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

2 thoughts on “Passenger Rail Sleeping Car”

  1. In 2013 I took a sleeper car to St. Louis, MO and it was defiantly a different experience. I am not a fan of driving so I almost always resort to taking a train wherever I go.

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