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The Great Steel Fleet

Prewar Pullman smoothside sleepers

The concept of the Lightweight passenger car has finally matured in the smoothside sleepers made by Pullman just prior to the war. This prewar era was brief and no more than a few premiere trains were fielded prior to Pearl Harbor. But for the first time, mainstream Lightweight passenger equipment was being produced in quantity and variety. These designs have paved the way for the last - greatest - age of passenger service in the postwar period. Here are the cars that did it.

While most of the Great Steel Fleet is standardized on the welded cor-ten steel carbody, there are several western roads, the Union Pacific notable among them, who prefer the aluminum carbodies. These can be spotted by the traditional belt rails and riveted sides. TIG welding of aluminum would not be developed until during the War, so these cars had to be assembled the old fashioned way.

These cars actually predate the Great Steel Fleet by a year or so and can be considered a transitional design between the Motor Trains and the full sized equipment. They are based on the articulated car designs of the "City Of Los Angeles" and the "City Of San Francisco" which, in turn, are an outgrowth of early Motor Train experiments. Each consist has one of these cars cut in right ahead of the round end obs.

The "duplex single room" is an attempt to create a low cost room accommodation, and, like its cousin the "roomette", it leaves something to be desired. The single rooms are stacked in two layers: with stairways leading up to the "uppers". These are set in alternating layers like bricks, with part of each protruding into the headroom of the next.

The illustration, above, shows only the upper rooms for clarity. The lower rooms are in the gray areas and the berths of the lowers are directly under the upper berths. In essence, they are the basic double bedroom with each berth enclosed in its own room. Not a place for the claustrophobic!

Like the regular bedrooms, the duplexes have a couch that folds out into a berth at night (one nice thing about bedrooms is that you can get a pillow from the Porter and stretch out). A curious note: these couch-berths are longer than the standardized models used in later cars of the Great Steel Fleet. They also have the standard toilet and a decidedly small window.

The 5 double bedrooms are arranged outboard of the block of duplexes, with the usual lockers and public toilet at the car ends. The floor between the trucks slopes down (roughly following the contour of the skirt) to provide enough headroom for the duplexes. Finding room for all the usual underbody gear must have been a neat trick, indeed.

Only two cars of this design were built for the "City" trains of the Overland Route. However, this concept will reemerge after the war in the form of the duplex roomette car.

The "Imperial" 4-4-2s are among the most popular designs in Lightweight passenger service. They have an excellent array of middle to top level accommodations, with 4 double bedrooms, 4 comfortable compartments and 2 drawingrooms.

The drawingrooms have evolved from the Heavyweight days. The restroom is arranged differently (note that most of the toilets are near the centerline of the car, where their chutes can clear the underbody gear mounted along the car edges.) In place of the section and sofa combo, a sofa and two armchairs provide day accommodations. At night, the sofa folds down into a traditional upper and lower. The third berth is a "Murphy bed" that folds down from a wall locker.

The compartments have a similar arrangement of sofa and chair; being, in effect, miniaturized drawingrooms. The bedrooms are similar again, with less floor space and no chair. The fundamental difference between a "single bedroom" and a "double bedroom" is that the single does not have an upper berth.

There are still a few shortcomings with this design. For example, the compartments and bedrooms still have the open toilets (postwar cars will have these enclosed in tiny restrooms). The compartments also have the prewar style small windows above the main windows. These were originally designed to give the upper berth a window view. However, in these cars, the berths are mounted laterally.

Still, these are excellent cars: requiring only detail refinements to achieve the long-sought perfection of the sleeping car. These versatile 4-4-2s are found on trains throughout the country, as in the case of the Illinois Central's "Panama Limited".

With the "City" series cars, the new "roomettes" (a room accommodation that fits like a glove) has graduated from the Motor Trains into the big time of mainstream railroading. This is a distinctly low-end room car designed for single travelers. On some railroads, one of the roomettes in the center of the car is exchanged for an open section for the Porter. So references to 17 roomette and 18 roomette are, in fact, the same car.

Roomettes are so tiny that (like the old song about Heartbreak Hotel) you have to step outside to change your mind; or at least to lower the seat into a berth. This berth is in a locker behind the seat: the seat back folding down to clear and the bed dropped onto it. Unlike the Heavyweight era, these berths are self-service.

The doorway is closed with a sliding door - finally solving an age-old problem on sleeping cars. It is also covered by a traditional section curtain so that the passengers can have privacy while they step out into the corridor to lower the berth.

At the vestibule end of the car, there is a public restroom, a water cooler, a locker for linen and - on some cars - a jump seat for the Porter. The toilets in the roomettes are covered by the berths, which requires patrons to use the public restroom at the end of the car at night.

This is a single accommodation car, which bucks the trend in passenger car design. They have a limited capacity: 18 in single roomettes as compared to a typical 25 on most cars. As such, this has proven one of the less successful designs with only a few dozen produced. They are found on a few of the premiere trains including the "20th Century Limited", the "Broadway Limited" and The "Lark", and will no doubt be bumped to secondary trains after the war.

With war looming on the horizon, Pullman anticipated a wartime construction freeze by ordering 119 of this new class of car. Known as the "American" series, these 6-6-4s offer an excellent and versatile choice of middle to low-end accommodations: which will be a boon to the railroads in the wartime travel crunch.

6-6-4s are used on the Overland Route (joint UP/SP/C&NW), the Golden State Route (Santa Fe/Rock Island), the Missouri Pacific, Illinois Central and these four assigned to the Erie.

The Erie Railroad (which has a better passenger service tradition than most people realize) has done some curious things to these cars. At a time when color schemes are bright and bold, Erie's 6-6-4s have reverted to the traditional Pullman Green with black roof and underframe. They also use the dark green fern pattern carpeting of the Heavyweight era.

There are some oddities about these cars in general. Note how the restrooms are bunched around the open sections (the bedrooms at the other end have their own toilets, of course). Note, too, that the roomettes - the median accommodation on these cars - are gathered in the center. By comparison, the 4-4-2 "Imperials" have their drawingrooms in the coveted center position.

Externally, we see that this is the standard 84' 6" carbody that Pullman uses for almost all their smoothsides. Typical prewar features include the lower side skirts, full width diaphragms and the single vestibule. The small grille next to the vestibule door is a vent for the soiled linen locker.

The 13 double bedroom car also bucks the trend by offering a single type of mid-level accommodation. While the roomette is a popular favorite with cost-conscious travelers, the double bedroom is perhaps the most practical for comfort and convenience at a reasonable price.

Here, the double bedrooms are the two standard side-by-side reverse image designs. This design places the toilet next to the outboard wall - something of a problem as the underbodies of these cars are festooned with gear. It appears that the Drafting Department at Pullman has caught up with events: the tiny upper berth windows have vanished. In fact, these cars are notable for their limited window size.

Typical of prewar Pullmans, these cars have a single vestibule, a public restroom at one end, and more locker space than some. They are used on the "Broadway Limited", the "20th Century Limited", through service on the Overland Route, and on the Southern Pacific "Lark".


Note: refer to Free Downloads for reference sheets on Pullman car types.


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North East Rails  Clint Chamberlin.
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Current update: 8/15/99