End of an Era: Demise of the Bar Car


A man can no longer have a civilized tipple while taking the train home from work.

NYT (“Last Stop, Last Drop: Metro-North Bar Cars Chug Into History“):

There are those who sip discreetly on subway trains, reaching for the paper bags in their coat pockets, or pull flasks from their knapsacks in the darkened back corners of a city bus.

Such is the stigma of drinking in transit, where the sloshed are supposed to have boarded that way.

But for decades, passengers on the Metro-North Railroad have found a workaround amid the fake wood panels and lounge-style seating of the bar car — the space where everybody may or may not know your name, but none would dare cast a judgmental glare about that fourth beer before the Stamford station.

“The two words you don’t want to hear on the bar car,” said Steve Schleier, clutching his beer can en route to Fairfield, Conn., on Thursday evening. “Last call.”

And yet, for the final commuter rail bar cars believed to be operating in the United States, it is indeed the end of the line. The last of Metro-North’s old car fleet, introduced in the 1970s, has aged out of the system; the 7:34 p.m. train on Friday from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven was the bar car’s final ride before its retirement at the hands of a new, barless model.

Since before World War II, when rail was king and Prohibition was dead, the rolling saloon has been a national staple — its contents relied upon to make the strangers less strange, the commutes less interminable. But over the years, the bar cars began to disappear: Chicago, one of the last holdouts, abandoned its bar service in 2008.

At the end, only Metro-North remained, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

On Thursday, the regulars were left to reminisce, toasting the traveling Christmas parties and medium-stakes sports wagers, softball league allegiances forged on the rails and love stories that owed their start to the spirits of the New Haven line.


Even to defenders, the car is a curious anachronism, culled from an era of liquid lunches and onboard cigars. Smoking was banned inside cars in the 1980s, over some rider objections, but the New Haven bar car has survived, outlasting vanquished drink service carts on other commuter rail operations in the New York area — Metro-North’s Harlem and Hudson lines, and the Long Island Rail Road.

At their peak, Metro-North said, there were 10 bar cars. As the number has dwindled to four, travelers have grown fiercely protective of the privilege, coordinating rides via emails and texts in recent years to ensure the cars would fill.

A website, BarCar.com, founded in 1997, has dedicated itself exclusively to celebrating “this social phenomenon that exists in limbo between work and home.”

An onboard cocktail, the site reads, is “the perfect antidote for the grind that is business in the 20th century.”

That no one bothered to change the date is telling. The bar car seems to have proved too much for this century, its romance bewildering to detractors who saw little but a rolling office party with overtaxed cupholders and cushions absorbing wayward suds.

“Society has changed, D.W.I. laws have changed, the relationships of men and women have changed,” said Mitchell Pally, a board member for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North. “You can wait the hour to get off the train and do what you’re going to do.”

No doubt. And maybe, aside from changing social mores, it just no longer made economic sense to run these cars. But, despite this affecting me not one iota—I don’t commute between New York or Connecticut, seldom ride a train, and never drink during my commute since I exclusively accomplish it driving my automobile—this somehow strikes me as civilization dying just a little bit.

FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott says:

    My Dad rode the LIRR to NYC all through the 60s and 70s. The bar car was his relaxation. It was also incredibly smoky. Kind of revolting in retrospect. Of course, my parents (and their parents) were part of the cocktail generation where there were drinks before dinner (and after dinner). Now we are so busy we don’t have time for that. Our lives are healthier but I wonder if sometimes we miss something. Or is that the delusion of nostalgia.

  2. I don’t commute between New York or Connecticut, seldom ride a train, and never drink during my commute since I exclusively accomplish it driving my automobile

    Does “it” refer to your commute or your drinking? 😉

  3. rudderpedals says:

    I guess this means it’s back to huffing. That’ll just have to do until the reefer cars are added.

  4. walt moffett says:

    Guess that shots down the idea of a marijuana car

  5. vincent sparry says:

    Life will not be worth living if commuters are drinking carrot juice and eating bean sprouts on their commutes between their soul-crushing underground houses and jobs.

  6. ernieyeball says:

    Not a commuter run but I rode the Illinois Central City of New Orleans several times between Chicago and Sleepytown U in Southern Illinois pre Amtrak. It was at least a 6 hour ride when it was on time. Some of the best parties I ever attended were on that train. Usually after Christmas and getting back to college for New Years.
    This was the Lounge Car as I remember it.



  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @walt moffett: I thought every car was the marijuana car. Oh, wait a minute, I’m just having another flashback.

  8. Stonetools says:

    If you have a flask, every car is a bar car.

  9. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    I’m sad about the demise of the bar car, but on the Cascades Line between Seattle and Portland (and points south) if the train has a snack bar, one can drink designer beers and bottled cocktails on board. Not the same (and the cocktails are mediocre at best), but …

  10. Jay Dubbs says:

    Hopefully you can still buy your beer (or wine) at the station and just carry it on the train.