Bar Car

Drinking and riding. (Staff Illustration / July 25, 2012)

The New Haven Line is the last commuter railroad in the country to operate bar cars, and the days of these rolling dinosaurs appear to be numbered.

Or maybe not. Depending on who they're talking to, Connecticut transportation officials either definitely plan to replace these increasingly shabby, 40-year-old conveyors of conviviality; or they don't have the money and haven't made a decision even though time is running out.

The bar car is a classic hold-over from a long-ago era of martinis and gibsons, cigarettes and cocktails after work. Lots of veteran rail riders in this state insist they're an institution worth preserving.

"I do love it," says Terri Cronin, a long-time Norwalk commuter who laughingly admits people call her "the Bar Car Queen."

"I've met some great people on the bar cars," Cronin says. "It's not about drinking, it's about being with your friends and meeting new people… It's about sitting and laughing and talking with people after work."

Right now, there are eight of the antiquated pub cars operating every weekday on rush-hour trains out of Manhattan.

At least one of the Metro-North bartenders has a list of favored customers to whom he texts info about which trains will be running with bar cars, says Cronin. There's also a couple of web sites listing the same information for bar-car regulars.

All of the older passenger carriers on the New Haven Line are now in the process of being replaced by modern M8 cars at a total cost of more than $1.1 billion. The spiffy new M8s have improved electronics, roomier seating, better lighting, larger windows, and LED displays showing the next stop.

Representatives for New York and Metro-North, which are this state's partners in the New Haven Line, don't want new bar cars. They're refusing to pay a dime to replace these specialty cars, especially since passengers are free to bring and drink their booze anywhere on the trains. (There are even rush-hour bar carts near the platforms in Grand Central offering mini-bottles for commuter carry-ons.)

Normally, New York and Metro-North pay 35 percent of the cost for new rolling stock like passenger cars. on the New Haven Line, with Connecticut chipping in 65 percent. Negotiations a few years ago resulted in an agreement that Connecticut would pick up 100 percent of the cost for new bar cars.

One estimate the Connecticut Department of Transportation received put the tab for new-style M8 bar cars at something beyond $80 million. Sticker-shocked DOT officials turned that down, saying they'd rather retro-fit new passenger cars if they decided to go the new-bar-car route.

"This would be a new expense," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick says of turning regular passenger cars into bar cars. He says department officials haven't asked for or received any formal estimates for M8 bar-car transformations.

Connecticut is already committed to paying about $715 million as its share of the cost for 405 new M8 passenger cars. "Right now our primary concern… is getting as many M8s on the line as quickly as possible to carry passengers," according to Nursick. "The primary function of the line is carrying passengers efficiently, effectively and safely."

"We do not have money set aside for this," Nursick says of the extra cost for new bar cars.

All those M8 passenger cars are scheduled to be running on the New Haven line by 2014. (There are already 112 of those babies in service.) DOT experts say it would be technically impossible to simply attach the old bar cars to the new trains.

"We don't know at this time," was Nursick's answer when asked last week by the Advocate if the existing bar cars will be replaced or if there's some way to keep the old ones running. "The focus of our M8 plans right now is not the bar cars… The decision [about what to do with the bar cars] has not been made yet."

Members of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council think it has been made. They insist they've been flat-out promised by the DOT that those old-style bar cars will be replaced.

"That's what they've told the council," says Jim Cameron, chairman of the council that represents riders on the Shoreline East and New Haven Line railroads. "I would say they [DOT officials] have made a commitment to the commuter council that they will replace the existing bar cars with M8 bar cars."

Cronin, a Norwalk commuter who's traveled into Manhattan to work for more than a decade, is now vice chair of the commuter council. Her recollection is the same as Cameron's.

"They did promise that, in the last shipment [of the new M8 cars], that eight of those would be converted to bar cars," she says.