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The North American Railway Carriage

The Development of the Passenger Car in North America


One of the early Pullman sleeping cars


One of the early Pullman sleeping cars of 1869

THE North American railway carriage or passenger car has for many years offered the ordinary passenger standards of comfort which he will look for in vain in any other field of public transport. As in Britain, the earliest carriages on rails were but developments of the highway coach - primitive four-wheelers. The track on which they ran was often cheaply built and of light construction, and the design soon moved to a longer vehicle on two four-wheeled trucks, or bogies, which rode very much more easily. The adoption of an open (or saloon) interior, with seats on each side of a central longitudinal aisle, has been ascribed to the “democratic” nature of American society.

As the American railroad network grew, journeys of 24 hours or more became commonplace (speeds were not high) and

the need for a vehicle which made provision for both day and night travel became clear. Economy required that such a vehicle should be convertible and from a number of early designs, that of George Mortimer Pullman became most widely adopted. In the Pullman layout, groups of four seats (two facing pairs) on each side of the aisle could, by rearrangement of the cushions and backs, be made into a bed, or lower berth. An upper berth was built into the upper wall and ceiling panelling and could be lowered when required; privacy was achieved by heavy curtains. Toilet facilities were provided at the car ends.

American railways, with little traffic offering in early days, had to be cheaply built and high-level station platforms were an expensive luxury when perhaps only two or three trains a day were involved. Passenger cars were thus provided with open vestibules at each end, with steps down almost to rail level. The final gap to the ground was bridged by a portable stepping stool, placed in position during stops by a trainman.

Heating was by stove, one or sometimes two to a car, and using wood, coal or occasionally oil as a fuel. Lighting developed from oil, through gas to electricity. Seats in ordinary coaches were often reversible (“walkover”) and plush finished, although rattan was sometimes used for shorter journeys. Windows generally were narrow and could be opened upwards, to admit (in summer) a cooling draught - and dust and cinders! Sometimes, a gauze sash was fitted in an attempt to reduce inblown rubbish, and in the northerly areas, a second glazed window, or storm sash, could be fitted in winter. Early and widespread adoption of the clerestory roof contributed both to ventilation and to lighting; it continued to feature in new construction up to about 1930.

The early car bodies were mainly of wood construction but increasing size of vehicles and emphasis on greater safety led first, in the latter part of the 19th century, to the steel underframe and eventually, in late Edwardian times, to the all-steel car.

As car design developed, meeting the needs of an expanding, prosperous nation, details improved. The open-end platform gave way first to narrow enclosed vestibules, and later to full-width vestibules. Even in later years, with the very few high-level station platforms, it was necessary to provide specially for access from rail level. Doors were invariably at car ends and, outside the trucks, opened inwards. Often they were split, Dutch style, and a hinged flap (with handrail on its underside) lifted to reveal the steps.

A feature of American rail travel (to European eyes) is the door opening ceremony performed by trainmen, who also assist passengers joining or alighting from trains. Both halves of the door are swung inwards while the train is slowing, the trap is lifted and clipped up, the handrail is wiped clean of dust with a paper towel after the trainman has descended to the bottom step, with the stepping stool ready, and finally, as the train stops, the stool is placed on the ground beside the steps.

By late Victorian times, a considerable degree of comfort was provided. Dining cars had replaced station meal stops, so reducing journey time, and both dining and sleeping cars were ornately decorated, in keeping with the times, with a high degree of craftsmanship used in decorative woodwork of various styles. Electric light was coming into use, and the Westinghouse air brake, adopted earlier, improved not only safety but comfort in stopping. Car lengths had increased from the early 50 or 60 ft to 70 to 75 ft. The larger and heavier cars often rode on two 6-wheeled bogies, which became universal for Pullman’s sleepers and dining cars.

A library-observation car on the Canadian Pacific Railway

A library-observation car on the Canadian Pacific Railway

The ornate finish was not confined to interiors. Externally, dark green was, perhaps, the most common livery, and “tuscan” red was used by a number of companies, including, up to the last few years, the Pennsylvania, and Canadian Pacific. The railway’s name appeared along the “letter board” above the windows, commonly in gold leaf and usually in an extended Roman script, with serifs. Car sides prior to adoption of the all-steel body were often matchboarded and could be elaborately lined out, though the last-named feature became a casualty of the 1914-18 war.

With the larger cars, windows of passenger spaces were often arched, with the upper part fitted with stained glass. An essential feature of all American passenger cars (in contrast with British practice) was the handbrake. On open-platform cars, it was applied by a horizontal wheel, but later, vertical wheels or levers with ratchets were provided inside the vestibule. Even after automatic brakes became universal, the handbrake was, and still is, required for parking. Another universal feature from quite early days was the provision of a supply of drinking water, sometimes iced in summer, in all passenger cars.

Two classes of travel were generally provided, “coach”, that is day-coach, with sitting accommodation for day (and night) use. First class carried a different connotation from Europe. A first-class ticket entitled one to occupy Pullman car sleeping space, which had to be paid for additionally, but there was no ordinary first-class accommodation. First-class day travel could be either in a Parlor car, where a seat supplement was payable, as in a Pullman car in Britain, or by day occupancy (if the train times and journey permitted) of sleeping-car space. “Pullman” and “sleeper” are almost synonymous in American practice.

The Parlor car, provided where day-time demand for first-class travel warranted it, was arranged with single armchairs each side of a central longitudinal aisle; it carried a Pullman porter to serve light refreshments from a pantry or small buffet. Each sleeping car had its own attendant, or porter, traditionally a negro, who stayed with the car for each journey. (He would sleep in an unoccupied berth when available; otherwise he made do in his cubicle seat, or in the smoking room at the car end.)

The Edwardian period witnessed the development of the all-steel car. Initially, constructional details continued to give a visual impression of the later ornate styles of the wooden car. After the 1914-18 war (during which American railways were placed under government control), designs were much simplified; while there was no diminution in comfort, ornate decoration was largely cast aside. In its place came simplicity and standardisation.

This is an appropriate place to make the point that few American railroads had or have sufficient capacity to build all their own rolling stock (or, for that matter, locomotives). There is a very sizeable industry in the USA manufacturing both freight and passenger vehicles and while some railroads’ railway works (“backshops”) could, and did, manufacture locomotives or cars (the Pennsylvania built both at its Altoona, Pa, shops), outside purchase was more common.

Interworking in traffic had long made some degree of standardisation essential, and purchasing from common equipment manufacturers carried the process considerably farther, so that the 1920s became known as the Standard Era.

Comfortable travel is the keynote of the American railway service. The above photograph shows the luxurious interior of a streamlined coach built at Milwaukee for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1934. This company, operating some 11,000 miles, owns about 1,200 passenger coaches, including two completely streamlined trains for high-speed schedules.

Use of Pullman cars was particularly influential, for the Pullman Company provided sleeping car service under contract to almost every road which required it. The Pullman fleet rose to almost 10,000 cars by 1931, and 4,000 of them were of one basic design. That was the 12-1 type; it contained 12 sections, each with lower and upper berths, plus a drawing room for three persons with its own toilet cubicle.

For the 24 possible occupants of the sections, separate men’s (“smoking”) and women’s (“rest”) rooms were provided at opposite ends of the car. Each washroom contained two or three wash-basins, a dental bowl, a sofa or lounge chairs for three, and a single WC annexe. Towards the end of a night’s journey, these facilities sometimes became heavily taxed.

The day coach, too, might well have smoking/rest room facilities at each end, but the interior was changed only in details of the fittings; seats were still arranged in pairs on each side of the central aisle. Whereas Pullman sleepers had for years been a product of the Pullman-Standard Manufacturing Company, there were other manufacturers of coach and other passenger vehicles; American Car & Foundry was one such, with several plants, including some taken over from previously independent firms. The heavy steel “Standard” cars weighed 80 tons, or more, and largely rode on six-wheeled trucks. A solid train of such vehicles was an impressive sight, and no mean load for the motive power - then steam, except for a few electrified sections of line.

It is worth looking at the make-up (“consist”) of a typical train of the Standard Era. Behind the locomotive came the head-end cars. Leading them would probably be a Railway Post Office car (RPO) carrying mail and with sorting facilities for en route dropping and collection. Behind the Railway Post Office car would be baggage and express cars, for passengers’ luggage and parcels traffic. Baggagemen, express messengers, and postal clerks - the latter two categories often armed with revolvers - had their duties “up front”.

Next came the coaches; often one would be set aside for local passengers making short journeys, while passengers for major stations might be directed to particular coaches, thus making on-train ticket checking somewhat easier. Between the

coaches and the Pullmans came the dining car, kitchen section to rear (so that the train’s draught did not blow the heat from the kitchen back on to the diners). Then came the Pullmans and, at the rear of any train worth its salt in the nineteen-twenties, an observation car, at one time with the traditional open rear-end platform and brass railings, but later more likely a solarium or enclosed lounge space with large windows. Although Pullmans were convertible for day use, passengers could also sit in the lounge (and, except during the period of Prohibition, enjoy a drink). The lounge car might also have certain other on-train facilities, maybe a library, or a barber shop (with shower), or even a radio.

A long-distance through train of the period might run over the tracks of two or three companies, each of which contributed cars for the train, in proportion to their part of the mileage. Often, in such cases, the regular cars for the train would carry the name of the train on the letter board instead of the company owning the car. With many journeys over 24 hours, several sets of trains were often needed to meet the requirements of a particular service in each direction. Such, then, was railway travel in the Standard Era.

The spread of paved roads and use of private motorcars, the practical development of commercial flying and the depression, from 1930 made heavy inroads into railway passenger business. Contraction was severe, but several developments in the early 1930s brought the internal-combustion engine to main line passenger service, in conjunction with new lightweight high-speed motorised trains, albeit of rather limited capacity. The Budd Company of Philadelphia pioneered the production of a much lighter type of locomotive-hauled passenger car. It had load-bearing sides of welded corrugated stainless steel. Gone were the rivetted sides and clerestory roof, replaced by a sleek bright car, 85 ft long, with large “picture” windows, riding once again on two four-wheeled trucks. Weight came down to around 60 tons, despite the fitting of air conditioning, reclining seats, electric ice water coolers and so on.

Air conditioning was also applied, in the nineteen thirties, to existing Standard cars, firstly to diners, then to sleepers, and to a limited extent, to coaches. The financial position of many railways after the depression restricted investment in new stock, hence the refurbishing of older cars, which had then to meet the enormous flood of war-time traffic, without benefit of new construction, while builders were on war production work.

A drawing room on wheels is the effect of this handsomely furnished observation lounge on the rear of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s new streamlined express, the “Abraham Lincoln”, operating between Chicago and St. Louis. The express covers the 284 miles run in 5½ hours. The company, controlling some 5,550 miles, owns about 1,680 passenger coaches.

You can read more on “International Sleeping Cars”, “Modern Passenger Rolling Stock” and “The Railway Carriage” on this website.