Jan. 19--STAMFORD -- As the state pours more than $1 billion into new rail cars, no money has been put into the tap to replace the 10 bar cars that are facing their last call by year's end.
The state's transportation commissioner has given assurances that bar car service along the New Haven Line will continue, but a final design for a bar car compatible with the new fleet of M-8 cars has not been completed, and the legislature has not approved any funding for them.
The bar cars on the gentried New Haven Line -- the last in operation on any commuter line in the country -- are also facing competition from the more profitable drink carts on the platforms at Grand Central Terminal and from the need for additional seating as ridership continues to increase.
The fluorescent-lit, orange and wood-paneled cars have a dedicated following that seeks them out on websites and Twitter feeds, but as some of the 1970s-era trains have been retired and others go out for repairs, they are becoming a sort of speakeasy on the rails.
On Wednesday night, Gloria Ormond, a Greens Farms commuter and long-time fan of the bar cars, sat on one of the car's spacious lounge seats chatting with a few familiar friends, while a louder, more rowdy group of standing passengers milled around the bar and vestibules quaffing beer and mixed drinks.
Ormond said the existence of bar cars is a tradition worth carrying on, and that they provide a long-enjoyed sanctuary for a set of commuters who want to be sociable and enjoy a few drinks during their commute home.
"It's a way to unwind after a hard day," Ormond said. "It's a place to relax and a friendly atmosphere."
Fewer cars, fewer runs
So far three of the original 10 cars have been retired, and three of the remaining seven are out of service for repairs, according to the railroad. Many days there is only one bar car in service making just three or four runs -- a huge decrease from the 20 runs a day three years ago, according to the railroad.
"I've noticed that there are many fewer of them," Ormond said.
This week Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Jim Redeker said there are plans to launch new bar cars at some undetermined point in the future, but if and when could depend on the cost of retrofitting the M-8 cars.
The DOT signed a $1.1 million contract with Louis T. Klauder & Associates, a Pennsylvania rail engineering firm, to come up with various design options for review, but Redeker said he didn't know when the DOT expects to receive them or make a final call to outfit new train cars as rolling cafes.
Redeker said an initial effort to have the manufacturer of the new M-8 cars, which are costing $2 million to $3 million each, to furnish ready to use bar cars, was scratched because the cost was prohibitive.
All of the existing bar cars will be retired sometime in 2014 with all the older cars, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart said Thursday, leaving a gap between the arrival of their replacements no sooner than 2015.
"We are doing a design in order to make an informed decision," Redeker said. "Will it cost millions to retrofit the cars? I have no idea, and we can't make decisions based on hypotheticals."
What about the bartenders?
Redeker said after the bar cars are retired that Metro-North bartenders will operate drink carts.
"They will be staffing additional carts in Grand Central Terminal and nobody will be unemployed," Redeker said.
Jason Genoddie, who represents the 27 Metro-North bartenders represented by Local 2100 of the Transport Union Workers of America, said the decision not to get existing cars back into service and the decision to not expedite the arrival or retrofitting of new bar cars is questionable.
Genoddie operates the website wheresthebarcar.com, which gives daily updates about which trains will have them.
"It's not economically smart to do," Genoddie said. "The cars will pay for themselves."
Genoddie, who has worked as a bartender on Metro-North his entire career, said that while the cars might be expensive to outfit, revenue from sales pay back the cost of the initial outlay for the state and the railroad.