NYC 5429, a J-3a Hudson built in 1937 by Alco. It, along with 5426, were streamlined in 1941 to match the Budd-built stainless steel cars for the Empire State Express.

Photo by Ed Nowak. Click to enlarge. 

(Audio Visual Designs, Earlton, NY, via W. Lenheim Collection)


Drumhead logos such as these often adorned the ends of observation cars on the Empire State Express.


The Empire State Express was one of the named passenger trains and onetime flagship of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (a predecessor of the later New York Central Railroad). On September 14, 1891, it covered the 436 miles (702 km) between New York City and Buffalo in 7 hours and 6 minutes (including stops), averaging 61.4 miles-per-hour (98.8 km/h), with a top speed of 82 mph (132 km/h).

About the drumheads: Drumhead logos such as those above often adorned the ends of observation cars on the Empire State Express.


Commemorative cover carried on the RPO on the first streamlined westbound run of the "The Empire State Express"

(New York Central System), December 7, 1941. Click to enlarge

(This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1928 and 1977, inclusive, without a copyright notice, via Wikipedia Commons.)



The train soon gained worldwide acclaim, and its route would later stretch to 620 miles (998 km), to Cleveland, Ohio. The Empire State was the first passenger train with a schedule speed of over 52 mph and the first to make runs of 142.88 miles (230 km) between stops (between New York City and Albany: the longest scheduled nonstop run until then).

The 1893 Guide shows an 8 hr 40 min schedule for 440 miles New York to Buffalo. As early as the 1930s the train served as a connector train for people making a transfer in Utica, New York for day trains through the Adirondack Park and on to Malone, New York and Montreal, Quebec.

On December 7, 1941, the New York Central inaugurated a new stainless-steel streamlined (Budd) train, powered by a streamlined J-3a Hudson (4-6-4) steam locomotive. The streamlined shrouding of the J-3a Hudson was designed by Mr. Chase H. Knowlton and Mr. George M. Davies. Henry Dreyfuss wasn't involved with the project. The inauguration was mostly overshadowed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor the same day.

Like many long haul passenger trains through the mid-1960s, the "Empire State Express" carried a 60-foot stainless steel East Division (E.D.) Railway Post Office (R.P.O.) car operated by the Railway Mail Service (RMS) of the United States Post Office Department which was staffed by USPOD clerks as a "fast mail" on each of its daily runs. Mail handled by the "Empire State's" RPOs was canceled or back-stamped by hand applied circular date stamps (CDS) reading "N.Y. & CHICAGO R.P.O." and the train's number: "TR 50" (eastbound) or "TR 51" (westbound). The train was distinctively the most limited in stops (aside from the elite 20th Century Limited) in the New York City to Albany section. Beyond 125th Street, it only made a stop at Croton-Harmon, the location for switching from electric to diesel power, and made no other stops until Albany.

From the post-war 1940s to the 1960s the train split at Buffalo. One section went along the south shore of Lake Erie to Cleveland. Another section went through Southwestern Ontario, Canada to Detroit, Michigan. From the early 1960s the Buffalo to Detroit section was a separate connecting train. Also at this time, coaches on the train from New York broke off at Buffalo and joined with the Buffalo-Toronto Express in partnership with Canadian Pacific bound for Toronto. This Toronto segment ended by April 1964. In 1967 the train was extended from being a day train to continuing to Chicago, Illinois as an overnight train. With the December 1967 schedule the Empire State Express name was gone, and No. 51 was shortened to Buffalo to Chicago, via Cleveland. The eastbound No. 50 was from Detroit to Buffalo.


Empire State Express in downtown Syracuse.

Empire State Express c.1900 in downtown Syracuse, New York in front of City Hall with Edward Joy Co. in background. - Caption on the front of the card reads:

“Empire State Express passing through Syracuse, N. Y.” The famous Empire State Express of the New York Central Railroad is passing west on

Washington Street past Syracuse’s City Hall, with its sign: “Syracuse Bids You Welcome.”

(Rudolph Bros. Art Publishers, Syracuse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



See also: Empire Corridor
When Amtrak took over the nation's passenger service on May 1, 1971, it consolidated trains on the New York—Albany—Buffalo corridor into the "Empire Service". Amtrak revived the name, although not the route to match, on January 6, 1974, when it gave names to Empire Service trains. The Empire State Express returned as a New York—Buffalo train, numbers 71 and 78. On October 31 that year Amtrak extended the train to Detroit via Southwestern Ontario with dining car and baggage service. This was the first instance of restored New York City to Detroit through Ontario service since the Penn Central's successor to the New York Central's Wolverine. On April 25, 1976, Amtrak renamed this train the Niagara Rainbow. Amtrak brought the name back in 1978 as a New York—Buffalo service, which in 1979 was extended to Niagara Falls. A few years later Amtrak dropped train names on the Empire Corridor.


New York Central and Hudson River Railroad No. 999.

New York Central and Hudson River Railroad No. 999, the "Queen of Speed," slows to 60 mph (97 km/h) as it leads the Empire State Express through Palatine, New York in 1905.

(Public Domain,


Empire State Express locomotive No. 999

Main article: New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Locomotive No. 999

The key to the Empire State's initial fame was a 37-foot (11 m) American-type 4-4-0 steam locomotive built in West Albany, New York especially to haul the train. The handmade unit had 86" diameter driving wheels and was the first of its kind to have brakes on the front truck. The bands, pipes, and trim were polished; the boiler, smokestack, domes, cab, and tender were given a black satin finish, and "Empire State Express" was applied to the sides of the tender in 2 ft 6 in (76 cm) high gold leaf lettering.

After touring the nation and making appearances at numerous expositions including the Chicago Railroad Fair, the unit was retired from service in May, 1952, at which time it was relegated switching service in western New York shuttling express service milk cars. The New York Central donated the locomotive to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry in 1962, where it has been preserved and placed on display. It lacks its original 86" drivers, which were removed sometime after the historic speed run and replaced with smaller 70" driving wheels.


The Classic NYCS Empire State Express poster by Leslie Ragan, ca. 1941. Click to enlarge. (New York Central Railroad, via W. Lenheim Collection)

The Budd-manufactured cars in a 1944 Saturday Evening Post ad. Click to enlarge.

(Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Equipment used

An early (circa 1905) heavyweight train car consist:

Coach (2)
Sleeper (drawing room car)
Note: The Vice President's private car was often attached to the end of the train for excursions.

Debut on a Day of Infamy

In 1941 the New York Central ordered new lightweight stainless steel cars for the ESE trains from Budd. Initially a Hudson with matched streamlined stainless steel panels was used. The NYC planned their first day of operation with the new fluted equipment as December 7, 1941, but drew little fanfare as the US was focused on the attack of Pearl Harbor. A set of the 1941 cars is owned by the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum.

December 7, 1941 Consist:

5426 Streamlined J3A 4-6-4 Hudson Locomotive & Tender
ALONZO B. CORNELL Baggage 60 Railway Post Office Car
GROVER CLEVELAND Baggage Buffet 36 seat Lounge Car
CHARLES E. HUGHES 30 Revenue seat Parlor Car with 5 seat Parlor Drawing Room
HERBERT H. LEHMAN 30 Revenue seat Parlor Car with 5 seat Parlor Drawing Room
NATHAN L. MILLER 30 Revenue seat Parlor Car with 5 seat Parlor Drawing Room
GEORGE CLINTON 44 seat Dining Car
REUBEN E. FENTON 56 Revenue seat Coach
2569 56 Revenue seat Coach
2567 56 Revenue seat Coach
2566 56 Revenue seat Coach
HAMILTON FISH 56 Revenue seat Coach
DEWITT CLINTON 44 seat Dining Car
DAVID B. HILL 56 Revenue seat Coach
MORGAN LEWIS 56 Revenue seat Coach
WILLIAM L. MARCY 56 Revenue seat Coach
THEODORE ROOSEVELT 56 seat Tavern Bar Lounge Observation


Power for the Empire State Express, streamlined J3a Hudson No. 5429. Click to enlarge. (New York Central Railroad, via W. Lenheim Collection)

A publicity photo of the New York Central's Empire State Express, December 7, 1941. Click to enlarge. (New York Central Railroad, via W. Lenheim Collection)

Amtrak No. 267 (still in Penn Central livery) leads the eastbound Empire State Express at the Fort Erie customs stop on June 8, 1975. Fort Erie was never a regular Amtrak stop, though it did serve Penn Central (later Conrail) local service until 1981. Click to enlarge. (Tim_kd5urs, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


A westbound train - either the Empire State Express or Water Level Express - at Utica Union Station in March 1975. (Hikki Nagasaki, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In popular culture

On 12 October 1896, The Empire State Express, a short documentary film made in the experimental 68mm American Mutoscope Company process, premiered at Hammerstein's Olympia Music Hall Theater in New York City. The film was described by the critics of the day as "the greatest train view ever taken."

In 1965, blues singer and guitarist Eddie James "Son" House Jr., at the time a New York Central employee, recorded his song "Empire State Express" at the New York Folk Festival.

No. 999 was the inspiration for the eponymous steam engined-shaped space vehicle in the Galaxy Express 999 series of manga and animated films.

The 2007 Lyle Lovett song "This Traveling Around" includes a verse about the 999.

Members of the Chicago band, Empire State Express (ESE), drew inspiration in naming their project from both the Son House song (a staple of ESE's live performances) and the No. 999's static display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The band's 2009 debut EP was titled "Land Speed Record" in honor of the train's legacy.



Service type: Inter-city rail
Status: Discontinued
Locale: Midwestern United States, Northeastern United States
First service: 1892
Last service: 1967
Successor: Niagara Rainbow
Former operator: New York Central Railroad, Amtrak
Route Termini: New York City / Detroit and Cleveland
Service frequency: Daily
Train numbers: Eastbound: 50, Westbound: 51; Amtrak, 1974-1998: Westbound: 63, Eastbound: 64
On-board services
Seating arrangements: Reclining seat coaches
Catering facilities: Dining car (1951)
Observation facilities: Observation lounge
Entertainment facilities: Tavern lounge; parlor car
Track gauge 4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm)