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How Passenger Train Cars Have Evolved

a group of people riding on the back of a 4-part carriage

Since their inception in the early 1800s, passenger train cars have undergone countless modifications. What started as small, unsteady, wooden carriages have fostered into massive, high-speed, aluminum cars that can transport more passengers over further distances.   

Learn how passenger train cars have evolved over the years into the familiar cabs we know today. 

Why Are There Different Types of Train Cars?

Before we jump into how they’ve changed, let’s understand why they’ve changed. When passenger trains became a normal part of American travel, they serviced anyone. Immigrant travelers to wealthy families rode in close quarters on the same train cabs. 

Ingrained by the concept of social order, some passengers started to voice their discomfort in riding close to individuals outside of their social class. 

Staying true to their goal of attracting as many passengers as possible without alienating certain groups, railroad companies abandoned the single-class car structure and began creating train cars that separated passengers by economic class. 

Railroad Carriages

In the early history of passenger train cars, carriages were the only cars that carried railroad travelers. They were built by carriage makers, and therefore, resembled the structure and design of horse-drawn stagecoaches of the early 1800s.

At the time, functionality outweighed any need for comfort. Train cars were designed for the sole purpose of transporting riders from point A to point B. Seating options were limited to wooden benches and passengers were forced to ride side-by-side in close personal space.

Not only were these carriages uncomfortable, but they were also unsafe. Like road carriages, these train cars were not fully enclosed on the sides. Aside from a roof above their heads, railway passengers had no protection from the outside elements, which was especially dangerous because locomotives were prone to boiler explosions in their early years. 

A few years passed until railroad companies recognized the need to prioritize safety and comfort to work in tandem with function. 

Passenger Coach Cars

Passenger train cars saw their first iteration in the 1830s. Railroad carriages developed into rectangular rail cars with a roof and enclosed sides, giving passengers a safer, more comfortable ride. 

Entire rows of bench seating developed into two separate rows with an aisle down the middle. The aisle allowed passengers to move through the train car with ease. Plus, it created some separation between riders so they weren’t packed so tightly together. 

The design of these passenger cars continued to improve, and by the 1840s, coach cars started offering different accommodations for higher passenger fares. And so, first-class and second-class passenger cars were introduced.

First-Class Train Cars

First-class seating was built on luxury: train cars were designed with carpet, upholstered chairs, curtains, and ornate decorations to mimic the high-quality lifestyles their first-class riders were used to.  

Generally, these luxury train cars were constructed to carry fewer passengers than normal cabs. This gave first-class riders more legroom and an increased sense of privacy since they were no longer packed tightly next to strangers.  

The extra accommodations made first-class train fares significantly more expensive than standard coach cars. It’s no surprise they were occupied by strictly high-income, high-status individuals who could afford to spend the extra money. 

Types of First-Class Cars

Multiple train cars were created for first-class passengers. Below are a few popular examples that still have variations that run today.

a group of people sitting at a table in a dining car on a passenger train

Dining Cars: Marrying the excitement of traveling by train with the convenience of not having to stop for food, dining on the train became an exciting experience for passengers. Table service and fine dining were initially reserved for first-class passengers because of the cost to build and operate

Today, Amtrak services two types of dining cars: the café car and a traditional dining car. Meals are complimentary for passengers when they travel first class. 

President’s Cars: Created to carry company presidents and high-level executives, the president’s car was essentially a private “house on wheels.” With an exclusive dormitory and lounge area, they were built for maximum comfort and privacy for passengers as they traveled long distances for business. 

Though president cars are an element of the past, they can be ridden on heritage railroads like Strasburg Rail Road, which exist to preserve the history of passenger railway services. 

Parlor Cars: Privacy and exclusivity were the main appeals of parlor cars. Seating was individual in swiveled, couch-like armchairs. Windows were extra wide on these cars to give first-class passengers a better view of the land.

Parlor cars still exist in their same historic form today with comfortable, swivel seats. 

Sleeping Car: Also known as the Pullman Car, the sleeping car was created for first-class passengers traveling by train overnight. Seats were converted into beds so guests could rest more comfortably than coach seating allowed. Maids were hired to attend to passenger needs — they converted the seats to beds and delivered meals to guests.

From roomettes to bedrooms to bedroom suites, Amtrak has plenty of sleeping cars available for first-class riders.

Second-Class Train Cars

Many railroad companies recognized the fact that first-class cabs didn’t serve a larger percentage of their passengers. To avoid alienating such a large part of their client base, second-class cars came into existence with first-class. 

In terms of design, second-class train cars had far less furnishing and accommodations.  Instead of upholstered seating, these train cars had wooden seating with reclining backs (still, a slight upgrade from the standard coach benches). 

Since they were designed to carry the largest number of passengers, the biggest difference between first and second-class cars was the amount of seating. Second-class cars had more seats, which in turn, meant less legroom and a decreased sense of privacy.

Types of Second-Class Cars

The second-class cars that became popular resembled versions of first-class luxury cars, but with fewer ornaments and services. 

Buffet Cars: To provide dining accommodations for second-class passengers buffet cars were created. The main differences between buffet cars and dining cars were that guests didn’t receive table service. Drinks and food were available for purchase from the dining car’s counter. In addition, the food was smaller snacks as opposed to fine dining entrees. 

The modern versions of buffet cars are referred to as Café cars, where passengers can purchase drinks and small snacks at their discretion. 

Open-Section Sleeping Cars: These were the sleeping cars of second-class passengers. They were less private than first-class sleepers, as the bed configurations were in the shared space as opposed to a private room or roomette. 

The closest modern cars to resemble open-seating are superliner coaches. These cars are designed with double-facing seats that can be converted into beds overnight to accommodate long-haul travelers. 

Types of Train Cars You Can Ride at Historic Strasburg Rail Road

Strasburg Rail Road, located in the heart of Amish country PA, is one of the most exciting destinations for train lovers. Strasburg Rail Road has plenty of train car options if you’re looking for an authentic passenger steam train experience.

President’s Car

The Reading” is a business-class car that was built for high-level officials and company presidents. Restored with Edwardian splendor, this train car is decorated with handcrafted woodwork, stuffed furniture, and tapestries. 

It was acquired by the Rail Road in 1964 and returned to the tracks after nearly 40 years of sitting on display. 

First-Class Parlor

The first-class parlor car is designed to carry 30 passengers. Small tables with individual seating are positioned along each side of the train for passengers to enjoy refreshments, snacks, and conversation with other guests. 

upholstered chairs on a passenger train

First-Class Lounge

The first-class lounge car is a comfortable, private experience seating only 22 guests per ride. It was restored to resemble the elegance of the late-Victorian era with soft, upholstered, velvet chairs that swivel for a holistic view of the outside — much like the parlor cars of the past.

Coach

Ride in an authentically restored Victorian-style coach car. Strasburg’s coach car is built with a potbelly stove to keep guests warm during the winter months, and adjustable windows to let the cool air in during the hot summer days.

Open Air 

Get a real taste of the earliest passenger train cars in Strasburg Rail Road’s open-air car. Wooden bench seating and open windows that expose passengers to the outside elements are what you can expect during an open-air train ride.

While passenger trains are no longer in their golden age of travel, they are still a great alternative to driving or flying. Whether you’re interested in a long-haul trip or a historic excursion train ride, the options for passenger train cars are abundant. 

Ride in a restored luxury train car at the oldest continuously operating railroad in America. Book tickets to Strasburg Rail Road for a historic train experience.