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Eye on the News

Matthew Hennessey
Passing the Bar
Nostalgia for the Metro North’s bar car is misplaced.
29 November 2013

For years, a steady drip of stories in the media has forecast the imminent demise of the few remaining bar cars operating on Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven line. Metro-North’s shiny train car of the future, the M8, is mechanically incompatible with older railcar models used on the line, and the Connecticut Department of Transportation has so far decided against spending $80 million to order bar cars from Kawasaki, the company manufacturing the M8s. As the M8 gets phased in, the bar cars will get phased out. Metro-North says that M8 cars already provide more than half the service on the New Haven line and its branches.

Last call is coming for the bar car, but no one knows for sure when it will be. As many as five evening rush-hour trains from Grand Central Terminal feature bar cars, and some commuters still gleefully share information about track assignments and departure times on Twitter and websites such as WherestheBarCar.com. But these enthusiasts are fewer in number than journalists who cover the transportation beat would have you believe. Stories about the bar car’s last days typically come packaged with a double shot of nostalgia. The bar car is often called a “commuter favorite” and a “cherished tradition” with a “great atmosphere.” It is presented as a delightful relic of days gone by, a comfortable and sophisticated place to sip a Gibson as day fades to night and work fades to play. How very John Cheever—riding the bar car home to Connecticut with the stock brokers and the Brooks Brothers set.

But it’s hard to believe that the classy, genteel, full-service bar car ever existed anywhere but in the movies. Its cramped quarters and drab decor resemble nothing more sophisticated than the average city bus. It is a charmless steel canister where the voices of big-bellied men boom off faux-wood paneling as the day’s deals or the weekend’s Little League results are boasted about in immodest, half-drunken detail. A handful of sofa-style seats at opposite ends are meant to promote conviviality, but those on one end are hard by the rest room, and those on the other are quickly snapped up. As a result, most bar car patrons stand. Standing is always challenging on a moving train, but the bar car’s narrow, oblong windows are all at seat level, so standing passengers looking to enjoy the scenery as it rushes past are forced to bend at the waist—a posture that makes drinking somewhat challenging. The bartenders, if they can be called such, carry themselves in the brusque manner of unionized public employees. The whole experience is cheap and transactional; the very opposite of elegance and grace, the inverse of Brooks Brothers. Ordering a cold one in the bar car is like ordering a cold one in the ballpark, except here the ballpark is moving, you’re off-balance, and there’s no ballgame.

From a drinker’s perspective, the bar car’s offerings are meager: watery domestic beer, mostly, with a smattering of everyday imports like Heineken and Stella Artois. You can get gin and tonic if you want, but before you do, make sure you’re the type who enjoys slurping cheap booze out of a plastic cup through a tiny red straw. Don’t get me wrong—I like a drink. And I’ve got nothing against a seedy gin joint (or a ballpark, for that matter). But the bar car in its current form is just a sham. The sooner it goes the better. The biggest nail in its coffin has been this: There’s nothing that you can get there that can’t be purchased trackside from one of Grand Central’s numerous rush-hour bar carts.

The real drinking man knows that the place to be these days is not the bar car, but the quiet car. The easternmost car on every rush-hour train into and out of the city—inbound, it’s the last car; outbound, the front car—the quiet car, introduced last year, offers a “voluntary and self-monitoring” haven for sleep, reading, or peaceful reflection. “Customers can converse in the quiet car but they must use subdued voices,” the railroad said in a press release at the time. How’s that for Cheeveresque? Customers can carry on as much or as little alcohol as they like.

Anecdotally, the quiet car experiment has been a great success—and not, as you might expect, at the expense of those looking to socialize on the train. Once the front car became the quiet car, a boisterous group of half a dozen men who used to meet there on a Friday evening express to New Canaan voluntarily shifted their weekly soiree to a rear car. Riders have demonstrated an unexpectedly game attitude about whispering into their cell phones and keeping their conversations short. Confrontations, to which you’d imagine surly, high-powered commuters would be particularly prone, happen rarely. The odd snore is just about the only sound you hear—except, that is, for the metallic clack and hiss of someone opening a can of watery domestic beer.

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