Passenger Cars of the Long Island Rail Road: The P54D
In the 1930s and up until the early 1970s, there was one single type of railroad cars that was synonymous with the Long Island Rail Road. It was a steam coach of lightweight construction built with the intention to convert it to a multiple unit car, and indeed, many were. Officially classed P54D, the 187 cars in this group were known as "pings." The nickname came from their lightweight construction which, when marshaled between two heavier cars, would ride like a ping pong ball. Another eye-catching feature of these cars was their trucks, also of a lightweight design, more often referred to as a roller skate. The design of these coaches was based on the body style of the B40 baggage cars the railroad had acquired in 1914 and 1916.
The cars came in a number of batches and had two different body widths. The first to arrive on the Sunrise Trail were the narrow body versions, the first of which, 422-426, were manufactured by the American Car and Foundry Company under order number 9274 and delivered on June 30, 1922. The balance of the order, cars 427-431, arrived on July 3, 1922. The cars were 64 feet, 5¾ inches long over the buffers, 13 feet, 8¼ inches tall over the railhead, and 10 feet, 3 1/8 inches wide at the handrails. The most prominent features of the car body, besides those already mentioned, were the blind porthole castings in the endsheets for a future motorman's window and the arch roof with five square ventilators. The interior featured rattan-covered two-and-two seating for 76, two toilets, parcel racks, and 32-volt lighting.
A year later the second group of cars came onto the property, numbered 432-451 and again ordered from the American Car and Foundry Company under order number 9503. Deliveries started on May 21, 1923 and continued until June 21 of that year. These cars were identical in design to the 422-431 group and served alongside them in suburban steam service to Babylon. At this time the south shore electrification project was in process, and these 30 cars, along with 30 cars of the similar-looking class P54C, were acquired to be specifically converted for the new electric service. Between March 14 and June 23, 1925, the 30 cars had their steam heat equipment, battery lights, water cooler, and diaphragms replaced with electric heaters, direct current (DC) lights and safety chains. In the process they were reclassed as T54B cars. With the completion of the project, the P54D class was actually extinct on the Long Island.
The P54D story starts up again in May 1926 when American Car and Foundry delivers the members of their order number 121, which became Long Island Rail Road numbers 462 to 481. These 20 cars were identical in all dimensions with the earlier former members of the class save for width. These new cars were 10 feet, 3½ inches wide at the handrails, although the actual car body width was the same. These cars formed part of the base service pool for the Speonk and Port Jefferson trains. (Prior to 1946, every LIRR car had a pool allocation.) A little less than a year later, American Car and Foundry delivered LIRR 1 through 20 under order number 359 between March 17 and April 8, 1927. These cars were identical to the 462-481 group save that they were put into the pool from which the Patchogue-Babylon Scoot, Ronkonkoma, and Oyster Bay trains were drawn.
Starting on June 13, 1927, the LIRR began to put its large fleet of wooden coaches out to pasture. This was accomplished by having the American Car and Foundry Company deliver 117 more virtually identical P54D cars. Unfortunately the order number or numbers that covered cars 21 to 137 has not survived to date. Car 100 of the group was renumbered 138 upon delivery, as business car 100 was still on the property. As for dimensions and seating capacity, except for the extra 3/8th of an inch over the handrails and seating for only 70 in cars 126 to 137, the cars in this last order of P54Ds were identical to those delivered in 1922. With the final delivery of these cars on October 3, 1927, the era of wooden coaches ended on the Sunrise Trail. (The last wooden car, a baggage car, would not be retired until 1928.) The 21 to 99 and 101 to 138 joined their twins, the 462-481 and 1-20 in the pool system, running most often on the Babylon-Patchogue Scoot, to Ronkonkoma, and Oyster Bay. Georgia Car and Locomotive received most of the splinter fleet.
While the P54Ds and their kin had the east end of the railroad well in hand, traffic was building up to intolerable levels on the electrified west end. Twelve-car trains being fully loaded between Jamaica, Kew Gardens, and Forest Hills were not unknown. The crux of the problem was that the City was going to open the Independent Subway under Queens Boulevard and their nickel fare would end all this traffic. A reasonably priced solution to this equipment problem was needed!
Cars 51 through 90 served as part of the solution. These cars were converted to multiple unit control motors 1944 to 1983 of class MP54D1 between April 6 and June 27, 1930. These cars from former steam service heritage could always be discerned, as a beading from the diaphragm remained surrounding the end train doors. Replacing them in steam service were 40 class P54 coaches purchased from the Pennsylvania of several vintages received between April 21 and June 2, 1930.
For the next 20 years, the changes were mainly visual. Tuscan red paint was replaced with several versions of gray after 1947 and safety chains replaced the diaphragms, in 1953-1954.
The remaining members of the class continued in service until the modernization of the LIRR in the mid-1950s. Under this plan, the steam cars that received new interiors would have 7000 added to their road numbers. The interior work on the P54D cars consisted of removing one toilet closet, new flooring, new parcel racks, recessed bull's eye lighting in place of the 32-volt system, and baseboard heating to replace pipes under each seat. The former two-and-two seating for 76 (70 in 126 to 137) was replaced with three-and-two seating for 88. Of the 117 members of the class, 76 were upgraded and renumbered. Both the modernized and original versions remained in service until their retirements, mostly from wrecks, began in the mid-1960s.
After World War II, the east end of Long Island began to experience virtually unprecedented suburban growth. During the modernization program of the 1950s, the LIRR dealt with this eastward migration of its passengers by converting some of its surplus MU trailers to steam cars. The class assigned to these rebuilds? P54D!
Among the former MU cars so converted were four cars of the T54B group numbered 422-451, which had originally been P54Ds. Also converted were 13 cars of the T54A class numbered from 392 to 421, all of which had been the P54C class. One T54, the 921, became P54D 7921 in October 1964. This brought the total of additional "pings" to 18. Except for two class P54E coaches 7455 and 7456, no other native LIRR steam cars were modernized. A full roster of this equipment can be found in the series Passenger Cars of the LIRR, which ran in the Semaphore, the newsletter of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter, NRHS.
Reprinted from the June 1988 issue of the Semaphore and authored by Robert Emery and E. M. Koehler, Jr. Story provided by Michael Boland of Cedarhurst, NY, to CRA member Paul Bergdolt.