and coaches, but the dining car no longer serves hot food, only a boxed lunch.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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