Fresh off of the success of its Silver Meteor streamliner, which hit the rails early in 1939, the Seaboard Air Line lined up another popular market to serve between Richmond, Virginia and Birmingham, Alabama with a train known as the Silver Comet.
It took the Seaboard longer than it had hoped to start the train due
to resistance from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which provided the
railroad with a through connection to New York City. In many ways the Comet never reached the success of the Meteor partly because it was six years behind the Southern Railway's popular Southerner.
Despite this the train was successful for a number of years and
Seaboard offered excellent service. As patronage declined SAL finally
admitted defeat to the Southern and cancelled the Comet prior to
1970. Today, even the route the train traversed is no more having been
abandoned by successor CSX Transportation in the late 1980s.
The history of the Comet dates back to 1939, soon after the Seaboard Air Line launched its popular Silver Meteor streamliner that served New York and Miami. The railroad hoped to again work with the Pennsy in having the train serve New York.
However, the PRR was hesitant to do so on the basis that the Southern
Railway, another run-through partner who already connected its trains
like the Birmingham Special (which served the same market) and Pelican to New York,
was disinterested at the time of operating streamliners. As such, by
providing the SAL with interchange service the Pennsy worried about
alienating its long-time partner. For the Seaboard's sake this
apprehension went away for the PRR after the Southern finally adopted
streamliners in 1941.
Tidewater: (Raleigh/Norlina, North Carolina - Portsmouth, Virginia)
Interestingly, however, the SAL did not immediately launch the Silver Comet
as it focused on other endeavors and other trains. Additionally, the
onset of World War II precluded the railroad from purchasing any new
equipment and focusing on new streamliners. Soon after the war,
however, the SAL finally launched the train on May 18, 1947 which was
meant to compete directly with the Southern's Southerner, a train that would turn out to be only behind the Crescent in terms of importance and popularity on that railroad. The Comet
came about thanks in large part by a larger new order of equipment the
SAL received from the Budd Company featuring the builder's classic
fluted stainless steel design
Despite the fact that the Comet required the partnership of the Pennsy to reach New York
essentially operated all of the way through to the Big Apple. In other
words, once the Seaboard handed the train off to the Richmond,
Fredericksburg & Potomac (which carried it to Washington, D.C. and a
connection with the PRR) at Richmond, Virginia the entire consist
continued northward. The typical consist of the Comet included a baggage, reclining-seat coaches, a lounge, up to five sleepers, a diner, and an observation coach. At times the train could be quite lengthy, especially south of Richmond where the Seaboard often handled through cars of the RF&P and Pennsy.
From New York to Birmingham the entire length of the journey was just
over 1,106 miles. Departing Pennsylvania Station at 12:45 P.M. the
train arrived at Washington that evening and the Seaboard picked up the Comet
from the RF&P a few hours later at Richmond around 7:58 P.M. From
there it traveled southwest towards Birmingham arriving about another 15
hours later at 10:45 A.M. the following. Total time aboard train was
usually around 22 hours or just under one full day. The Comet also offered passengers connecting service between New York and Boston as well as Hamlet, North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia. For more historical information and reading about the Seaboard's passenger services please click here.
Unfortunately, the Silver Comet could not stay competitive against the Southerner. As Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh state in their book, Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon, during the 1960s under Seaboard Coast Line direction the train sometimes offered nothing more than a single coach,
diner-lounge, and sleeper. Of course, having been launched so late
behind its rival likely contributed to some of its ridership issues; the
Southern was simply already well established and continued to offer the
Southerner with high class service nearly until the startup of Amtrak in early 1971. The SCL would discontinue the Comet by June, 1969.