Passenger Rail Observation Car

The passenger rail coach car, baggage car, dining car, and sleeping car all have served essential needs on passenger trains for well over a century. However, historically, there have been additional types of passenger rail cars that cater to the wealthier clientele. One of these is the observation car or “Obs,” for short. These cars were always placed at the rear of passenger trains and afforded passengers who were willing to pay a premium price to “watch” the right-of-way recede into the distance, often while enjoying a drink or cigar while doing so. Due to the high cost of riding in these cars, they would often be reserved by the country’s most elite travelers, like the current sitting president of the United States, railroad executives, CEO’s of other large corporations, and the like. For example, United States presidential candidates often chartered the observation car on a train as part of their travel itinerary in campaigning for their presidency. But generally, any passenger who was willing to pay a premium price could get a seat in an observation car.

A heavyweight era observation car at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL.
Typical enclosed observation car.

The earliest observation cars has open rear platforms where the passengers would sit, this was most common during the heavyweight era in the first quarter of the 20th century. By the 1930’s, when streamlining was becoming all the rage, observation cars began to become enclosed at the rear end. to allow for less friction on faster trains. By then, may individual railroads were coming up with their own designs for their observation cars. The most distinctive of these designs was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad’s (the Milwaukee Road) “Skytop Lounge” (interior and exterior shots below).

Exterior of a Milwaukee Road “Skytop Lounge” observation car.
Interior of a Milwaukee Road “Skytop Lounge” observation car.
A Sightseer Lounge observation car on Amtrak today.

Although Amtrak operated observation cars for many years after their 1971 startup, they do not operate them in their original form today, but they do operate “Sightseer Lounges” on their Superliner trains, which are sort of like observation cars, although they are not usually positioned at the end of a train like the ones of yesteryear, and they don’t give you a view of the receding tracks. But like traditional observation cars, they are the best type of railcar today at allowing you to view the passing scenery, albeit from a different perspective. In addition, the Sightseer Lounge is open to all passengers, not just ones paying premium fares.

Passenger Rail Dining Car

Rail passengers, like everybody else who travels, need food on long trips. That’s where the railroad dining car comes in. Like the sleeping car, the dining car was a product of George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company. In 1835, the Philadelphia & Columbia railroad tested the first dining car, the “Victory,” the first buffet car. Even though meals were not cooked-to-order onboard, passengers could eat without having to stop for meals. Before dining cars became widespread in the late 19th century, passengers would stop at trackside restaurants while the steam locomotive pulling their train was serviced and refueled. In fact, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had “Harvey Houses,” built by Fred Harvey, where passengers would eat meals while their train was being serviced. Today, many of these Harvey Houses still stand, and have been converted to other uses, like hotels or offices.

A preserved Harvey House in Barstow, CA. This continues to be an Amtrak stop for the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Due to the fact that western railroads ran through long stretches of largely uninhabited land, they were the first to offer dining cars on their trains. In the book “The American Railroad Passenger Car (Part 1)” by John White, Jr, it is mentioned that the dining car was the last type of railroad passenger car invented. This is not completely true, as dome, parlor/lounge, and observation cars would come later.

Despite the above fact, the dining car was mentioned before railroads even built their first track in the United States. The man who mentioned this was Benjamin Dearborn, who had several different jobs at the time, wrote that “a network of railroads should be constructed that offered the choice of on-board meals”┬áto Congress.

An Erie Lackawanna Railroad dining car on their Chicago-Hoboken “Lake Cities” train in 1969.

Even though dining cars are considered an essential service, they lost boatloads of money, largely due to the high staffing costs and limited seating in them. Despite this, the railroads still offered the service because they felt it was an important service that was necessary to attract passengers to the rails. When Amtrak took over passenger trains in the United States in 1971, they continued to offer full dining service with cooked-to-order food throughout the 1970’s. Beginning in the 1980’s, there would be periodic experiments on how to lose less money on dining cars. All of these experiments would fail, and Amtrak would go back to offering traditional dining. The most recent of these experiments was from 2018 – 2021, when Amtrak, under a mandate to eliminate food and beverage losses, tried “Flexible Dining” at first on long-distance trains east of Chicago, then expanding it to their western counterparts. The above mandate was repealed in 2020, and because this service was unpopular with passengers, Amtrak is in the process of bringing back Traditional Dining to the long distance trains.

Passenger Rail Sleeping Car

So far, we talked about passenger rail coaches and baggage cars, which accommodate the actual passengers and their baggage. But, for those passengers traveling further distances or at least overnight, they may want accommodations that are a little more comfortable than coach seats. This is where the sleeping car comes into play.

Sleeping cars date back to the 1830’s, with the first sleeping car built for the Chambersburg of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, However, they didn’t became more widely used until the 1860’s, when George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company unveiled the standard design in 1865, which included berths along the car’s walls, with men and women separated, as was standard at the time. Sleepers provided first class accommodations and were (and still are providing today) the most used car in providing these accommodations. Pullman was not the first, but was the most successful company in mass-producing sleeping cars.

A heavyweight era Pullman sleeping car at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois.

Pullman sleeping cars were usually painted in their signature forest green color, but the company could paint them in other colors if the railroad ordering the car wanted it in a different color to match a theme for the train it was used on.

By the beginning of the streamliner era, sleeping cars were redesigned to attract different types of passengers to the rails. Sleeping car interiors started to have different berth configurations, such as private roomettes or even full bedrooms complete with bathrooms for the highest-paying passengers. These “deluxe” accommodations were mostly found on the flagship trains of various railroads, like the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway’s Super Chief, and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited.

A traditional streamliner era sleeping car.

By the 1950’s, passenger rail service was beginning to decline due to the increasing prevalence of highway and air travel. The railroad’s response to this decline in the sleeping car industry was to design a sleeper that could maximize the number of berths per car so as to be able to offer sleeper accommodations to travelers on a budget, so they invented the “Slumbercoach.” The Slumbercoach had 24 single rooms and eight double rooms, the most of any sleeping car design per individual car. This kept the cost of sleeping car accommodations down to just slightly more expensive than coach class

A Slumbercoach sleeping car. Note the split-level pattern of the windows for most of the car’s length. This design allowed for the maximum number of rooms per car, allowing railroads to offer more affordable sleeper accommodations.

Although Amtrak used most of the rolling stock handed over from private railroads as part of their creation in 1971, and continues to offer sleeping cars to it’s passengers toady on all of their long distance trains. Amtrak retired most of it’s legacy equipment, including the sleepers in the late 1990’s. Most of Amtrak’s sleepers in use today were built in the 1970’s and 1990’s. Generally, Amtrak uses bi-level “Superliner” sleepers on the long distance routes west of the Mississippi River, although there are a few exceptions. Most eastern long-distance routes use single-level “Viewliner” sleepers instead due to the fact that the Superliners can’t fit into the tight clearances of their Washington DC – Boston Northeast Corridor.

An Amtrak Superliner sleeping car
An Amtrak Viewliner sleeping car