‘Talking Transportation’: Why Do Trains Have Names?

Credit: Saturday Evening Post


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Ah, for the glory days of American railroads!

Back in the day you didn’t just take “a train”, you traveled on The 20th Century Limited or the Broadway Limited (named not for the street but the Pennsylvania Railroad’s four-track wide right-of-way).

Today, trains just have a number. Or a departure time.  But some railroads are trying to give named-trains a new chance.

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.

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 and The California Zephyr

The New Haven Railroad used to name its trains:  The Merchants Ltd., The Owl, The Patriot and The 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 as “The Night Crawler”.  It’s long gone.

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.”

It may well be that Acela will seem like a slow-poke if a new project ever takes wing: a maglev train linking New York and DC.  Out of the blue a few years back I got an online survey from a company testing names for the proposed service.

Among the options I was asked to grade:  “Maglev”, “Quicksilver”, “Aero” and “Magenta”.  Really… magenta?  But clearly these planners knew that before they could even propose such a service, it needed an identity.

Even stations’ names can evoke grandeur:  Grand Central Terminal (not station!) says it all… big, in the center of the city 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”.  And I only wish I knew how Green’s Farms got its name.

Though it doesn’t name 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.

So the next time you’re on some generic, Metro-North car known only by a number or departure time, think of how much more glamorous your commute could be on a car and train with a name like “The Matinee Mule” or “The Weary Commuter”.