During the heyday of streamliners there were many colorful and attractive trains to ride if you were heading south to sunny Florida and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad’s Silver Meteor
was one of those. While the Seaboard (also known as the SAL) kicked
off the streamliner passenger train craze to serve southern destinations
other railroads soon followed suit, like rival Atlantic Coast Line
Railroad which inaugurated its New York-Miami Champion during late 1939, a few months after the Meteor. Interestingly, it would be the train's name that would live on under Amtrak as the national passenger carrier discontinued the Champion in the late 1970s. The ACL and SAL were perhaps the only two railroads in the country to serve markets so highly demanded by passengers.
Ever since the late 1800s when Florida became more accessible to the public (by means of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, which was chartered in 1895 to link the entire eastern shoreline of Florida), vacationers and travelers, particularly from the northern states, were enamored with its tropical weather, warm breezes, and beautiful beaches. This tropical climate gave both railroads an unprecedented marketing advantage not found on most other systems. Even as passenger train traffic took serious hits beginning in the 1950s, as travelers found planes and more reliable automobiles more convenient means of transportation (the Interstate highway system also didn’t help the railroads), across the industry both the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line Railroads continued to earn profits with their Florida-bound trains all of the way up through the 1960s! (Both railroads would merge in 1967 forming the Seaboard Coast Line system.)
A testament to this popularity can be seen in the number of passenger trains both railroads offered to points south. The Seaboard offered such trains as the Cotton Blossom (Washington, D.C. – Atlanta), Gulf Wind (Jacksonville – New Orleans), New York – Florida Special (New York – Miami/St. Petersburg), Orange Blossom Special (New York – Miami), Palmland (New York – Tampa/Boca Grande, Florida), Silver Meteor (New York – Miami), Silver Comet (New York – Birmingham), Silver Star (New York – Miami: A train actually introduced to meet the demand of the Silver Meteor’s route!), Sunland (Washington, D.C./Portsmouth, Virginia – Miami), and the Suwanee River Special (Cincinnati – Florida).
While service to Florida had been brisk for both railroads for decades, it wasn’t until the streamlined, and very colorful, Seaboard Air Line Meteor debuted on February 2, 1939 did southern passenger railroading take on a whole new level of service. The original version of the Silver Meteor was a lightweight, seven car, all-coach affair (including diner service). However, although it was only all-coach service, it was extremely successful. Advertised as an overnight train between New York/Boston and Miami (with through sleeper service available via the Pennsylvania and New Haven railroads) it featured stainless-steel cars (built by the Budd Company, which had a patent as the only manufacturer capable of producing all stainless-steel passenger cars) with livery adorning the new EMD E4 diesel locomotives, which was as colorful and bright as Florida itself. The classic paint scheme featured blends of bright yellow and orange with a center color of very dark green with bright silver featured along the bottom (including the trucks).
The bright livery adorning the Meteor became a signature feature of both the ACL and SAL Florida-bound trains as they exuded bright, cheery themes meant to give passengers a glimpse of the sub-tropical/tropical weather in which they were heading. The success of the original Meteor meant that the train would not remain an all-coach only affair for long. After World War II it was upgraded with features such as sleepers and lounges (including the 1956 introduction of the “Sun Lounge”, a car with glass ceilings [to allow in natural light], since clearance restrictions did not allow the SAL to operate domes to New York City, and beach themes) giving the train much more diversity and options for passengers.
A typical consist during the late 1950s included reclining-seat coaches, a diner, lounge, sleepers, and tavern observation. Listed as Trains #57 (southbound) and #58 (northbound) on Seaboard's timetable, the Silver Meteor would depart Pennsylvania Station at 2:55 pm, powered by PRR GG1s until reaching Washington, D.C. where the train was handed off, about four hours later, to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac. The RF&P carried the train another few hours until reaching Richmond's Main Street Station before 10 pm. From this point the Seaboard carried its train the rest of the way to Florida, arriving in Miami by nearly 5 pm the next day (the train also provided connecting service to Tampa, Venice, and St. Petersburg). For more reading about the train please click here.
Much like the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad took
great pride in its passenger train operations and they remained
flawlessly operated with excellent service until the SAL disappeared
into the Seaboard Coast Line in 1967. Under the SCL high quality
service was retained (although the train's livery was a much more
subdued black with yellow trim) as one could still purchase sleeper
service to New York/Boston and the train retained its diner,
reclining-seat coaches, and
tavern-observation lounge. As a testament to the SAL’s high quality of
passenger operations and lucrative southern market, Amtrak continues to
operate several of its trains including the Meteor (as well as the Silver Star), and in 1979 elected to discontinue the Atlantic Coast Line's Champion.