The Palmetto

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

If the Palmetto sounds like a southern train that's because it very much is, connecting New York City with Savannah, Georgia. The name itself comes from the Sabal palmetto tree, common in the south, and the state tree of South Carolina. The train was a creation of Amtrak in mid-1970s although it actually dates back to a southern line that operated a named streamliner of the same name along a very similar routing. In general, Amtrak has had success with its southern trains (just as railroads like the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line did) and upon creating the train once again saw its demand surge. Today, it operates somewhat in tandem with the Silver Service trains although it is not included as part of that marketing terms (both of those routes continue on southward and deep into Florida). In recent years the Palmetto has seen ridership slowly increase and as such Amtrak will likely retain it as a through route for a long time to come.

The history of the Palmetto can be traced back to the Atlantic Coast Line. The southern railroad was well known for its streamliners to Florida, such as the Champion, Florida Special, and Havana Special (operated jointly with the Florida East Coast to Key West until 1935). The train was originally known as the Palmetto Limited and inaugurated by the ACL in 1909 as an exquisite, through sleeper that connected New York City, Washington (D.C.), and Tampa (Florida) operated in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Few expenses were spared with the on board amenities provided with heavyweight parlors, lounges, diners, and full Pullman service included. Essentially, it was tailored for those with the means to travel so lavishly although technically the railroad intended the train to be used for business travelers.

For power the Palmetto Limited used a Class P-5a 4-6-2 Pacific and operated on a 32.5 hour schedule, quite fast at the turn of the 20th century for a route that was more than 1,300 miles in length. For the next 30+ years little changed with the train in terms of consist and accommodations. However, during the mid-1930s the train had a change to its routing. No longer would it operate to Florida but truncate at Savannah. Then, in 1942 a major upgrade came in the way of diesel power and regal streamlining. In  early 1939 the ACL had debuted its first streamliner to Florida, the Champion, and its amazing success spurred the railroad to continue equipping the rest of the fleet in such a manner. In 1942 this included upgrading the Palmetto Limited, which received lightweight cars adorned in the ACL's new purple, silver, and yellow livery and powered by an Electro-Motive Corporation E6A diesel.

Four years later the train saw its name changed to just the Palmetto in 1946, and it remained as this for the next 20 years. With the merger of the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line in July, 1967 to create the Seaboard Coast Line the train was not retained within the passenger fleet ending nearly 60 years of continuous operations. When Amtrak began on May 1, 1971 there was little thought given to the long defunct ACL train. However, with the continued success of the SCL's former Silver trains, the Silver Star and Silver Meteor, it was decided revive the old name. On June 15, 1976 Amtrak reintroduced the Palmetto from New York to Florida. The train became quite successful and before then end of that year was extended to Miami.

Interestingly, it was the first train to serve the southeast to use Amtrak's new Amfleet cars with usual power in those days provided by EMD F40PHs. Despite its success the train offered little more than coach service for many years, which interestingly has not changed significantly today. During the 1980s the train saw several changes such as being combined with the Carolinian twice at different times between New York and Richmond, as well as adding Jacksonville as a stop in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s the train had reached all of the way to Tampa. However, the train was cancelled on February 1, 1995 due to funding issues. It returned later in the decade as the Silver Palm but returned to its original name in 2002 as the Palmetto and a routing back to Florida.

Today, the train operates only as far south as Savannah with the Silver Service trains providing passengers the ability to reach the Sunshine State. A typical consist still only includes standard and business class coaches along with lounge service and, of course, baggage accommodations. Power, as with virtually all intercity Amtrak trains is now provided by General Electric Genesis series diesels. Perhaps if the Palmetto offered more on board amenities to passengers it may see higher ridership but in any case it currently carries nearly 200,000 patrons annually.  There, the carrier provides a downloadable timetable that includes everything available on the train as well as its counterparts, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star.

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