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Amtrak set to turn lights out on Boston-to-D.C. sleeper cars

BOSTON -- Perhaps signaling the end of an era, Amtrak is bidding goodnight to the sleeper car on its red-eye Twilight Shoreliner to-and-from Washington, D.C., according to the Boston Herald.

With Amtrak's Northeast Corridor now the proving ground for high-speed rail in America, this weekend will mark the last time the throwback cars - complete with showers, room service and porters who cater to a passenger's every whim - make the run to and from the nation's capital.

“What a shame,” said one local railroad aficionado who wished to remain anonymous. “It's a (nine) hour train ride to Washington. That's a perfect overnight run for someone that wants to have dinner here and have a nice, comfortable ride to Washington for business.”

But Amtrak officials acknowledging the changing winds along its Northeast Corridor, where Acela Express is now capturing close to 40 percent of the airline ``shuttle market,'' say the move was prompted more by the agency's long-standing financial woes.

Those have been exacerbated recently by a string of recent Amtrak crashes that have caused a domino-effect, prompting officials to move some of its equipment around to maximize profits.

“When you change service, it's never an easy decision, especially in a situation like this,” said Amtrak's James Weinstein, a senior vice president in charge of the Northeast Corridor. “We didn't make the decision lightly . . . but in light of the fact we've got the premium rail service in this country (with Acela Express), we think it's the prudent thing to do.”

The last sleeper car train out of Boston will leave Sunday night, while the last return trip with sleeper cars will be on Monday. The nostalgic ride on the Twilight Shoreliner - which actually runs through Washington to Newport News, Va. - has decent ridership numbers, with the standard sleeper cars seeing 62 percent occupancy rates.

The Shoreliner replaced Amtrak's Night Owl in the summer of 1997. The Night Owl dates back to Amtrak's early days, and rail buffs say other railroads offered sleeper car service between Boston and Washington dating all the way back to the 1930s.

The new service brought more comfortable cars that show first-run movies and provide travelers with four different channels of music.

One-way fares for the sleeper cars run between $178 and $359. Fares in the business-class cars range from $81 to $106.

The sleeper cars that will bid adieu to the Hub this weekend will be shifted over to Amtrak's 18 long-distance routes.

Despite the approach of the busy summer travel season and popularity of sleeper car service in other parts of the country, some think Amtrak is making a mistake.

“The information I've seen does not make it sound to me like it's a smart decision,” said Ross Capon, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Railroad Passengers. “They have a finite number of sleeping cars and where they deploy them, but I'm not satisfied at this point the decisions that have been made are the right ones.”

Capon said the sleeper cars on the Twilight Shoreliner offer a perfect counterpoint to the Acela Express.

“There are people who might take the Acela Express in one direction who might consider the overnight train going home if it had a sleeper car,” he said.

The good news, according to Weinstein, is that the move might not be permanent. Amtrak currently has 23 sleeper cars at its Beech Grove, Ind., maintenance facility that could be fixed up and put back into use either here or along the long-distance routes.

“I think people who enjoy and have patronized this kind of train travel are going to miss it,” said Weinstein. “But hopefully we'll get to the point financially and from an equipment standpoint where at some point in the future we'll be able to restore (the sleeper cars).”

Monday, May 20, 2002

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