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Classes Of Trains

A tapestry in steel

There have been literally thousands of passenger trains over the years, ranging from the most famous Premiere name trains to the most obscure one car locals. They form an ever-changing mosaic; a pattern of services that spans the continent and reaches into every corner; a pattern that constantly shifts and evolves as it responds to the public's travel needs.

To understand the Passenger Era, you must come at it from both ends. You need to understand the big issues of railroads, populations, equipment, economics. You must also look at the detail: comprehending each train and each service to see how they fit into the whole.

Passenger trains do not exist in isolation. Each train is designed to provide a specific service with specific accommodations to specific passengers. The consists, schedules and routes are all part of a complex whole: each train (and each car of each train) contributing to the desired goal of taking anyone anywhere they want to go on a convenient schedule.

Each train varies in details of its consist, clientele and character depending on circumstances. However, they do tend to fall into broad categories which can be cross indexed to help define each train and how it fits into the big picture.

In this Topic, we look at just exactly what a passenger train is, and why.


To begin, we take a look at the various Services offered to see what makes them distinct and how the relate to each other.


Premiere Trains

These are your top Name Trains, which get the most publicity, the best equipment and the fastest schedules. What makes them distinctive is their publicity value: the railroads depend on these trains to project their image. There may well be other trains on the same route with equipment and schedules every bit as good, but they are part of the background.

Some roads may have only one Premiere train, such as the Great Northern's "Empire Builder". Others may have several; with specific trains being; the flagship of a given clientele (such as the New Haven's "Merchant's Limited" which caters to Wall Street), or of a particular route (such as the New York Central's "Southwest Limited" on the St. Louis run), or a specific type of service (such as the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Congressional", a Parlor train).

The consistent theme here is that the Premiere trains are the prestige builders which define a railroad and give it much of its publicity. Few people care how efficient your hump yard is, or the virtues of Shock Control under frames, or the speed with which you forward perishables. What grabs the public attention - and allows you to state your case - is the drama of the passenger trains.

The Premiere trains are the railroad's best salesmen. They appear widely on calendars, newspaper and magazine advertising, on radio and in the movies, on coffee cups, desk blotters, pens, pencils, notepads, napkins, etc, etc. Some of these images have become enduring legacies of the railroad industry. For example, the C&O's "Chessie", an advertising gimmick from the 30s, is still used as the corporate logo and herald of the CSX system.

The publicity surrounding Premiere service is the foot in the door, making the road a familiar and comfortable part of the public's daily life. They also define a railroad - for the style of their Premiere service is what builds the railroad's image in the public mind. Some examples of this are:

Like it or not, every road will have a Premiere train. If nothing else, one train will naturally rise to become a popular favorite because of schedule, equipment, service, or other consideration. For this reason, the railroads put a lot of careful thought and effort into just exactly what image their top Name Train projects. Premiere service is a two-edged sword: a poor showing in passenger service will hurt a road's overall image, even with the public who do not ride their trains. As one historian noted about a discontinued branch line service:

"The public identifies with the passenger trains. When passenger service ended, people thought we had torn the rails up. They are surprised to hear that we are still around."

Quoted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Oddly, in some cases, the Premiere train on a particular road may not be the one they want it to be; the home town favorite being upstaged by a lesser train. Case in point is the joint PRR-Wabash "Detroit Arrow" (Detroit to Chicago), a Parlor-Coach run that upstaged the all-Parlor "Twilight Limited" by its spectacularly fast schedule.

These Premiere trains have the finest equipment and amenities available. Air conditioning and Lightweight equipment first make their appearance in Premiere service. Special features may include barber and manicurist, hot showers, a gymnasium (complete with mechanical bucking bronco in one instance), secretary, nurse, plenty of lounge space, radio programs, movies, on-train telephones, limited dining car loadings and an especially attentive, hand picked staff.

Because of these amenities, these trains are usually Extra Fare: a premium surcharge on top of the regular mileage and Pullman space charges. Oddly enough, this itself is part of the Premiere service mythos. One can gain the envy of one's peers by name-dropping an Extra Fare train!

General Service Trains

These are the bread-and-butter trains covering the bulk of a railroad's major routes and services. They may be of any Type of equipment given in this Topic: you can have, for example, a General Service / Sleeper train and a General Service / Coach train. The equipment is usually of good quality, often being a second hand consist from a recently reequipped Premiere train, or at least respectable currant-era cars.

Examples of General Service trains can range from the New York Central's "Wolverine", a mixed Sleeper-Coach consist that often runs in 4 sections from New York City to Chicago, to the Chicago & Alton's "Midnight Special", an all-Pullman train from Chicago to St. Louis.

Economy Trains

In the 1930s, with the general decline in passenger service (particularly in the Tourist and Coach trains) and the rise of automobiles and air travel, a new generation of Economy trains have been created to bring passengers back to the railroads. This is done by offering the low fares of Coach travel without the discomforts and inconveniences (and on a higher priority schedule) of the traditional straight backed Coaches.

Economy Service trains serve three purposes:

Competition within the industry:

Some Economy trains are intended to entice passengers away from competing railroads. An example of this is the Jersey Central's "Blue Comet", which competes successfully with the PRR and B&O in Atlantic City service.


This is a widespread practice among smaller roads who must compete with the giants, or (in the case of the CNJ) operate in an overdeveloped, fiercely competitive market like the Northeast Corridor. Small roads can offset their competitor's material advantage by using existing equipment creatively to tap everyone's desire to save a buck and to root for the plucky underdog.

Restoring lost traffic:

This is the focus of efforts by the railroads to lure people back from the highways and airlines. Partly this is done by lower fares and partly by improved service in the low fare segment (traditional Coach service having a justifiably bad reputation). This, in turn, gives the railroads bragging rights about their new and improved trains, which has been the basis of most of the industry advertising since the mid 1930s.

This creates a new sort of Premiere train - as discussed earlier - since Economy service is what is being most actively promoted. It is entirely possible for an Economy Premiere train to emerge as the popular champion of the people; such as the Illinois Central's "City Of Miami", which is perhaps the best known of the three trains on the co-op Chicago to Florida Chair service run.

Creating new traffic:

In the days when everyone had to travel by train, there were enough passengers that a railroad could afford to skim off the cream by providing a few basic services to large segments of society. In these leaner times, however, both the railroads and the tourist industry they support must tap these previously ignored market segments by joining services and markets in new combinations.

An example of this is found on the Florida Trade. In years past, wintering in Florida was the province of the wealthy who could afford to ride fine Pullman trains like the SAL's "Orange Blossom Special". The ACL, however, compensated by creating the "Champion", an Economy Chair train to tap a median economic range market. The railroad and the Florida winter resort industry both benefit from the flow of this new class of customers.

These trains feature the new Chair cars with comfortable reclining seats, or "tourist sleepers" - either the new 14 section cars or refurbished 12-1s. Food service is limited. A large train may have a full diner, but it handles a far larger customer load than on the better trains. Smaller trains often have one of the new cafe or restaurant cars, or a buffet-lounge-obs.

They also tend to be seasonal, since many of them are in Tourist service. The shorter runs will tend toward mid morning or mid afternoon departure times, as these slots are convenient to this type of passengers and more readily available than an evening departure.

Regional Trains

Regional trains provide services between cities within a fairly narrow radius, being, in effect, miniature versions of the long haul services:

Along a portion of a primary route:

Such as the New York Central's "Mercury", a short haul Coach streamliner from Cleveland to Detroit along their primary New York City to Chicago line.

On secondary lines:

Such as the Big 4's "Motor Queen", a north-south run from Cincinnati to Detroit with a Coach section to Indianapolis. This is a quality Chair flyer noted for its speed, which cuts directly across the grain of the general east-west traffic flow.

The virtue of Regional trains is that they take over the "shorts" (passengers traveling only a portion of the route) thus freeing up space on the long haul trains. They also provide the connecting services that feed the main lines and make some long haul trains (which may be, in fact, a collection of sections to and from various destinations) more flexible.

All of the various Types and Classes of trains discussed in this Topic may be found in Regional service.

Types of trains

Once the service is defined, above, it must be matched to a consist, as given below.

Sleeper Trains

One may safely presume that any long haul train carries sleepers, as at least a portion of their journey will be by night. These can be subdivided as:

All Room:

The most prestigious sleeping accommodations, considered the crem-de-la-crem among Pullman trains. These are normally found only on the top rated long haul trains such as the Santa Fe's "Deluxe" (Chicago to Los Angeles). In addition to complete all-room trains, a great many individual all-room Pullman cars operate in through service, such as the "10 roomette, 6 double bedroom" cars that come off the "Penn Texas" at St. Louis and proceed to Houston on the Missouri Pacific's "Eagle".

General Sleeper:

These are the great bulk of Pullman trains which mostly have open sections and varying amounts of rooms. General sleeper trains may also have varying numbers of Coach type cars, providing a mixed service. An all-room train would not have such cars, or it would not be an "all-room" train.

Usually, a passenger train is considered to be one of these general sleeper consists: the exceptions are noted, as the all-room consist is fairly rare.

Coach Trains

Some trains are entirely (or primarily) day cars; either because they make only a short trip, or they are low end trains that do not offer sleeping space on long distance runs. All of the principal types of services discussed in this Topic can be found in Coach trains, as these are a day equivalent to the sleeper equipped night trains.

As in all other facets of this supremely class-conscious mode of transportation, there are day cars and then there are day cars:


Parlor cars have somewhat limited application in short to intermediate day service where a large passenger volume allows the luxury of segregating Parlor and Coach patrons on separate trains. Parlor trains may be considered the day counterpart to the top quality sleeper equipped night trains: a premium service with fast schedules and higher fares.

Typical examples of Parlor trains are the "Kay See Flyer" (St. Louis to Kansas City) and the "Furniture City Special" (Chicago via Grand Rapids to Detroit).

Chair Car:

Also known as Long Haul Coach or as Deluxe Coach service, these have comfortable reclining seats and air conditioning. Chair cars have been developed in an attempt to lure vacation travelers back to the rails by offering a train that is faster and more comfortable than the traditional Coach consist, but more economical than Pullman.

Typical examples of Chair trains are the Santa Fe "El Capitan" and the N&W's "Powhattan Arrow".


Plain, ordinary Coach is generally a basic short haul shuttle service with a minimum of amenities; for example, the New Haven's "Fall River Line Express" (Fall River to Boston - about 50 miles), or New York Central's "Niagara Falls Deluxe Special", which, despite its resounding name, is a Chicago to Buffalo Coach run.

Most of these trains, however, are anonymous members of the rank-and-file which have no names. However, they are often grouped together into a particular service under which they are collectively promoted. An example of this is the Reading's "Clockers" (NYC to Philadelphia).


In an older context, the Coach train is also the bare bones run for those who can not afford even a section. The equipment is older (these are the last refuge of the Varnish cars), they are seldom air conditioned and have a badly overworked diner.

A diner, however, is not assured. These trains are also the last to follow the practice of meal service at the local "Beanery": such as the C&NW's "Mountain Bluebird", a connecting section through the Black Hills which wires passenger's requests ahead to Long Pine, Nebraska so the meals will be ready when the train makes a 30 minute stop.

Long distance trips in these trains are a miserable experience made all the worse for taking so long. The cars are stifling in the heat of summer (opening the window serves only to let a constant rain of cinders in), and chilly in the winter (many old cars are still heated by coal stoves). They have the older - less capable - power, have to yield right of way to everything else, and make stops at every jerkwater town along the route. It is no wonder, then, that they are frequently carded at twice the running time of the top Name Trains.

One virtue they have, however, is that they DO stop so often: providing essential all-stops service to small towns and villages up and down the line. They also handle a lot of RPO and express loadings, so most Coach trains have numerous head end cars.

Typical examples of these types of Coach train include the SP "Argonaut" (a California train which also has a few section Pullmans) and the B&O's "#343"(an Appalachian stump dodger with head end, Coach, a Lounge-buffet and a through section sleeper for Wheeling, WVa).

Tourist Trains

Tourist trains are a first cousin of the Economy Train concept (although many Tourist trains have full accommodations and charge Extra Fare - so the two are not directly comparable). Their role is to tap the seasonal vacation trade, which can be quite substantial at times, as people from the Northeast head South for the winter, and vice-versa.

Areas where a lot of Tourist trains can be found are:

The most famous Tourist trains, of course, are on the Florida runs, where two dozen or so trains (some of them Premiere service, many of them Extra Fare) operate daily service for 4 months out of the year.

When the winter vacation season tapers off, these consists are transferred to the summer vacation services to the North and Northwest; leaving Florida to be served by only a handful of year round accommodation trains. However, the new Economy Chair trains and off-season hotel rates are evening this fluctuation out with summer travelers - an example of tapping new markets.

Examples of Tourist trains include:

ACL-FEC all Pullman winter season "Florida Special", a Premiere Tourist train;

C&NW "Wisconsin Lakes Special": a weekend sportsmen's train notorious for its drinking and gambling;

Maine Central's "Bar Harbor Express": a prestigious Pullman run to the Maine summer home coast.

Utility Trains

This is the cleanup squad. Utility trains are usually anonymous short haul and connecting runs. Typical applications will be to take a number of cars that have come in on various trains from various origins and forward them to a single destination.

They are also used to forward sections of a larger through train. In this case, a local service engine (often a light Pacific or Ten Wheeler, or perhaps an over-aged Atlantic) will take a cut of 2-6 cars down a branch line to a nearby major city. An example of this is the Southern Railway's "Carolina Special". This train runs from Cincinnati to Asheville S.C. There the train splits into two sections; one traveling via Greensboro to Raleigh, NC and the other via Spartensburg to Charlestown, SC.

This is a common practice where one road wants to compete with another. Often, the other road will have direct main line service, and the competitor - not having a main line to that city - will have to detach a section and send it forward down a branch line.

It is also a common practice where the direction of traffic flow runs across the grain of the direction the railroads run. A typical example of this is the Norfolk & Western train #21 (Roanoke to Winston-Salem N.C.) The principal direction of the roads in the Appalachians is east to west. However, this train handles a section with cars from various cities in the upper Midwest, via Cincinnati to Roanoke Virginia. From there #21 takes them down a branch line to Winston-Salem with connections to the Southern Railway to destinations along the Carolina coast.

Because of their peculiar relationship to the main line trains, Utility Service trains will have a wide variety of equipment, often from various roads, as well as a few older cars for the local traffic.

Express Trains

This term causes a great deal of confusion when studying passenger service, for it has been applied - loosely - to non-passenger operations such as the Railway Post Office and Railway Express as well as being a generic term for any passenger train.

For our purposes, an "Express" train is defined as any train which primarily carries head end equipment and which is intended to serve this function. Many passenger trains carry substantial amounts of head end, but for this study, the "Express" train is one that may only have a rider coach or other limited accommodation. Trains that combine head end and passenger cars in fairly equal amounts are covered under the other categories above.


An important thing to remember is that the Type of consist, as discussed above, does not necessarily relate to the Class of service, as discussed earlier. Class of service is how the trains relate to each other: their importance in the Scheme Of Things. A Premiere service, for example, may be a Parlor train on an accommodation schedule: making numerous stops. On the other hand, an Economy service train may well run the same route with the same limited stops and fast schedule as a Premiere train, but with different cars and clientele.


Once the Class of service and Type of consist (given above) have been defined, the train has to be given its place on the schedule. The priority of a train is determined by the number and significance of the stops it makes, (and thus the speed of its schedule). There can be, for example;

By comparing these factors: consist - service - schedule, to the market demographic studies of the region, the number of people (and what type they are) who will ride this train can be estimated.

That will tell how many cars, both passenger carrying and non-revenue cars such as lounges and diners will be needed, which in turn will tell you the motive power required. Finally, this "consist - service - schedule" formula will affect the arrival/departure slots at major terminals, where trains meet, who has what priority and who must take to a siding.

Here is a rundown of the basic scheduling priorities of passenger service:


The Limited trains are the fastest and highest priority trains, intended to connect major points in the shortest amount of time. To do this, they make only a few stops in principal cities (thus the term "Limited", as in "Limited Access"). Some larger roads will have several Limited trains operating in an overlapping service: one train stopping at even numbered stops, the next at odd numbered stops, for example.

Limited trains have the right of way over all other trains. Within the "Limited" category, individual trains will be prioritized as best seems fit. For example, a Premiere Sleeper Limited like the Santa Fe "Super Chief" will have right of way over a General Express Limited like the "Fast Mail Express".

These may be (and usually are) the most famous trains on the road. However, many unknown trains, notably express trains, run on similar fast schedules.

Accommodation Trains

These are reasonably fast trains which stop at several intermediate sized cities and towns, thus operating on a somewhat longer schedule. Their purpose is to provide a second level backup to the Limited trains by hitting the towns they bypass while still maintaining a reasonable schedule and, in most cases, a respectable consist.

All-stops Locals

These trains stop everywhere, providing the broadest level of service at the cost of schedule time. They are low priority trains which tend to have older equipment.

Some things to be alert for

Scheduling quirks:

The best laid plans of mice and Passenger Department V.P.s notwithstanding, scheduling a train is not just a matter of penciling in a departure and arrival time. There are a number of practical considerations that interfere with this theoretical perfection, including:

Terminal crowding: only so many trains can fit into a terminal at any one time, so some may get bumped to a less desirable departure time. The really busy times are:

Equipment availability:


Points of interest:

Arrival times:

Foreign road interference:

Miscellaneous Eccentricities:

One important thing to remember is that trains usually have more than one type of equipment. So when speaking of a train's consist, we generally think of them by their primary equipment type. Some examples of this are the C&NW "400", which is mainly Chair cars but includes some Parlor space; or the GM&O "Rebel", which is mainly a Coach train, but has a sleeper assigned.

One thing to be wary of is the overworked words "Limited" and "Special", which seem to be applied to everything and anything not hauling milk cars. A great many so-called "Limiteds" are, in fact, running on accommodation schedules: such as the Santa Fe's "Grand Canyon Limited", which stops everywhere - including the Grand Canyon. Also, some railroads, notably the Southern Railway, have a pernicious habit of naming their trains something-or-other "Special".

"Fast Mail" and "Express" are two more of those bastardized terms near and dear to the heart of the Passenger Department.

In some cases, the "Fast Mail" does indeed haul mail: such as the Santa Fe's "Fast Mail Express", which is all head end equipment with a single combine for a rider car. A more typical case, however, is the C&EI "Dixie Mail" which has the usual compliment of head end cars, plus Parlors, Sleepers and a Cafe-lounge-obs. (They also have a "Dixie Express", which is a Chicago to Florida train).

On the other hand, some "mail" trains are not identified as such: like the B&O's "Metropolitan Special"; an accommodation train on the Washington D.C. to St Louis run which, by the mid 1960s, has shrunk to a string of head end cars and a couple of coaches. The railroad felt compelled to put a notice in it's timetable reading:

"These are primarily mail trains. Sandwiches, beverages and snacks are available between Keyser and Cincinnati."

The Passengers

Next, we take a look at who rides the passenger trains.

The Social Elite

These include the top political leaders, wealthy executives and investors, Movie Stars and the like, who demand the very finest accommodations on the Premiere trains. While, on a national average, they are a small percent of the population, they have a disproportionate amount of liquid wealth for travel, and are more likely to have reasons to do so.

Business Travelers

Here we see a distinction in social classes:

Some trains develop a clientele that is mainly businessmen. These trains are typically scheduled for late afternoon departure to allow the passengers to put in a full business day at the office, spend the night on the train, and be at their destination for work the next morning. A few trains are also carded for a mid day departure, allowing a half-day at work.


Tourists cover a fair economic spread and may be found on both regular trains and economy Tourist trains (with the later being far more common). At certain times of the year, their numbers can simply swamp any railroad. As these are mostly middle class people, they do not expect the fancy trimmings of the Premiere trains, and will be content with comfortable Chair and section sleeper facilities.


The legendary traveling salesmen live on trains for months at a time as they make their routes. These passengers are on expense accounts (which they have to justify every penny of), so will use short haul Coach trains to hop from town to town during the day: visiting their prospects and taking the next train onward. At night, they will use the cheapest available section sleeping spaces (usually on the Regional Accommodation trains).

Without reliable telecommunications, live sales calls are the principal sales tool for large distributors. As most freight shipments are by Railway Express, the major flow of sales trade is along the railroads. So drummers are common.

Government Service

Some routes have a large number of military and government service travelers. Examples include:

The curious thing is that the Government will only reimburse its travelers for a lower section. This is why some routes will have section sleepers long after they were retired elsewhere - and why some Lightweight cars have been built as late as the 1950s with open sections.

The passenger train in practice

As you can see from the above, there are many, many factors that go into developing a Passenger Service. Not only are the services and clientele varied, but the sheer numbers are staggering.

At the height of the Passenger Age, towns as small as 5000 people have their own dedicated Pullman car which terminates there. Pullman has over 8000 steel sleepers; plus another 1000 or so combined sleeper-buffet or sleeper-lounge types; plus several hundred of the old Varnish cars; plus there are thousands of railroad owned Chairs and Coaches on regional services. These cars run every day, filled to a sizable portion of capacity. That's a lot of trains.

As mentioned earlier, each train contributes to an overall pattern. To give you an idea of the scope of this pattern, consider this:

The Pennsylvania Railroad schedules 27 trains a day, every day, westward. The great bulk of these come from New York City. Presuming each train carries an average of 300 people, that is 8100 passengers a day.

Now presume that the New York Central carries roughly the same amount: another 8100 people, or 16,200 total. Now presume that the Erie and the B&O (westbound) plus northbound trains to Canada and southbound trains to Florida and the Deep South carry that many again; or 32,400.

Allowing that the bulk of these originate in Manhattan, this means a total of roughly 30,000 people have reason to leave New York City every day on about 100 long haul trains.

(Then, of course, there are all the Commuter and short haul shuttle trains to Boston, Washington, etc.)

Another example: at its height, St. Louis' Union Station sees over 300 arrivals and departures daily on a dozen roads. Allowing that these will be smaller trains (150 people average?) that still comes up to roughly 22,500 people arriving and that many again departing St. Louis daily.

With numbers like these, some of the mysteries of Passenger Service become easier to understand. For example, why does one train have 5 cars and the one right behind it runs in four 20 car sections? Answer: the 5 car is a regional Coach train heading from - say - New York to Pittsburgh. The next is a through Pullman Limited with two sections (600 people) heading for Chicago and two more for St. Louis.

The differences in service and destination have determined train size. The fact that the Coach train left New York City three hours before the Limited (in order to clear the terminal for the big evening Pullman rush) is why it is running ahead of a superior - faster - train.

To sum it all up

Briefly: passenger trains provide a number of Services as shown below:

These, in turn, may be cross indexed to the various Types of trains, as shown below:

These, in turn, are classified by their timetable speed, which is a function of how many stops they make. In a broad sense, the higher a train is on the list below, the higher its priority and prestige.

The result is a combination of Service - Type - Schedule: for example:

"Premiere Sleeper Limited" or "Secondary Express Regular" or "Economy Chair Accommodation" trains.

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