Passenger Rail baggage Car

While coach cars provide the accommodations passengers need for a rail journey, there has to be a place onboard to store their checked baggage, since not all of a traveler’s luggage can be carried onto the train and stored in the overhead racks. This is where the baggage car comes into play. Some baggage cars also had a Railway Post Office (RPO) in part of the car, because, until 1967, most mail being shipped by the United States Postal Service was moved by rail. These were called combine cars or just “combines.” Combines also may be a “coach-baggage” combine. These were largely used on branch lines due to the lower number of passengers on those lines, especially after the automobile became more common.

A “heavyweight” era baggage car. Note the Railway Express Agency markings on the side of the car. This car also had an RPO inside.
A Coach-Baggage Combine at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, WI.

In the streamliner era, most railroads used the same type of rolling stock as and painted their baggage cars to match the rest of the consist.

The railway Express Agency was the railroad equivalent to today’s FedEx or UPS. In which they handled express packages until the 1970’s, which is when they went out of business.

Baggage cars, like the rest of passenger train travel in the United States, experienced a serious decline in use starting in the 1950’s and continuing through the 1960’s. The end of mail and express service by passenger train was largely completed in 1967. By the time Amtrak was created in 1971, there was little need for baggage cars, but Amtrak still continues to use them on most of their long distance trains. In fact, Amtrak recently replaced all their “Heritage Fleet” baggage cars with new ones through an order for Viewliner II’s placed in 2010. The baggage cars were fully delivered by late 2015. Amtrak also ordered 10 “Baggage-Dorm” combines, so they could free up additional sleeper capacity on some long distance trains for revenue passengers, capacity of which was formerly being used for crew accommodations. These were delivered in the past few years.

Passenger Rail Coach Car

The most basic type of passenger rail cars is the coach car. This and the baggage car are the two earliest types of passenger rail cars. The design of the coach car was standardized in the 1820’s and 1830’s, and was based on the interior design of stagecoaches from that time period. The seats were initially not very comfortable, while often riding uncomfortable due to riding on only two axles. The interior was very crude, with little more than a roof to protect passengers from the weather.

An example of an early “stagecoach” passenger rail coach.

Later improvements in coach design and construction improved ride quality for passengers. By the mid 19th century, the design for the interior of a passenger rail coach was standardized as an aisle with seats down both sides, with overhead luggage racks, and is still the design used the most today. Some coaches had 2 seats on each side of the aisle (designated as a 2+2 coach), while others had 3 seats on each side (designated as a 3+3 coach). This was called the “Open” design. Passengers boarded these cars through a vestibule at the end of the car. Despite these innovations, many older, more uncomfortable coach cars continued to be used as late as the years leading up to the creation of Amtrak.

This has been the standard design for passenger rail coach interiors since the mid 19th century.

By the 1930’s, many coaches, especially those meant for first class passengers, evolved to include seats that were more comfortable and even swiveled. Around the same time, compartment coaches were developed. These had two sectioned seats facing each other. This design is still used today by Amtrak in their roomette accommodations on their long distance trains.

The interior of the observation car on the Nebraska Zephyr at the Illinois Railway Museum. Many first class coaches had the “swiveling” seats seen here starting in the 1930’s.

The 1930’s to the 1950’s was the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel, when passenger cars were built regularly by various companies, including Pullman-Standard and Budd Company. For a time after Amtrak was formed, they continued to use this “hand-me-down” rolling stock, until they ordered their present day Superliner and Amfleet equipment.

A modern Superliner railcar operated by Amtrak.

Passenger Trains in the Late 19th Century

By the late 19th century, passenger trains had become the dominant mode of intercity travel in the United States, and in many countries in the world. Innovations were already being made in improving speeds and amenities for passengers on these trains. However, at that time, rail travel was potentially dangerous due to increasing speeds, often poor quality track, and lack of train control technologies. As a result, train wrecks, many involving injury or death of passengers and crew members, were very common. (These wrecks often became a subject in many railroad ballads). In 1893, New York Central and Hudson River Railroad locomotive #999 allegedly became the first locomotive to ever break the 100 mile per hour speed record. However, the accuracy of this claim has been disputed by many railroad scholars. This first confirmed case of a train breaking the 100 mile per hour speed record was the British locomotive Flying Scotsman in November 1934.

This was allegedly the first locomotive to ever break the 100 mile per hour speed barrier, though this claim has been disputed.

Improvements in amenities for passengers also were being done. in the mid to late 19th century, most passenger cars were still made mostly of wood. Steel heavyweight cars didn’t come on the scene until the beginning of the 20th century. Also, most passenger rail equipment were coaches or baggage, or in some cases, “combines” of the two. Other types of passenger rail cars, such as dining and sleeping cars, didn’t arrive at the station until 1867, when George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company was founded.

The headquarters of the Pullman Car Company, now a museum dedicated to the history of the Pullman Company.

The Pullman Palace Car Company would later become just the Pullman Car Company. Founded in Pullman, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The company was the inventor of more than just sleeping and dining cars. They also invented the parlor car, club car, and the observation car, all of which were designed for wealthier passengers. The latter of these passenger car types is designed to be put on the end of a train. We’ll go into more detail on each of these car types in future posts.

Early Passenger Train Travel

The passenger train came about between the early and mid 19th century as a faster alternative to covered wagons and steamboats. Prior to the existence of passenger trains, most people traveled long distances via covered wagon over land-based wagon trails, or by steamboat over rivers. These journeys could take months to complete, and the overland journeys were very difficult and even often ended in tragedy due to injuries or disease. Indian attacks were also not that uncommon. If you’ve played the game Oregon Trail, you’ll know how rough the journeys over wagon trails were.

The paddle wheel steamer is how many people traveled
over rivers until passenger trains became more robust in the
United States. (photo source: Wikipedia)
The covered wagon is how many people traveled long distances over land prior to the advent of the passenger train. (photo source:

While easier, safer, and faster than traveling by covered wagon on trails or traveling by steamboat on rivers, passenger trains did not start catching on until the late 19th century. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10th, 1869, revolutionized rail travel in the United States. This made east-west overland wagon trails like the Oregon Trail obsolete.

However, northbound and southbound trips still often had to be completed via wagon trail or river until the mid to late 19th century, as railroad routes in that direction were not robust until then. The first north-south rail route in the United States was built by the Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo, IL (at the very southern tip of the state) to Galena, IL (in the northwest corner of the state) in 1856. A branch from Centralia, IL to Chicago was built later. Through acquisitions and mergers in the late 19th century, the IC reached New Orleans, LA, creating the first north-south rail line in the US. Passenger service on the route was provided by the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans trains. The latter train continues to operate today under Amtrak.