TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: 1947 Train phone service

1947 Train phone service
31 Jul 2006 10:15:02 -0700

As mentioned in the thread on the Metroliner train phones, this
service began in 1947. Here is some info on that I paraphrased from
the articles. Unfortunately, the sources for this is hard copy from
the library. Some libraries may have online access to the NYT.

1947 Train Phone System

On Aug 15, 1947, train phones were implemented on the Pennsylvania
Railroad's Congressional Limited and the B&O's Royal Blue between NYC
and DC. Riders could use the phones to call anywhere the Bell System

I couldn't tell if service was offered continuously between NYC and
DC, or if there were dead spots in between beyond range of the
transmitters and in tunnels. I suspect there were dead spots.

The charge appears to be 30-40c additional over a regular call, which
is about $4.50-$6.00 today. Long Distance calls were carried as
person-to-person at the day rate. Since a railroad attendant assisted
the callers, a tip may have been necessary for him or her as well.
(Were such train secretaries / lounge attendants tipped?)

A booth was built in the lounge cars for users. (Contrast that today
where cell phone users share their personal business loudly in coach
for all to hear.)

The phones utilitized the newly built mobile system for motorists.
Frequencies are 43.66 MHz and 35.66 MHz. They didn't give the power

Proposals are advanced for service on the C&O "Chessie" trains [which
never went into service] the NYC's Twentieth Century Limited. It
appears radio trainphone service was offered on the Century between
New York and Buffalo, but not to Chicago until relay stations were
built. I don't know when Chicago service was offered.

Before radio train phones, major trains had portable lines connected
to landside jacks while at principal stations. This allowed people to
use the phone during a station stop.

The phone booth contained a chair, 354 wall phone, and little window
to the attendant next door. The railroad-provided attendant handled
the calls via a control unit. This unit had a lock, a selection for
either of the two channels available, intercom, and control switches
and signals. The attendant also had a wall phone. I don't know if
the phones themselves had specially modified transmitters and
receivers for radio service.

The attendant unlocked the gear and placed the call for the passenger.
The articles didn't say if the attendant collected money for Bell for
pre-paid calls.

I wonder what the financial arrangements were with the carrying
railroads? Did they get a cut of the telephone revenue, after all,
they supplied the attendant and train space for the phones. On the
other hand, they were offering a premium service that would be
attractive to business riders they sought.

[In those days, there were many places were a telephone employee
collected money from a user before making a phone call. This was
common in large train stations where attendants ran the public phones.
After making the call, the user would be directed to a phone booth and
connected. In small towns, people could make calls and pay the
operator directly.]

This implementation did not use the "push-to-talk" button of other
mobile phones. The trains got two antennas, one for receiving, one
for transmitting. They used 38C radio transmitters and 38A radio
receivers operating from a special 12VDC battery charged by the car
battery through a regulator. A cabinet as big as a phone booth
contained the radio equipment.

I don't know how long this service was offered before it was retired.
If the cars were running on another premium train in the corridor with
a trained attendant, the service was available to passengers. Both
the 20th C and Congressional were upgraded with new equipment in a few
years after 1947, I presume the new cars were equipped with the train
phone gear.

I have no idea how popular the service was. I would think businessmen
would take full advantage of it, although calls had to be kept brief
before hitting a dead zone. When I was young I was on a PRR train
that had a phone booth but was chased away before I could check it

- Bell Laboratories Record, January 1948
- New York Times, 8/15/47
- New York Times, 8/17/47

If anyone knows of addtional details, could you post them?

[publc replies, please]

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