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Dine In Style Aboard Connnecticut's Dinner Trains

Last revised: December 8, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The state of Connecticut was, and remains, an integral part of the Northeast/New England's rail network with millions of commuters and travelers relying on Amtrak and state-sponsored trains every day.

These folks travel to both New York, Boston, and several other cities in between.  Today, there is currently only one location in Connecticut offering a dinner train experience, the popular Essex Steam Train in Essex.  More information about this trip may be found below.

In the immediate post-World War II era of rail travel the options and amenities available to passengers was almost endless with an array of parlor, lounge, full dining, and reclining seat coach services available on most trains.

The New York, New Haven & Hartford (or simply, "New Haven") was the railroad to take if one was traveling between Boston and New York.  In fact, the New Haven served practically all of southern New England.

Some of its through trains linking New York, Boston, and other points throughout the region included the Bay State, Bostonian, CommanderDay Cape Codder: (New York - Hyannis/Woods Hole), Day White Mountains (New York - Berlin, New Hampshire), East Wind, New Yorker, PuritanForty-Second Street, Gilt Edge, and the list goes on.

Connecticut was situated in the heart of New Haven's network that served every notable town and city throughout the state.  It not only reached Boston but also served points in western Massachusetts, via Connecticut, such as Pittsfield, Northampton, and Springfield.

The railroad had even partially electrified its multi-track main line between New York and New Haven, as well as as well as branches to New Canaan and Danbury, Connecticut.  Today, Amtrak has completed the electrification of its main line to Boston.

Before the New Haven ran into serious financial troubles by the 1960s it worked hard to provide its passenger with the very best in accommodations and services, even though many of its trains were daytime-only.  Most were not only equipped with reclining seat coaches but also parlors, grill cars (light dining/lunch service), lounge, a full diner, and/or sandwich service.

Photos

8238585929671243614726187589620978.jpgValley Railroad 2-8-2 #1647 leads the "Essex Steam Train" at Deep River, Connecticut on June 17, 1991. This locomotive is a Chinese design (Type SY) built by the Tangshan Locomotive Works in 1989. She currently resides on the Susquehanna Railroad at Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Reuben Brouse photo. American-Rails.com collection.

Overview

Essex Steam Train

This excursion is Connecticut's most popular scenic train ride.  They offer a full service dinner train, the Essex Clipper, throughout the operating season in addition to several specials involving some type of dining available.  

The dinner train provides a four-course meal during the 2.5 hour trip.  Their menu can be viewed online.  The dinner trains are hosted within two diner-parlor cars originally built by the Pullman Company for the New Haven.  These include:

  • Meriden - This car was built in 1924 for the New Haven as the parlor Plymouth.  It was later restored by the Valley Railroad and currently has a 50-person seating capacity.
  • Wallingford - This car was built in 1927 for the New Haven as a parlor, and later rebuilt by Pullman and given the name Wayfarer.  After passenger service it was sold to the classic short line, Reader Railroad of Arkansas, and then acquired by the Valley Railroad in 1975.  It was rebuilt into its current configuration as a diner in 1994.

The history of the Essex Steam Train begins on August 15, 1969 when the state of Connecticut purchased the former New Haven's Old Saybrook line from what was then the moribund Penn Central Railroad.

Ultimately, the state authorized the Valley Railroad, a largely a volunteer-effort, to lease and operate the property beginning June 1, 1970 and officially opened in 1971.  This company runs what is today the Essex Steam Train.

While the state has granted the railroad to host excursions over 22 miles of the route from Old Saybrook to Middletown, currently only about 13 miles host trains.


The Essex Steam Train is only location in Connecticut to ride behind restored, standard-gauge steam locomotives.  There are currently three on the property, which are in operation.  These include:

  • Birmingham & Southeastern Railway 2-8-0 #97: This Consolidation was originally built by Alco in 1923 for sale to Cuba but subsequently diverted to the B&SE in 1926.  It spent time in excursion service on the New Haven during the 1960s before being acquired by the Valley Railroad in 1970.  
  • Aberdeen & Rockfish 2-8-2 #40: This Mikado was another American Locomotive product built in 1920.  It had originally been built as Portland, Astoria & Pacific #101 (a lumber/logging line based in Oregon) but never entered service.  It later spent time on another short line, the Minarets & Western Railroad, before its acquisition by the A&R.  It was acquired by the Valley Railroad in 1977.
  • Valley Railroad 2-8-2 #3025: This Mikado is perhaps the most interesting on the property.  It was originally built by the Tangshan Locomotive Works of China in 1989 for the Knox & Kane Railroad of Pennsylvania.  It was acquired by the Valley Railroad in 2008 after the K&K ended operations and has remained in use since that time.

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