The cocktails started early, before the train left Manhattan, and by 6 p.m. most of the passengers were already on the second round. Tiny vodka bottles and punched ticket stubs littered the floor. A game of dice by the bar was getting rowdy as a couple canoodled in the corner, beers in hand.
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The bar car is a mainstay of the commuting life, a lurching lounge on wheels inseparable from the suburbia of Cheever and “Mad Men.” “The commute is so bad as it is,” explained Paul Hornung, a financial worker, as he sipped a Stella Artois. “This is the one thing you can look forward to.”
But perhaps not for long.
Having survived numerous attempts at prohibition and outlasted its brethren in the suburbs of Chicago and New Jersey, the bar car out of Grand Central Terminal is now facing its gravest threat: the great recession.
A new fleet of cars will soon replace the 1970s-era models now used by commuters on the Metro-North Railroad line heading to Connecticut. But with money tight, railroad officials said they could not yet commit themselves to a fresh set of bar cars, citing higher costs for the cars’ custom design.
“They’re being contemplated,” said Joseph F. Marie, Connecticut’s commissioner of transportation. “But we have not made any final decisions.”
Defenders of the boozy commute say it helps raise revenue: After expenses, bar cars and platform vendors made $1.5 million last year, up from $1.3 million in 2008. (Officials would not say if a bar car makes more money than a car with the normal number of seats.) So far, 300 new train cars have been purchased, featuring airline-style headrests and graceful luggage racks. But officials say the bar cars remain a low priority, and may not be ordered.
“A decision was made early on that more seats on the trains was our top priority and that bar cars — as popular as they are — could wait,” said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for Connecticut’s department of transportation, which operates New Haven Line trains in conjunction with Metro-North. “It was about that simple.”
The existing bar cars, much beloved for their homey wood paneling, cannot be operated with the new fleet, which is expected to be phased in starting at the end of this year.
That prospect did not go down well with the regulars on a recent weekday ride to Bridgeport.
“It raises my anxiety level,” said Tom Skinner, a marketing executive from Westport and proprietor of BarCar.com, a Web site devoted to the steel-wheeled saloon. “There’s always people trying to scuttle the bar cars. It’s just a fact of life.”
Smoking was banned on the cars in the 1980s, much to riders’ chagrin, but the diehards fought back against any attempt to end liquor service. The most recent threat, in 2007, would have banned alcohol from being sold on the trains and on platforms at Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station, but an outcry prompted officials to reject the proposal.
Full-fledged bar cars — complete with lounge-style leather seating, cupholders and stools — have been phased out on the Long Island Rail Road (although bartending carts are occasionally wheeled onto trains during the evening rush), and Metro-North trains to much of Westchester County and other points upstate no longer offer the amenity. (Even Ossining, home to Don Draper, is out of luck.)
Which makes Connecticut riders (and a few who get off before the border) all the more territorial about their rare perk.
“This is a civility of days gone past,” said Michael Mahan, a commuter since 1984, as Stamford sped by and he took another sip of white wine. “I would miss them very much.”
Among the anxious is Cesar Vergara, a Ridgefield, Conn., resident and a veteran train designer who created the interior of Metro-North’s new commuter cars, known as M-8s. As part of his contract, Mr. Vergara designed several concepts for a modern-day bar car, including more space for group seating and a smaller, more streamlined bar to replace the current cramped setup. But he acknowledged that his vision may never become a reality.
“The M-8 bar car, right now, is in a very political realm,” Mr. Vergara said.
Indeed, Connecticut rail officials would not provide images of the prototype designs, which have been reviewed by focus groups, although Mr. Marie, the commissioner, mused a bit on what might work. “It would be nice to create a row-bench type of environment,” he said. “Kind of like in a pub.”
Modeled after the private club cars of the early 20th century, the Grand Central bar car sought to bring a perk of high society to the everyday commuting class. Still, the car’s current incarnation is more bar-around-the-corner than Tavern on the Green.
The cars tend to break down, air-conditioning is creaky, and commuters have been known to sneak duct tape aboard for impromptu repairs.
“I wouldn’t care if they went,” Pat Charla, an environmental consultant on the Bridgeport-bound train, said of the bar cars. “It’s one of those holdovers from the past.”
But some would not have it any other way. Jeffrey Maron, a rider from Stamford, said that the new designs floated by officials reminded him of a “snack shop” and that his only request for a new design would be “more cupholders.”
No satellite TVs?
“Nah,” Mr. Maron said. “Half the crowd are Yankees fans and half the crowd are Red Sox fans. You’d have a war in there figuring out what to watch.”