The Baltimore & Ohio’s National Limited streamliner was the railroad’s premier train between initially New York City and St. Louis. In later years the train operated only between Baltimore and St. Louis and because of its lightly populated market never saw high ridership numbers throughout its existence. Still, the National was maintained by the B&O as one of its flagship runs, behind perhaps only the Capitol Limited in this regard. After perennially declining ridership following World War II the railroad finally elected to cancel the train by the mid-1960s. However, the B&O continued to offer passenger service along its original route until the startup of Amtrak in 1971. Today, not only is the National a memory but also much of the route the train plied through West Virginia and southern Ohio, which was abandoned in the mid-1980s.
The National Limited can be traced back to as early as the ‘teens but the train remembered today had its beginnings in April of 1925 when the B&O unveiled an all-Pullman heavyweight passenger train between New York City and St. Louis. Listed as Trains #1 and #2 on the B&O's official timetable the original routing left the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s, Jersey City Terminal, located along the Hudson River waterfront across from downtown Manhattan (where passengers took ferries into the downtown area and rode in B&O owned buses once they reached the opposite shore), traveled down the east coast to Washington, D.C./Baltimore, and then headed west through the hills of West Virginia and Ohio, ultimately finishing its journey in St. Louis.
The National Limited’s sister train, the Capitol Limited followed a similar routing between Cumberland and Jersey City, but then headed northwest towards Chicago once at Cumberland. The Capitol Limited, was born as much out of necessity as anything else. Ever the underdog in the New York-Chicago market behind the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads, the B&O knew that it needed to keep pace with its two stronger competitors in the passenger business and introduce a train that would compete with both the 20th Century Limited and Broadway Limited. While the PRR and NYC had inaugurated their trains in 1902 (the PRR’s train was not called the Broadway Limited until 1912, however) the B&O did not enter the market until 1923, when that year, on May 12, it introduced the Capitol Limited (sometimes affectionately referred to as the Cap).
It was in the late 1930s that the National Limited truly came of age. During this time, along with the Capitol Limited, the B&O equipped the trains with the Electo-Motive Corporation’s brand new, self-contained and streamlined diesel-electric locomotive, the EA (and EB booster engine). Not only was this locomotive streamlined but the ever-resourceful B&O, not satisfied with the light-weight, aluminum cars it had purchased for its first streamliner, the Royal Blue, turned to its Mount Clare Shops. The forces there used traditional heavyweight equipment and gave the cars streamlining to match the EA/EB set. What resulted, with the help of renowned industrial designer Otto Kuhler was two stunning trains featuring one of the industry's all-time classic liveries of royal blue, silver, and gold pin-striping. Along with being entirely air-conditioned the train featured a nine-car consist including five sleepers, a sun-room/observation-lounge, diner, buffet/coach-lounge, and reclining-seat coach. The train would later feature the first dome cars for an eastern railroad, the Strata-Dome.
While the B&O won over the hearts of many with its splendid services and on board offerings (such as, along with the above mentioned, air-conditioning and Strata-Dome car service, which gave passengers a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape) it simply could not compete with the PRR and NYC to New York. Because of this, on April 26, 1958 the B&O gave up on New York, cutting all services back to Baltimore, which included both the National Limited and Capitol Limited.
As ridership continued to decline through the 1960s the National Limited was hit especially hard as it traveled through the lightly populated areas of West Virginia and southern Ohio. During this time the train lost its all-Pullman status and in October, 1964 was renamed as just the National. A year later the B&O gave up on the train and now being owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway the equipment was transferred to the C&O's George Washington in September, 1965.
However, the B&O maintained service between Baltimore/Washington and St. Louis through the Metropolitan. Listed as Trains #11 and #12 the Metropolitan was not much more than a commuter operation during its final years and usually carried just a few reclining-seat coaches during most of its trips, which did not even include food service. However, the railroad maintained top quality, friendly service and made sure its equipment was clean and presentable. Naturally, when Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971 it did not include the route (while it did experiment with various trains it too gave up altogether on the Baltimore/St. Louis market by the early 1980s).
For more information about the National Limited consider Baltimore & Ohio's Capitol Limited and National Limited from author Joe Welsh details both trains from their inception to final runs under the B&O featuring 160 pages of color and black & white photography. It's an excellent historical look at both trains and any B&O fan or historian would likely very much enjoy it! You might also be interested in Baltimore & Ohio Railroad written by Kirk Reynolds and David Oroszi. While there are several more excellent books, with superb illustrations, out there covering different aspects of the B&O in more detail this publication includes a fine general history of the railroad with wonderful historical photos (many in color). If you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.