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

In 1942 when The Palm Beach Story was made, they called them “screwball comedies.” And, this Preston Sturgess-directed black and white movie from Paramount Studios starring Claudette Colbert and Rudy Vallee (above) along with Joel McCrea and William Demarest has lots of fun and action taking place in Pullman sleeping, lounge and dining cars on the heavyweight Florida Special, departing from New York Pennsylvania station and heading south on the Pennsylvania Railroad, RF&P and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to Palm Beach and ultimately Miami. Things in the photo above not found on a train today? Solid silver service pieces and silverware, dining car chairs at tables, not booths, a full breakfast for thirty-five cents, and a lady passenger wearing a fur and hat for breakfast attire. Internet photo.

Editor’s Note: This article last appeared on this platform on November 22, 2021. It has been updated and photos and illustrations added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; September 13, 2022

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.

The B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland displays 1830s passenger equipment. Wikimedia Commons photo.
This 1937 illustration for two types of Baldwin Locomotives which were built for the Santa Fe Railway in 1937 shows what type of mechanical brutes it took to start winning World War II in just a few short years. Make no mistake, after literally building America, from the Civil War onward, railroads helped win the war by moving America either by freight movements, troop trains, or passenger trains. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Santa Fe Railway went to war like every other North American railroad during World War II. It’s 1943 at Santa Fe’s Argentine Yard in Kansas City and the huge locomotive coaling tower is feeding hungry steam locomotives. Note in addition to the coaling operation are the water towers, providing the other main ingredient for steam locomotives to operate. Steam locomotives typically only operated for 100 mile long runs due to the need for coal (later, oil) and water to provide steam to generate power. These two ingredients and the infrastructure to provide them, plus the manpower necessary to maintain steam locomotives contributed to the tremendous cost of operation of each locomotive. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was a huge annual promoter of the Army-Navy football game. This 1955 illustration featuring a fleet of Pennsylvania’s unique and famous GG1 all-electric locomotives was commissioned by the Pennsylvania for use on its annual calendar. It was not unusual for the Pennsylvania to provide transportation for over 30,000 game attendees via the Northeast Corridor each year. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
A Western Maryland Railroad 1951 promotional image featuring the new post-war diesel electric locomotives. Thousands of this style of locomotives were produced to replace expensive and aging steam locomotives. Many have said these were the most handsome locomotives designed and produced. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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 GG1s roaring between New York City and Washington, D.C. hauling premium passenger trains inspired artists, photographers and dreamers.

The father of the Superliner Sightseer Lounge car, the Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge car developed in the early 1950s for Santa Fe’s luxury all-coach El Capitan which operated between Chicago and Los Angeles. This promotional image was created for Santa Fe Railway advertising. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

A Tier IV, climate-friendly Siemens Charger, in factory (not a specific railroad) livery at Denver Union Station in 2016. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The printed timetable, always available until from every railroad until Amtrak ended the practice after the January 2016 edition. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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.

The Red Book, available in every Pullman Company sleeping car allowed passengers to have updated hotel and motel booking information. Once you selected your choice of accommodations you could have the Pullman car porter send a Western Union telegram asking for a reservation. Internet photo.

Much has changed in the 192 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.

Pullman combination sleeping car and Pullman passenger lounge as displayed at the Durham Museum. These dual-purpose, popular cars were staffed by a single car attendant (known as a porter) who took care of passengers in five double bedrooms and passengers from all other Pullman sleeping cars on the train in the lounge area selling both hard and soft beverages and very limited snack food choices such as peanuts. Cigarettes were also sold; not shown above were the heavy steel ashtrays with floor stands reachable from every seat. The cars were revenue producers from both the sale of sleeping car space and lounge sales, a winning combination. Walking. Gossip. Travel. UK website internet photo.

• 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.

Santa Fe Railway’s famed and unique Super Chief Turquoise Room in 1951 which was available for exclusive enroute dining. Internet photo.

• 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. Some non-disposable tableware and eating utensils have returned on Amtrak Western long distance train dining cars, but not systemwide.

• 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.

California Zephyr dining in 1961; full menus, full service, elegant meals. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Southern Pacific Railroad’s popular Coast Daylight offered coffee shop dining which was less formal that the full dining car experience but still excellent service, as shown in 1937. SPdaylight.net photo.
Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s Dixie Traveler less formal coffee shop car circa 1960s. Internet photo.
A 1961 Pullman Company hat bag, offered for sale on eBay. The brown paper hat bags were 20 1/2 inches by 23 inches, designed to hold any gentleman traveler’s or lady traveler’s hat. In the steam era and early diesel era traveling, even in a comfortable Pullman sleeping car involved a certain amount of grime and the Pullman Company wanted its passengers to have clean hats. EBay photo.

• 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.

A Pullman bedroom lavatory, complete with mirror, pull-down sink, toilet and waste basket. Internet photo.

• 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.

Seaboard Air Line Railroad onboard Registered Nurse Patricia Howell in 1955. All three of Seaboard’s named streamliners had traveling nurses. Many other railroads did, too. Seaboard publicity photo.

• 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 (except for open sections).

• 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 conductor hat. Internet photo.

• 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.

Seaboard Air Line and later Seaboard Coast Line Railroad had Passenger Service Agents on the Silver Meteor. Here, an SCL PSA chats with passengers smoking in the round-end observation/tavern car. Smoke was often so thick in these cars the air conditioning system had difficulty coping with it.. Passenger Train Journal internet photo.

• 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.

A C&O Pullman porter wearing the traditional dark blue hat, white jacket, blue slacks and black shoes. Internet photo.

• 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.

Another scene of Pullman conductor and trainmen from The Palm Beach Story in 1942. They may have been actors, but they wore authentic conductor and trainmen uniforms. Internet photo.

• 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. For the alleged convenience of passengers, all Pullman porters were blithely referred to as “George,” allegedly in honor of George Pullman. 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.

Red Caps are still found at the largest stations, but have disappeared from most intermediate stations outside of the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak photo.

• 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.

An Elgin railroad-approved pocket watch. Large and easy to read numbers were a feature. Internet photo.

• 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.

The Pullman Company drawing from, designed for one, two or three passengers. The most appealing feature of the room was it allowed two adults to both have lower berths without having to combine a bedroom and compartment ensuite. Drawing rooms, depending on the railroad, had different floorplans featuring chairs or couches. Hagley Museum photo.
A Pullman porter makes up a heavyweight open section lower berth in this 1940 photo. Wikimedia Commons photo.

• 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.

A new equipment 1940 publicity photo for Missouri Pacific’s Eagle showing a parlor car. Parlor cars, featuring swivel seating, were forerunners of today’s business class seating. Traditional parlor cars offered full at-seat service and we not sold for overnight use. Internet photo.
Railroads such as Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Great Northern, Western Pacific, B&O and others heavily promoted their dome cars. Internet illustration.

• 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.

New York Central’s 20th Century Limited offered full barber and shaving services in 1941. Internet photo.

• 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.

• 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. In the 1990s the floor of the tunnel under Washington Union station was lowered, allowing Superliner trainsets to be used there. The Union Pacific Railroad offered dome dining cars on the Dome Streamliner City of Los Angeles.

• 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.

Different passenger train operators provide different solutions for passengers requiring Americans With Disabilities Act accommodations. The SunRail commuter service in Central Florida provides a priority space with this convertible seat. SunRail photo.

• 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.

Union Pacific’s Dome Diner on the City of Los Angeles, 1964. A unique dining experience. Internet photo.

• 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.

It took the Supreme Court to end Jim Crow laws on railroads in 1941. The Chicago Bee was a weekly newspaper primarily devoted to African-American readership and was published from 1925 to 1947. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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

Seaboard Coast Line’s Silver Meteor carried a round-end tavern lounge/observation car following the tradition set by predecessor Seaboard Air Line Railroad. Most mainline streamliners in both the east and west used these cars, all carrying a drumhead with the train’s name. Today, only VIA Rail Canada maintains its Canadian streamliner today with this traditional car and drumhead. Internet photo.

• 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.

The Milwaukee Road’s stylish luxury heavyweight train Olympian carried a rear-end, open platform car which allowed passengers to sit and view the passing scenery in 1927. While the open platforms were popular for photographers and those being photographed, the reality was in the age of steam locomotives these open platforms often suffered from cinders and locomotive smoke residue and were a messy place to be. Even in the cleaner diesel era, the open rear-end platforms still offered plenty of road grime and dust for passengers enjoying the outdoors view. Far & Wide website photo.
A passenger ticket coupon with a conductor’s punch holes. Each conductor was assigned a distinctive punch pattern that could be identified when used by him. EBay photo of item for sale.

• 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.

Extra fare trains and accommodations were common; tickets and passenger ticket coupons were printed for use as a result. PicClick illustration.

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

• 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.)

• 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.

• 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.

A Pennsylvania Railroad Metroliner car in 1968, designed and built specifically for the Northeast Corridor between Washington Union Station and New York Pennsylvania Station. The Metroliners would become part of Amtrak and the branding name lasted up to the Acela era. Internet photo.

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.

The case of the lost umbrella is solved to everyone’s satisfaction. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee archives illustrations.

• Passenger-centric lost and found efforts on passenger trains. Today, while some effort is made to help passengers recover items that have gone missing on trains, the customer service found in the past is no longer relevant.

File illustration.
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