A Tail Of The Blue Comet: The Seashore’s Finest Train In LEGO by Cale Leiphart

My first encounter with the Blue Comet was at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg Pennsylvania. It was an O scale model of the train made by MTH, sitting on a display shelf in the main display room. I fell in love with the train almost immediately. It was a very striking train, with the locomotive painted in an eye catching blue with gold pin striping, and nickel plated accents. The passenger cars also blue, with an attractive band of white running down the windows. It was beautiful train from a different time, a time when rail travel was king, and a journey on a train was something special. The Blue Comet had caught my imagination like so many before. I knew that I was going to be the one to bring this train to life again in LEGO.

My LEGO model of the Blue Comet train set.
Advertisement for the Blue Comet from the period.

The Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Blue Comet

“A Deluxe Class Train, for a Coach Class Fare”

I hope you, our readers, will indulge me a bit in some historical background. If you want to see the pretty blue LEGO model, feel free to skip ahead. I won’t be offended. The Comet is my most favorite passenger train, and I could talk for hours on its history.

The Blue Comet has been has been called the “Seashore’s Finest Train”. The brainchild of Central New Jersey RR  president R. B. White, this train whisked passengers from Jersey City to Atlantic City from 1929 to 1941. The Blue Comet’s route would take New York & Long Branch trackage to Red Bank, then follow the Southern Division Main Line to Winslow Junction, where it would travel over the Atlantic City Railroad’s (Reading Railroad) tracks to Atlantic City.

The Blue Comet’s debut, Red Bank, New Jersey February 17, 1929.

Three brand new G3 Pacific locomotives were assigned to the train; numbers 831, 832 and 833, and the CNJ totally refurbished sixteen cars, inside and out, for Blue Comet service. Each train consisted of a baggage car, combine-smoker, coaches, and an observation car. The diner accompanied the early morning trip to Atlantic City and the evening return to Jersey City. The colors chosen for the Blue Comet were Packard Blue, which represented the sky, Jersey Cream, for the sandy coastal beaches, and Royal Blue, for the sea. Even the locomotives were painted for Blue Comet service.  Each car was named for a comet. The diner carried the name Giacobini, the two combines carried the names Halley, and Encke. The baggage cars were named for the comets Olbers and Barnard, and the coaches for Tuttle, Holmes, Westphal, D’Arrest, Faye, Spitaler, Winnecke, and Brorsen. The three observation cars were named for comets DeVico, Biela, and Tempel.

The Blue Comet was born from the CNJ’s need to compete with the Pennsylvania RR for the then lucrative Atlantic City passenger trade. The CNJ also wanted to eliminate a costly Pullman parlor car lease, in which the CNJ had carried a financial loss ten months of the year. The Blue Comet would offer extra accommodations at a regular coach fare, and have assigned seats so passengers knew exactly where they would sit. The competing Pennsylvania RR charged extra for its all parlor car Atlantic City Limited, and New York Limited. In addition, the PRR charged extra fees for parlor cars on it’s Nellie Bly train. The CNJ’s aim was to undercut the PRR’s ticket fares, attracting shore travelers with a better train service at a lower cost.

Initially, the Blue Comet was a huge success. The first train ran on February 21, 1929 with thousands of spectators along the line coming out to see the new train. The Blue Comet ran on schedule 97% of the time for the first five years. It was such a hit with train watchers that the CNJ placed a billboard on the Routes 33/34 overpass at Collingwood, NJ listing the times the train would pass that area.

However, as the Great Depression set in, passenger travel on the Comet started to decline. On April 30, 1933, the Blue Comet was reduced to one daily round trip as opposed to the two round trips being run prior. Also in that year, the PRR and Reading consolidated their southern New Jersey routes and formed the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line. An immediate impact was felt on the Blue Comet service. Prior to the merger, the Blue Comet traveled over the friendly Reading’s track from Winslow Junction to Atlantic City. After the merger, the PRR owned two-thirds of the trackage. Reports from travelers indicate that Blue Comet information was not readily available at the Atlantic City station. This had the Blue Comet service at a disadvantage, as PRR Atlantic City-New York information was readily available for passengers heading to points north.

LIONEL’s classic train set inspired by the real Blue Comet.

Eventually, the Depression and the PRR’s direct access to New York took the life out of the Blue Comet. The Central New Jersey soldiered on with the Blue Comet though the depression, but the end would finally come in 1941. On September 27th of that year, the Blue Comet would make its last run. Though the Comet was gone, but it has not been forgotten. The train made an indelible impact on all those who encountered it. One notable Comet fan was Lionel Trains founder Joshua Lionel Cowen, who was among those who frequently rode the Blue Comet. Inspired by the train’s elegant beauty, speed, and the sublime power of its towering locomotive, Lionel offered a standard gauge model of the train in 1930. This model elevated the Blue Comet’s status and has become part of the trains rich lore.

The Comet lives on today in the imaginations of train fans everywhere. There have been multiple models of the train offered over the years, books written about the Comet, it’s had a staring role in an episode of the Sopranos, and even a full length documentary produced on the trains history. The Blue Comet may have had a short run, but it’s mark on railroad history will last a very long time.

A Labor of Love, Building the Comet

I now have my own Blue Comet. I just love this train.

The Blue Comet is, for me, one of the most beautiful trains ever to grace the rails. It is the height of classical railroad passenger travel. Both striking and elegant, fast yet graceful, it is a work of art. I knew that when I set out to build this train in LEGO, I would have to build the very best model I could to live up to this legendary train’s status.

Just some of the research material I gathered in my quest.

The start of this project came long before I ever started putting bricks together. I don’t start any train project without doing some research on the subject I’m modeling. The Comet became a quest to find as much information as I could on this famous train. I tracked down every book available, combed through magazine articles, websites, blogs, and forum posts, and I even obtained a DVD copy of “De Luxe The Tail of the Blue Comet”, an excellent documentary by Robert A. Emmons Jr. which I highly recommend. One could argue that I put more time into researching the Comet than I did building the models. However, I had to know every detail. This train was becoming very special to me, and I wanted to build the best model any one could.

My model of the Blue Comet on display at Brickworld 2017.

My next step for this project came with building the cars in LDraw. I knew I wanted to build one of each car type that made up the train, plus an extra coach, for a total of six cars. I have a robust collection of parts, but I knew a project of this size would tax and probably exceed my resources. This train would be built using Bricklink orders, and I needed to know what part to buy. Fortunately there isn’t a lot of mechanical issues to worry about with the passenger cars, so modeling them first in CAD was pretty straight forward.

LDView render of the cad models for the passenger cars.

The part total for all 6 cars came in at roughly 8,000 individual parts. Needless to say, a lot of Bricklink orders ensued.

Working out the all important running gear for the locomotive.

The locomotive though was not designed in CAD. LEGO steam locomotives are complex and finicky creatures. There are a lot of moving parts in close proximity to each other, and other non-moving assemblies. How all these bits interact with each other is something you can’t model with Brick CAD programs. So all my locomotives are built the old fashioned way, by putting one brick together with another until I have something resembling and working like the real prototype.

Early mockup of the boiler front. This area had me doing a lot of experimentation until I got the right look, and the right size, with all the right details.

This train would find me stepping far outside the ideals of “LEGO Purity” at times. I use 3rd party brick parts, modified a few parts, used non LEGO parts, painted a few LEGO parts, and even made my own 3D printed parts. I know this will lessen this trains status in the minds of many LEGO fans, but I’m not concerned about such views. I built this train for me, and to be the best example of what scale modeling can be in LEGO trains. I did nothing an official LEGO designer wouldn’t do when prototyping a new set or part, and I stayed as close to the spirit and aesthetic of LEGO as I could. This train is an example of how far you can take the hobby of LEGO trains, if you are willing to get creative.

The custom 3D printed drivers were painted to match LEGO Dark Blue, and then pin striped in gold by hand.

The Locomotive

The Blue Comet locomotives were some of the most beautiful passenger steam locomotives ever built. I feel my model is a good a LEGO representation as any one could build.

Three brand-new G3s Pacific locomotives were assigned to the train; numbers 831, 832 and 833. They were painted in Packard Blue to suggest the sea, and Royal Blue to represent the night sky. The locomotives’ marker lights, headlights, handrails, coupler lifting rods, cylinder head covers, and back valve chambers were nickel-plated. Side rods were polished. The name of the train was painted in gold lettering on a blue nameboard that was mounted to the front of the smoke box just below the Elesco feedwater heater. The train was also known by its distinctive whistle. Mounted on the fireman’s side of the steam dome, it was usually angled forward. While the manufacturer and cadence of the specific whistle has not been verified (none are known to exist), it is reported to have been a long-bell 3-chime steamboat whistle similar to a Hancock or Star Brass 6″ long-bell 3-chime.

CNJ 832 in it’s Blue Comet dress.

The Central Railroad of New Jersey based their pacific design on the Reading’s G1s, but with more weight, larger cylinders, and slightly smaller drivers. This resemblance to Reading engines was to decrease as time went on. All of CNJ’s pacifics can point to the Reading G1s as an increasingly distant ancestor. The G3s and G4s were based on the G1s, but with additional equipment, such as stokers, mechanical lubricators, feedwater heaters, and a narrower firebox.

CNJ 832  was one of the three G3s Pacifics to be chosen for Blue Comet service.

These first two classes were hand fired until the 1940s, when stokers were applied. Retirements began in 1948, and the last were retired in 1954.

There is no side to this locomotive that does not look good.

Class G3s, from which three locomotives were assigned to the Blue Comet, had Elesco feedwater heaters, stokers, and mechanical lubricators. The firebox was smaller on these engines, 8 feet wide, versus 9 feet wide for the G1s and G2s classes. CNJ was burning more and more soft coal, and these engines reflected that fact. Engines 831-833 were painted in Blue Comet Colors from 1929 to the mid to late 1930s. Engine 834 was painted a dark green briefly for service on the Bullet. Engine 835 remained black her whole life. Class G3s had what were essentially copies of USRA 10,000 gallon tenders for coal and water. These tenders were a bit larger than the 9,000 gallon tenders that came with the earlier Pacifics. The G3s class was built in 1928, and the last were retired in 1955. Unfortunately all were scrapped.

No deal has been overlooked. The tender deck area has been accurately modeled, and the cab interior fully detailed.

Power for the locomotive comes from two Power Functions train motors in the tender, a Power Functions I.R. receiver, and PF rechargeable battery. This is probably the weakest part of this whole build. The set up does have the power to pull the train at a reasonably fast pace, but the strain of the quite heavy cars, thanks to their full interiors, eventually overwhelms the receiver and battery’s thermal cut off. They just can’t provide the amperage that the motors draw for more than 30 minutes before shutting off. I will eventually be upgrading to either a BuWizz, or PFx Brick and custom battery for control and power.

Lead weights were added to improve traction, the pole reverser is use to reverse electric polarity going to one motor, so that both can operate in the same direction.

There are several 3D printed parts used in the locomotive running gear. The pilot wheels are a custom size, the Drivers are 19 spoke XXL size with accurate counterweights, and trailing truck wheels are custom L-sized thin wheels (yes, you read that right, Large size), all designed by Nathaniel Brill, for me, for this train. The side rods and valve gear come from Benn Coifman’s Trained Bricks store. The eccentric cranks are designed by me and available from my Shapeways store.

The locomotive uses 3D printed wheels, rods, and valve gear parts.

The Passenger Cars

The CNJ totally refurbished sixteen cars for Blue Comet service, inside and out. The passenger cars, like the locomotives, were painted in Packard Blue to suggest the sea and Royal Blue to represent the night sky. The passenger cars also had a cream band running the length of the side at the windows to evoke the sand of the shore. The paint scheme was unusual, since the road name did not appear on each car, rather, only the name of the train, “THE BLUE COMET”, appeared in gold lettering on the letter board. Each car was named for a different comet. The name of each car was placed in gold lettering at the middle of each side below the windows. The underframes and trucks were painted royal blue and varnished.

Inside the train, the cars were lavishly furnished. Each car was clad in circassian walnut with a gold inlay pattern. The headliners were cream colored. Window shades were made of blue Spanish pantasote. The luggage racks were nickel-plated. Each car had a drinking fountain by the North Pole Sanitary Drinking Fountain company of Chicago. Collapsible cone-shaped paper cups with the train’s logo were available via a dispenser above the fountain.

Observation car under construction. For the train I asked for a sig-fig from each member from my club, PennLUG. Here they are all gathered in the observation car.

Baggage Car Olbers

For the baggage car I decided to model Olbers.

Two 70ft baggage cars we’re chosen from the CNJ’s fleet for comet service. The car were named for the Comets Olbers, and Barnard, and feature 6 wheel, plain bearing trucks.

Even the baggage cars we’re modeled with full interiors. Future plans call for lighting, and super detailing with more details, baggage and baggage clerks.

Combine Car Halley

One of two Combines in Blue Comet service, Halley was named after the most famous comet of all, Halley’s Comet.

The CNJ refurbished two of their own 72ft combine cars for the Blue Comet. The names chosen for the cars were Encke, and the most famous comet of them all, Halley. The interior of the combines, which also served as the smoking cars, had 48 blue leather bucket seats. A a men’s lavatory and toilet was located at one end of the car on opposite sides of the aisle. The flooring was a blue-and-cream diagonal checkerboard linoleum tile. This same flooring was utilized in the vestibules and lavatories. Each combine was furnished with 22 nickel plated cuspidors, a match striker attached to the bottom of each wind post, on the back of each pair of seat was an royal blue ash tray, and a table with could be used for playing cards could be placed between the two pairs of facing seats next to the bulkhead.

The combine interior will eventually get figs, lighting, and more fine detailing.

I chose to model Halley for my train for some key reasons. First, Halley is by far the most well known celestial comet. So it would be a name instantly recognized. Second, of the two combine cars used for Blue Comet service, Halley is the one to survive. Lastly, I already modeled Encke in it’s post-Comet life on my CNJ Commuter Train.

The combine “Halley” #300 was reconfigured, repainted and used in service on the Santa Fe Southern Railway. “Halley”, a smoker/combine, has been modified a bit with the removal of the vestibules, and the baggage area window has been blanked out.

Coaches D’Arrest and Westphal

D’Arrest and Westphal both survive to this day in New Jersey.

Eight of the Central New Jersey’s class PB coach cars built by American Car and Foundry in 1923 were refurbished for the Blue Comet. They carried the names Tuttle, Holmes, Westphal, D’Arrest, Faye, Spitaler, Winnecke, and Brorsen.

The Westphal on a recent move to it’s new home with the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey

The coaches were fitted out with 64 individual seats which rotated, nickel-plated coat hooks, and umbrella holders mounted to the back of the seats. The seats were triple-cushioned, upholstery was Persian Blue, rendered in figured mohair. A men’s lavatory and toilet was located at one end of the car on opposite sides of the aisle.   A generous women’s lounge with an adjoining toilet was fitted at the opposite end of the car. The lounge had a full-length mirror, two wicker arm chairs, a boudoir chair, and a cup and towel vendor. The floor covering was a Persian blue carpet with a gold modern pattern.

Underside detail of the coaches.
As with the other cars, more interior detailing in planed.

The United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey currently owns two of the surviving coaches from the Comet, Westphal, and D’Arrest as well as one of the Observation car, DeVico.

The “Westphal” (later known as CNJ #1172) and “D’Arrest” (later known as CNJ #1173). were stored for a long time at Winslow Junction, NJ awaiting plans for restoration. In March 2017, enough funds were secured to move them to Boonton, and Westphal was moved by truck from Winslow Junction to Boonton, followed by D’Arrest a few months later. In September of that year, both cars arrived in Boonton and were coupled up to the DeVico with plans for further restoration to return them to Blue Comet livery and be operated on excursions.

The Diner, Giacobini and the Wreck of the Blue Comet

The diner car Giacobini was the only diner car in service for the Blue Comet.

For the dining car, the CNJ rebuilt one of their wooden cafe cars and named after the comet Giacobini. The diner accompanied the early morning trip to Atlantic City and the evening return to Jersey City.

The dining car could accommodate 36 patrons. Porters in blue uniforms served savory dishes and homemade goodies. The tables were set with the finest embroidered blue tablecloths with the train’s logo, special china and flatware, and a silver base lamp with parchment shade. The lampshades had an astral pattern of comets and stars, and tinted lightbulbs were employed to cast a soft blue glow. Apparently the fresh apple pie with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese was a popular offering.

The Giacobini was involved in a serious accident while on the Blue Comet on August 19, 1939. Train No 4218 was traveling east-bound with a consist of combine Halley, coach D’Arrest, diner Giacobini, coach Winnecke, and observation car Beila. Engine No. 820, a 4-6-2 Pacific was on point. Conductor Walsh and Engineman Thomas were in charge of the train, which was carrying 49 passengers and crew. Extraordinarily heavy rains fell in the area throughout the day. It is estimated that roughly 13 12 inches of rain fell, and about 10 34 inches fell between 2 and 6 pm. The train’s crew had reduced speed from the usual 70 mph to between 35-40 mph, as visibility was poor and the crew had been given a message at Winslow Junction to keep a lookout for sand on the crossings due to the heavy rains. Near milepost 86, about a mile west of Chatsworth station, the train hit a washout at 4:37 pm. The surface water had overwhelmed two 24-inch culverts, and undermined the roadbed. The engine and tender made it across the damaged track, with the rear tender truck being derailed. The entire 5-car consist, however, had become uncoupled from the tender and derailed. The cars came to rest in general line with the track, and were leaning at various angles. Roughly 500 feet of track was destroyed. When the train failed to arrive at Chatsworth Station, personnel and local residents waded over a mile through the woods in water waist deep in parts to reach the wreck. Reports that one hundred people were killed led to a flurry of ambulances from northern parts of the state. Actually, only forty-nine people were on board. The injured included 32 passengers, 4 dining car employees, 1 porter, and 1 train service employee. The chef, Joseph Coleman, was crushed and badly scalded in the kitchen of the dining car when the stove fell on top of him as the car overturned. He later died from his injuries. The majority of the injuries were minor however, resulting from the flying wicker chairs in the observation car, as they were never secured to the floor.  A relief train arrived a few hours later to take the remaining passengers to their destination. An investigation concluded that the derailment was caused by the washout which resulted from the unusually heavy rainfall. Today, the mainline track and wreck site are abandoned and very overgrown.

All of the equipment involved in the wreck was repaired and returned to service, except for the dining car Giaccobini. Being a steel-clad wooden car, it was unable to withstand the forces of the wreck and was too badly damaged to repair. It was used as a rail yard freight office until it was eventually scrapped.

The diner interior was one of the hardest part o the passenger car set to do. 4 studs of space does not give one much room to model a full kitchen.
The kitchen area is as cramped as it was on the real diner car.

The Observation Car Biela

I models the Biela because it was the observation car on the train when the famous wreck occurred, and because I liked the name.

The three observation cars for the train were named after the comets DeVico, Biela, and Tempel. 48 rattan lounge chairs in silver and blue lined either side of the observation car. These were upholstered in Persian blue Avalon plush, with a gold-tinted floral pattern. The carpet was a deep blue, with gold tinted meteor designs worked in. A women lavatory was fitted to one end, and at the opposite end on the observation deck, 6 folding chairs were provided. No seats were sold in the observation car. This was to allow all to enjoy the luxury of the observation car without needing to pay an extra fare.

Inside the observation car you can see sig figs from many of my fellow PennLUG, club members.
Today the observation car Biela is part of the Clinton Diner in Clinton, New Jersey.
Riding the observation platform you’ll find 3 of PennLU’s train builders. Glenn Holland (also of BMR fame) is on the left. Nate Robinson (Naters MOCs) is center. And on the right is you’re truly, as the conductor.

One of the most stand out feature of the observation car is the drumhead on the rear platform . This distinctive feature carried the logo for the Blue Comet and at night was lit up, letting every one know this was a special train. For months I had wrestled with the problem of how to recreate this in LEGO. Nothing I tried was the right size or could be attach to the railing in an elegant fashion, to say nothing of trying to light it up. It was only when a started to experiment with 3D printing that the idea of making my own special part for the drumhead was born. The design I came up with clips onto the railing with two back clips, the front is sized so that a clear 2×2 round tile can be flush mounted.  The inside is hollow allowing for an LED light to be placed inside. With a vinyl decal covering the clear 2×2 tile, the Blue Comet logo will glow when the light is turned on.

 

The Award Winning Blue Comet

My Blue Comet won Best Train at Brickworld 2017 against some heavy competition.

I built this train for myself. But in truth, a modeler wants to show off a bit, and we all love to be recognized for our work. This year my Blue Comet model did both in grand fashion. I was very pleased that it had won both Best Train at Brickworld 2017, and Best Train Car at BrickFair Virginia 2017.

Winner of Best Train Car, at BrickFair Virginia 2017

The future of the Comet

I am not done with this train, not by a long shot. There are still things I want to do, and stuff I want to improve. All the car interiors will be getting lighting in the future. They will also be populated with figs and much more fine detail added throughout. The locomotive will get a power upgrade to better cope with the heavy car set. It will also get lighting, and maybe even sound. I also would like to build the only surviving engine to ever pull the Comet: CNJ camelback locomotive no.592, which is preserved in the roundhouse at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Maryland.

The Blue Comet is my train. It has been a labor of love, a bar to set higher, and a joy to research and build. It has been one of the most rewarding builds I have done yet, and it will continue to be as I add to it and run it at train shows.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end here, I thank you. I can be quite wordy when it comes to this train. I’m glad to have you indulge me in my passion. And I hope you will come back again as I post more articles in the future detailing improvements to this train.

You can find my Flickr Gallery with more photos of the Comet here.

Blue Comet Photo Gallery

When you’re just trying to photograph your LEGO model, and some one steps into frame.
Shadow decided he would make a better subject to photograph than my Blue Comet. I’ll let you decide. But I can’t complain when I can capture two of my most beloved things in one photo. My LEGO model of the Blue Comet, and my faithful buddy, Shadow.

8 thoughts on “A Tail Of The Blue Comet: The Seashore’s Finest Train In LEGO by Cale Leiphart”

  1. Fantastic model, fantastic write-up. I enjoyed very much the history of a train I had never heard of before (and in a fairly uncommon and beautiful color for trains to boot!). The Drumhead solution is a very neat thing, and I look forward to seeing how the lighting works out, as well as the interiors. Early on when discussion the motive power, you certainly peaked my interest in also saying #834 was dark green for a while. That’s my favorite LEGO color, so I’d love to build a matching loco at some point, in the green. Well done, Cale, another bar for me to work towards!

  2. This is such an amazing model of hands down the most beautiful train! What I wouldn’t give to add this to my model train collection as the first realistic LEGO model to sit with my other trains. You have truly captured every bit of the charm that this train has in you model. Fantastic job!

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