There were few joys as sweet as finishing a long day at the office, hustling to Grand Central Station and miraculously finding an empty seat in your train’s bar car. While the drinks were certainly nothing special, watching the city dissolve into the countryside made even the humblest of cocktails taste like a rare luxury.
As far as anyone knows, Metro-North’s New Haven line, which runs from Manhattan’s elegant Grand Central to the Connecticut city, was the last train company in the country (not counting Amtrak) to offer bar cars. To the dismay of countless commuters, bars on wheels were taken out of service in May 2014.
But to the surprise of thirsty tri-state-area travelers, bar cars will be rolling again—though probably not till mid-2018. However, leaked information about the return of the beloved tradition caused the type of stir normally reserved for scoops on the latest Star Wars movie or the tech specs of the newest iPhone.
Why were they retired in the first place? Well, a new fleet of passenger cars called M-8s had hit the tracks and the rail line’s bar cars were not compatible. And to be honest, the mobile watering holes had been used well past their prime. One mechanic, posting a comment on ++BarCar.com++ [BarCar.com], wrote that he felt sorry for anyone drinking in them: “I can speak from five years of experience of working on these cars when I say that these cars are the poorest maintained of the entire Metro-North fleet.”
He went on to explain that the mechanics were tasked with keeping them on the rails to gather revenue and suggested that if a repair would have kept one of the bar cars in the yards, it was skipped.
To me, however, their decay and fragility was part of the charm of the experience. Bar cars serve as an important link to an incandescently lit New York of yore. The sort of Big Apple in which Frank O’Hara took walks and Joseph Mitchell prowled the Bowery.
Ordering new bar cars, it seems, did not fit into the budget during the Great Recession, since, according to Metro-North officials quoted in the New York Times, they were too expensive to design. (It is a fair argument given that the Connecticut Department of Transportation says each standard M-8 costs about $3.85 million and the bar cars tack on an additional $530,000.) But the same article reported that Cesar Vergara, who had designed the interiors of the M-8 commuter cars, had made a few initial concept plans for a bar car.
He hasn’t been a part of the recent announcement and while his ideas may very well be incorporated into the current designs, no one has asked him to work on the project.
“The news of the return of the bar car is most welcome,” Vergara told me, “as it promises to make the commute a little less mundane.”
Which is exactly the point.
Over the past few years, riders have had to make due with buying big beers from the carts that sit at the top of Grand Central’s platforms. (They are, by the way, one of the cheapest beers available in the entire city.) But sitting alone in your seat, looking out the window as you slurp an oversize Budweiser is very different than chatting the hours away in a rolling tavern amid a jovial group of like-minded folks. One could connect in a bar car. One could gamble (myriad stories of fortunes won and lost in mid-trip dice games abound).
But, perhaps most important, one could rise above the commute and ease the transition between the worlds of work and home. The brilliance of the bar car is that there was one leaving every hour through happy hour. I, for one, can’t wait for their return.