U.S., Passenger Train History from 1830 to Amtrak: An Incomplete List of Things Not Found Today on Passenger Trains

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 8, 2021

The first passenger trains in the United States took to the rails in May 1830 on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Since then, passenger trains have been changing and evolving, some for the better and some for the worst. Motive power evolved from fragile steam to steam behemoths pounding the rails during World War II and helping win the peace.

By the middle of the 20th Century steam was quickly giving way to new diesel-electric locomotives, and along with the scrapping of expensive and volatile steam engines and their equally-expensive infrastructure such as coaling towers and water towers came all-electric locomotives under catenary. The majestic Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1s roaring between New York City and Washington, D.C. hauling premium passenger trains inspired artists, photographers and dreamers.

Santa Fe Railway ordered the Budd Company-built all stainless steel Hi-Level coach, lounge and dining car fleet for the fabled El Capitan, and these cars became the prototype for Pullman Standard to build its last long distance passenger car fleet, the bi-level Superliners.

Today, the newest generation of Tier IV climate-friendly locomotives are beginning to haul a new generation of passenger cars for Amtrak, VIA Rail Canada and Brightline in Florida.

Much has changed in the 191 years passengers trains have been running. Here is an incomplete list of some things, good and bad, you don’t find on modern day passenger trains, in no particular order:

• Printed timetables. The most useful pieces of paper for passengers any railroad produced. Not only did timetables provide passengers with an idea of where they were at intermediate station stops and whether or not the train was running on time, but were excellent marketing pieces as passengers could look at other schedules and dream of new vacation destinations. Older, pre-Amtrk timetables also had charts of sample city pairs and other fares.

The Red Book, in Pullman sleeping cars. The Red Book was a printed hardback book, about the size of a typical dictionary, containing a comprehensive listing of hotels and restaurants in cities throughout North America. Before there was the internet, The Red Book was the traveler’s bible for hotel and resort information.

• Western Union telegram blanks in Pullman sleeping cars, always in the same rack in the hallway along with timetables and The Red Book. Any sleeping car passenger could fill out a message form to send a telegram, hand it to their Pullman porter, and it would be sent at the next intermediate station stop.

• Formal sleeping car lounges (unless you are traveling on VIA Rail Canada) exclusively for sleeping car passengers. These intimate lounges, usually half of a Pullman sleeping car, had an exclusive feel for sleeping car passengers that vaguely resembled a private club.

• Onboard preparation of meals in dining cars from all fresh ingredients. No pre-prepared foods, no frozen foods, no apportioned helpings. All fresh, and prepared as ordered by patrons.

• Passengers “dressing” for dinner in the dining car, including removing ubiquitous casual sports hats when walking through the car or sitting at a table, as well as passengers overall “dressing” for train travel with a certain formality which was dispensed with by the advent of Baby Boomers adopting blue jeans and tee shirts as their standard uniform.

• Non-plastic, non-disposable tableware and eating utensils in dining cars, plus providing full table settings for individual courses, all stamped or engraved with the railroad’s name, logo, or company initials.

• Coffee shop car counter seating, similar to “drugstore counter” seating. This was an informal dining car service which mimicked seating at a drugstore food service counter before the world’s introduction to fast food. The coffee shop counter was served by one or two waiters/cooks and offered a limited menu of sandwiches and informal food offerings. The car was open longer hours than dining cars.

• Large hat bags in Pullman sleeping car accommodations suitable to hold a gentleman’s fedora or a lady’s large festive traveling hat. The hat bags allowed hats to be safely stored in the accommodation without worry of dust or other foreign objects landing on the hat when not properly perched atop a well-rested head.

• Overnight shoe shining in Pullman sleeping cars. A railroad tradition long gone; no Pullman passenger ever stepped off their train in scuffed shoes.

• Every private Pullman sleeping car accommodation including an in-room lavatory and flush-toilet. Public-down-the-hall restrooms were eliminated with the end of Pullman open sections, and roomettes and bedrooms with private plumbing were considered a huge improvement in sanitation and convenience.

• The sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products in lounge cars. Some things long-gone are a great improvement for societal well-being.

• Cigarette ashtrays in each Pullman sleeping car accommodation and at every coach seat as well as large ashtrays in lounge cars, plus, thankfully gone, too, the clouds of tobacco smoke and lingering “fragrances.”

• In-room drinking water and paper cups in every Pullman sleeping car accommodation.

• Onboard nurses, once common on many streamliners, are of the past. These traveling Registered Nurses performed a myriad of duties from helping young mothers with small children to attending to passengers who claimed to be unwell.

• Pullman conductors, who were separate from the railroad conductors. The uniforms looked the same as any other conductor, and the work schedules were the same (working a train for 100 miles constituted a full day’s work) as the railroad conductor, but the Pullman conductors only were responsible for Pullman sleeping car passengers for dealing with lifting tickets, answering passenger inquiries, and settling any problems which may arise, as well as be responsible for Pullman porters. In addition to Pullman conductors, there were also Pullman assistant conductors on longer consists.

• One coach attendant per coach car.

• Depending on the railroad, passenger service agents for coach passengers. These positions were separate from conductors and assistant conductors, and mostly concerned themselves directly with answering questions for coach passengers, resolving some problems including luggage issues, and acting in a vaguely similar position as a hotel concierge.

• Pullman porters, coach car attendants and dining car waiters wearing stiff, starched white uniform jackets. As Amtrak progressed, the standard uniforms of onboard services employees moved away from “traditional” looks into more practical uniforms.

• Conductors and assistant conductors wearing all-navy blue suits with vests. This was a standard uniform for most railroads and the Pullman Company, accompanied by the unique round, flat-top hats. While the hats remain, conductors and assistant conductors have a much-less formal uniform today which allows them more flexibility and acclimation to local weather conditions.

• Segregation and gender discrimination of train and engine crews and onboard services crews. The Pullman Company and railroads employed only Black, Asian, and Latino males in what it considered “traditional servant” job categories such as sleeping car porters, coach attendants, lounge attendants, dining car waiters and dining car chefs, cooks, and kitchen support personnel. Dining car stewards, conductors, assistant conductors, trainmen, baggage masters, and locomotive engineers were exclusively White and male. The only female members of onboard services train crews were the few railroads which offered an onboard registered nurse. The original Auto Train began to tear down these practices and Amtrak took up the mantle in the early days when crews were transferred from contract private railroads to Amtrak which ended them completely.

• For Pullman sleeping car passengers, the Pullman porter offering to use a whisk-brush on the passenger’s suit coat or overcoat to remove any lingering dandruff or lint when collecting luggage just prior to the passenger’s station stop.

• Passengers properly tipping car attendants when detraining.

• Outside of a few major terminals, Red Cap station porters to assist passengers with luggage and steamer trunks.

• Train and engine crews wearing “railroad approved” pocket watches which were periodically checked by railroad watch inspectors for accuracy. Pocket watches gave way to railroad approved wristwatches which in turn have given way to digital timepieces.

• Full size portable tables in Pullman sleeping cars, for drawing rooms, bedrooms, compartments and roomettes. These tables were brought into the room by the porter upon request and hooked onto a wall fixture and had a folding support leg at the far end. The tables were large enough for comfortable in-room dining for two or to be able to play a full game of Solitaire, versus today’s smaller, permanently affixed tables under the window of the accommodation.

• Drawing rooms for three passengers, with the exception of VIA Rail Canada. The classic drawing room provided two lower berths and one upper berth and had a single lavatory facility. The accommodation was ideal for two passengers who wished to only have lower berths and avoid the hazard of climbing into an upper berth on a moving train.

• Open section berths in Pullman sleeping cars, with the exception of VIA Rail Canada which still has the service. Open section berths provided the widest beds found on trains until VIA Rail’s introduction of its luxury Prestige Class Service.

• Parlor cars and parlor car seating; cars with a smaller number of individual swivel seats and an extra level of personal service, a noticeable and remarkable upgrade from coach service.

• Dome cars, except those used by VIA Rail Canada. Perhaps some of the most delightful passenger cars ever conceived and designed, dome cars allow passengers to see the countryside from all angles and enjoy passing scenery. Dome cars were especially popular on western transcontinental trains which traversed mountain ranges. The use of dome cars was severely limited in the east because the cars were too tall for safe operating under the catenary of the Northeast Corridor and also could not fit through tunnels in and out of Washington Union Station and New York Pennsylvania Station. The Union Pacific Railroad offered dome dining cars on the Dome Streamliner City of Los Angeles.

• Onboard, full service barber shops and onboard bathtub bathing service in lounge cars of select streamliner long distance, premium service trains. Some trains also offered stenographer services as well as pay-per-call radio-telephones for use by passengers. Other amenities, often found on heavyweight long distance premium trains included book libraries.

• Gender-specific restrooms on coaches. There was a reason single-level coaches had only 44 seats – the rest of the floor space was taken up with large lounge/restroom facilities, separate for men and women. There were multiple sinks and enclosed toilet facilities; the small lounge part could also be used as a smoking area.

• Ignorance of the needs of passengers using the benefits of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Prior to Amtrak making ADA changes in the 1980s, it was almost impossible for disabled passengers to easily travel on a train.

• Region/route/railroad specific specialty cars, such as the Pullman Sun Lounge on Seaboard’s Silver Meteor, The Traveller’s Rest lounge/food service car and the Lounge In The Sky on Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, the dome diner on Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles, the Turquoise Room on Santa Fe’s The Super Chief, Great Domes and Full Domes on Santa Fe, Great Northern and Southern Pacific, twin-unit diners on New York Central, triple-unit diners on Southern Pacific’s Coast Daylight, Milwaukee Road’s Skytop Lounges and more.

• Mercifully, in the South, Jim Crow-law segregation cars and segregated waiting rooms and restrooms in stations.

• Round-end lounge/observation cars, with the exception of VIA Rail Canada which still operates Park cars on the Canadian and other long distance trains. These once-near-obligatory streamliner cars carrying a rear-end drumhead announcing the name of the train were considered an essential “finishing point” to streamliners.

• The “refreshing” light spray of moisture often experienced by passengers who stuck their head out of the top of an open Dutch door when the train was moving at a high speed. While some passengers delighted in the experience they did not realize the light spray of moisture was the result of a passenger either dumping a sink of used water or flushing a direct-dump-on-the-track toilet.

• Open-end lounge car platforms on heavyweight passenger cars. Some railroads provided passenger seating for their heartier passengers on rear open-end platforms of lounge cars for smoking or viewing the scenery. The railroads did not advertise the several layers of road grime the passengers enjoying the rear-platform were likely to accumulate relatively quickly through the forces of nature as a train travels down the track.

• Railroad-issued paper tickets which were lifted by a conductor and punched with their assigned ticket punch which rendered the ticket as used and identified the conductor lifting the ticket thanks to the introduction of digital ticketing through smartphones and printed ticket facsimiles through the internet and online booking. Railroad-issued paper tickets are still used, but on a much smaller scale.

• Separate Pullman Company accommodations tickets apart from railroad fare tickets.

• Outside of the Northeast Corridor in the national system, express or “limited” trains with fast schedules and limited intermediate station stops.

• Extra fare, all-Pullman sleeping car trains.

• Multiple-section, same day departures of popular trains with identical consists on a slightly delayed schedule. This was popular on the Florida trains prior to World War II; it was not unusual for a Miami-New York City train to depart from the Miami terminal in five or more identical sections/consists of sleeping cars, lounge cars, dining cars and baggage cars in order to meet seasonal passenger demand, usually running about 10 minutes apart. (And this was before any type of sophisticated signaling systems.)

• For long distance routes of more than 24 hours and more than one night aboard, especially on trains which carried dome cars through scenic mountain ranges, a mid-route window washing of the train at an extended station stop, usually a crew change point, which allowed passengers to always have an unimpeded view of passing scenery through sparkling clean windows.

Metroliners on the Northeast Corridor. Originally conceived by the Pennsylvania Railroad to operate between New York City and Washington, D.C. and first put into service by Pennsylvania successor Penn Central in 1969, and then operated by Amtrak for 35 years. New equipment was specifically designed and built for the Metroliners and was intended to bring high speed rail to the United States. The service was so popular among denizens of the NEC that the name was turned into a verb, “We are going to Metroliner to New York today.” The Metroliners were replaced by the Acela service.

• Individual electric generators in each passenger car which kept the lights and air conditioning working on the car when it was sitting in a station or on a siding. Unlike today’s cars which are wholly dependent on the train’s locomotive Head End Power system for hotel power, prior to the introduction of HEP each individual passenger car had its own internal power source. Today, if the HEP power fails in the locomotive, the entire train loses power and plumbing except for minimal emergency lighting.

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