The Railroad Experience

TRAVELING ON TRAINS was not comfortable in the early days. Across Europe, the cars were primitive with no amenities, and were based on horse-drawn stagecoach designs. Compartments seated six people facing each other, with doors on both sides. Cars were made up of what was effectively a room supported on two axles, with a basic suspension system. Originally, most of the superstructure was made of wood, which was a fire risk and provided scant protection in the event of an accident.

On the Liverpool and Manchester, and on other early lines, there were different ticket prices. Passengers willing, or able, to pay a little more could obtain a place in the mail car, which had only a couple of comfortable corner seats and offered more privacy. At the other extreme, there was the discount option of riding in a railroad car with sides open to the elements. As passenger travel became more popular, a hierarchy developed. Cheap tickets were available for boxlike cars, which had holes in the floor for drainage, but often no seats. They were used on many railroads throughout Europe and gave people an awful experience of rail travel. Fortunately, these open cars were considered too dangerous, as well as horribly uncomfortable, and were soon phased out. To replace them, compartment-style cars were built for second- and third-class passengers, with less space for people’s legs and much harder seats than first-class cars.


Some of the Trans-Siberian Railway services (see The Trans-Siberian Railway) were billed as “luxury,” with staff instructed to empty spittoons and keep car temperatures at a balmy 57°F (14°C). In practice, however, customer service was not a strong point. Delays were standard, and at stations peasants scrambled out to cook soup on the platforms, further delaying the train. For everyone else, the dining cars served meals by St. Petersburg time, regardless of the line’s seven time zones: toward the east, passengers had to eat breakfast at 2pm, while dinner was served at 3am sharp.

The truly affluent had the option of bringing their own conveyances. The aristocracy simply arrived at the station in their personal horse-drawn coach, which was then lifted on to a flat car and held down with chains, rather as motorists put their cars on some trains today. The upper classes could thus avoid soiling their petticoats or pantaloons by sitting on cushions used by the masses, though even they could not escape the smoke and ashes that enveloped all early travelers. The dilemma facing passengers when the weather was hot was whether to open the window and risk wrecking their clothes from the cinders, or keep it closed and swelter. An infuriated English social reformer and abolitionist, Harriet Martineau, reported that sparks had burned no fewer than 13 holes in her gown during a journey in the United States.

In the early days, the ride was bumpy whatever vehicle class passengers were traveling in. The springs were weak, or nonexistent, and the primitive track, made up of short rails, was uneven. Worse, the couplers between the coaches were not rigid, but involved an arrangement with chains. Every time the train set off or slowed down, passengers were thrown about. There was no brake mechanism to prevent the cars from bumping into one another and despite the padded seats in the superior cars, complaints from the more well-to-do travelers about their uncomfortable journey were frequent and sustained. Luckily, the slowness of the trains reduced the severity of these rough rides, but it was not unknown for the chains to break, leaving some poor passengers stranded. This explains why the last coach of the train was soon equipped with a red light (called a marker)—its absence would warn signalers that the train was not complete.

The compartment system made it easy for passengers to get on and off, but its main disadvantage was that people could not move within the train, so had no access to toilet facilities or refreshments. When journeys grew longer, trains had to stop at intermediate stations for “comfort breaks”—not an expression used in the 19th century—and meals. That was already the case across the Atlantic, where the design of cars was different from the outset. Interestingly, some of the first American cars were based on canal-boat rather than stagecoach designs. These early cars were more practical and usually more comfortable than their European counterparts. They were longer and were open plan rather than fitted with compartments, which reflected the American ethos of equality. (Equality, of course, only among white passengers. Black passengers were segregated until the second half of the 20th century.) Some cars even had seats on the roof, open to the elements, but this idea was soon abandoned.

American passenger cars were similar to long omnibuses: they could accommodate up to 50 people on two-by-two seats with reversible backs, which were reasonably comfortable. Right from the start, there was a little annex with a hole that opened straight out onto the tracks to serve calls of nature. Relief was only partial. The wheel sets were relatively close to each other, which meant the ends of the coaches swung to and fro, inducing dizziness and even vomiting. The problem was not helped by the fact that there were only four wheels on the early vehicles, but happily this soon changed. Four-wheel vehicles gave way to six and then eight, greatly improving stability.


Novelist Charles Dickens, an experienced rail traveler in Britain, visited the US in 1842 and was pretty dismissive of what he found. Traveling on the Boston and Lowell Railroad, he was dismayed by the lack of class differentiation: “There are no first and second class carriages as with us; but there is a gentlemen’s car and a ladies’ car: the main distinction between which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the second nobody does.” He noted, too, that there was a “Negro” car, which was “a great blundering clumsy chest.” Dickens particularly took against the American habit of spitting—a fellow author described the central corridor through the train as “an elongated spittoon.” Poor Dickens also recoiled when his fellow passengers tried to strike up friendly conversations with him about subjects such as politics, blithely oblivious to the famed English reluctance to talk to strangers and fastidiousness about topics of conversation.

Heating in winter was provided by a pot-bellied stove, which was not only a terrible fire risk when there were mishaps but also according to Dickens filled the air with what he called “the ghost of smoke.” The stoves were ineffective, making it too hot for those immediately next to them, but giving no warmth to those further away. Lighting, too, was inadequate. Initially, there were lanterns with candles kept alight by the conductors. The lanterns were placed just above each seat, but gave out little light. Much better kerosene lamps replaced them by the 1860s. They hung from the roof and gave adequate lighting for the whole car, but they too were a significant fire hazard.


Thanks to the open-plan arrangements, American trains attracted hawkers walking along the car, offering things to read as well as drinks and snacks. The first hawkers were self-employed young men who had spotted an opportunity to make money, but later they were officially sanctioned. Many belonged to the gigantic Union News Company. They would pass through the trains offering the day’s newspapers, magazines, sweets, soda pop bottles, and cigarettes. They announced their arrival in a falsetto voice, compressing their wares into a single word such as “candycigarettescigars” or “newspapersmagazines.” Another British writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, traveling a few years later than Dickens, was much impressed by these young men and was amazed that he could buy “soaps, towels, tin washing basins, tin coffee pitchers, coffee, tea, sugar and tinned eatables, mostly hash or beans and bacon”. It was, he noted, much more entertaining than a ride on a British train. But the vendors were not universally welcomed as some ran scams. The favorite was to sell cheaply bound novels for twice the normal 25 cents, with the promise that one of them contained a $10 bill.

The American open-plan model created another difference from Europe: conductors went through the train checking and selling tickets and generally policing the passengers. They were a fearsome bunch and some, who were often on the same train every day or week, became well known to their regulars and even beyond. The doyen of them was Henry Ayers, or “Poppy” as he was generally known, described as “a huge, genial teddy bear of a man, weighing nearly three hundred pounds… [who] hovered over his passengers with benevolent menace.” Ayers achieved fame because he had a fierce dispute over the use of the emergency cord with his engineer on the Erie Railroad. The engineer refused to acknowledge that the conductor had ultimate control over the train. By winning the argument, Ayers established railway practice that remains universal to this day and went on to serve the Erie for 30 years. His favorite tale was that he convinced an old lady who had left her umbrella at her station that he had organized to have it sent on by telegraph. The truth was that lost items were dumped in the baggage car, so Ayers simply retrieved the umbrella and presented it to its grateful owner at the next station.


In the early days, train travel in the US was more comfortable than in Europe because people had the freedom to move about their cars. There was also an outside area on the last coach, which afforded some much-needed fresh air in the summer. At first, the connections between the cars were too difficult for passengers to negotiate safely, but they soon improved, so people could walk through the whole train. European cars only began offering the same facility for their passengers in the last quarter of the 19th century, when trains with corridors were introduced, but the layout was different. Instead of an American open plan, the corridor was a passageway at one side of the car—at first external and used only by rail staff or intrepid passengers, but later internal. Introducing a corridor marked a significant step forward in passenger comfort since facilities such as toilets could now be provided and passengers could have access to a dining car. This meant that trains no longer had to make intermediate comfort stops. Although corridor trains became the norm, compartment-type cars lingered well into the last quarter of the 20th century on some European local and commuter services.


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