U.S., From Streamliners To Amtrak: How To Define Passenger Train Luxury

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; May 26, 2021

One thoughtful reader of this space recently commented on social media about luxury streamliner trains and private rooms. The gentleman correctly noted private rooms – be it a bedroom, compartment, drawing room or roomette – were small and functional but not luxurious for the space itself. He further noted you might not get a shower and you had to get used to sleeping in a Pullman bed while riding on jointed rail.

All true.

Once passenger car manufacturers switched from wooden cars to steel cars in the early 20th Century heavyweight pre-streamliner era much of the frills of woodwork went away. Some decorative wood still existed in the heavyweight era, but not to the point of being compared to a luxurious home or public building.

From the streamliner era through today, a private room on a train is essentially a metal box with some adornments and a door. While today’s newer cars feature a lot of plastic and composite material in construction of the rooms, they are still essentially a metal box inside of a metal passenger car.

Showers did not regularly appear on trains until Superliner I sleeping cars went into service in 1979 and some single-level sleeping cars were retrofitted with showers for Auto Train service around the same era.

For many of us “old-timers” (sigh) taking a shower for the first time on a train 40 years ago was a big deal. Imagine that … detraining feeling both clean and well-dressed (40 years ago many of us were still wearing neckties when traveling, especially for business travel.). The years of traveling and cleaning up in the morning in the pull-down sink bowl were over.

In the early 20th century both submarines for naval use and heavyweight passenger cars were both undergoing intense design periods. The one thing submarines and passenger cars have in common (other than pull-down sink bowls) is the design for space in both is done in inches, not feet. Every inch counts and every inch of space has a purpose.

Looking at a streamliner bedroom – with the adjoining compartment when used ensuite – it’s easy to see how highly clever designers were to fit so much into so small of a space. While the coat closet looks tiny, it’s easy to hang two overcoats in that space; the shoebox at the bottom with access from the hall for porters to shine shoes overnight was pure common sense innovation.

The lavatories – spacious by today’s Superliner and Viewliner standards – contained a full size mirror, adequate lighting for shaving or applying makeup, a pull-down sink, drinking water spigot or jug on a shelf and paper cup dispenser, shelf for towels, toilet, used razor-blade disposal slot and trash receptacle.

The long couch in the bedroom for two passengers could seat three, should you be entertaining a guest. When the beds were made for the night, the couch became the bottom of a bed with a real, thick mattress on springs. The fold-down upper bunk, a much better design than today’s Superliner and Viewliner upper bunks, also had a full, thick mattress on springs. Those beds were far superior to today’s paper-thin, fold-able mattresses and, despite the train operating over jointed rail, provided a much superior night’s sleep.

On the overall matter of the size of the space, keep in mind when those cars were designed and put into use, the typical hotel room (no such things as motels in those days) was a third-to-half the size of the typical hotel room as built today. Many hotels built up through the 1970s and a few beyond, when renovated today often have a much smaller room count because small rooms give-way to larger rooms as expected by today’s standards. A Pullman bedroom, by the standards of the time when designed was still small and efficient, but not as radically smaller as judged by today’s standards.

When examining the question of what constitutes “luxury,” that discussion is often focused beyond the actual size of the space under examination.

Is the luxury determined overall by the size of the space or the amenities which come along with the space?

Riding in a streamliner Pullman sleeping car meant a much higher-level of personal service than typically found today. While many of today’s sleeping car attendants have figured out providing a higher-level of service translates into higher tip amounts, not every sleeping car attendant has reached that level of professional practice.

It’s not the size of a space nor what constitutes the walls, but the amenities and level of personal service which define luxury.

In the streamliner era, no Pullman passenger ever handled a piece of luggage unless it was their choice. Detraining passengers were offered to have their coats and hats brushed by the Pullman porter. Hats were stored in large Pullman hat bags found in each room to avoid dust or any unexpected dirt. Shoes were shined every night.

Pullman passengers had comfortable, exclusive lounge cars often decorated in the spirit of a private club.

Dining cars offered three meals a day from extensive menus at levels only found in better restaurants and many diners offered in writing on menus to prepare any special dishes desired if the ingredients were available.

The general atmosphere onboard a premium train such as the Twentieth Century Limited, Broadway Limited, Florida Special or North Coast Limited was one of a relaxed, stately atmosphere where passengers dressed for a combination of comfort and travel attire. It was never proper to enter the dining car for a dinner unless properly attired. As many say in the South, “It just wasn’t done…”

By today’s more relaxed standards some of the past practices of luxury train travel may seem silly and unnecessary. There is an unfortunate belief that when traveling, one should dress as comfortably as possible – after all, you are on vacation – and there is no requirement to present yourself properly to fellow passengers. The only requirement is you have to wear shoes when moving about the train for any reason.

Luxury travel may be a state of mind or it may simply be found in a more genteel atmosphere of self-respect when seen in public, a desire for more quiet than loud conversation or noises of any type, and the ability to enjoy a refreshment or meal which has been specifically prepared for your taste. It may be the ability to enjoy the interactions with onboard services employees who seem to enjoy their professional work and are always ready to offer a smile for any occasion. It may be defined as being on a train where conductors take off their hats when walking through the dining car.

Whatever your definition of luxury may be, in can be found anywhere you may choose to find it under the circumstances which meet your standards. The Pullman Company defined luxury passenger train travel in North America.

Today, the Pullman Company is long gone; it disappeared two years before the start of Amtrak service. The ways and practices of its lounge and dining cars have been lost to history. The good news is, newer and innovative operators such as Brightline in Florida are doing their best to bring the spirit of the Pullman Company luxury back to passenger train service.

Passenger train service is more than just point-to-point transportation crowding as many passengers are possible into a given space. Passenger train service is an opportunity to travel comfortably and arrive relaxed.

The best trips and vacations don’t begin when you arrive at your destination. They begin when you leave home and head to your local train station. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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