Standard coach cars offered the
most basic of amenities on board passenger trains, even during the
streamliner era. Their purpose was quite straightforward, to provide
basic [and in later years] and comfortable seating for passengers. Coach cars were the earliest passenger train cars, dating back to the late 1820s and 1830s and built to resemble stagecoaches
of the day. Having no center isle or protection from the outside
elements, aside from a roof, they were rudimentary at best and dangerous
because they offered no protection from the early locomotives of the
day which were severely prone to boiler explosions. As car design and construction improved so, too, did the ride quality and seating coaches provided. Still, even during the final years of privatized passenger rail travel many railroads continued to rely on standard, early 20th-century coaches that were not particularly comfortable. Today, coach services on Amtrak and commuter lines is generally quite good.
By the mid-19th century the standard coach, as we know it today with a center isle and seating to either side, came into being. Standard forward bench seating in coach cars with a central aisle was the primary design feature for nearly a century. The layout of this coach type, known as an "Open" design, was designated by the number of seats and aisles it contained. For instance, if the car held two seats along a central aisle it was known as a "2+2" while three seats is known as a "3+3". It was not until the streamliner era of the mid-1930s did the coach evolve. Around this time coach cars became more diversified featuring individual, more comfortable seats (which sometimes swiveled, such as in the case of the Southern Railway).
Also developed during the era was the compartment coach, which featured
individual, sectioned seating areas (usually two seats facing one
another) with a corridor walkway located along one side of the car. All of the cars featured vestibules, or the hallway area along the end of the car where a passenger first came on board. These newly designed coach cars also featured overhead storage compartments so passengers could carry some of their luggage with them on the train. The streamliner era in general saw the most advances in passenger train car construction, not just coach cars,
as company's spared no expensive to get in edge in wooing passengers to
their trains. Comfort, relaxation, and stunning interior and exterior
designs became the norm for a railroad's most prominent passenger
These amazing trains during the 1930 to 1950 era are commonly remembered as the "Golden Age" of passenger railroad travel with sleek streamlined equipment and a round-ended observation car on the rear to complete the look. Many of these cars were built by the most famous names in passenger train car manufacturing such as Pullman-Standard and the Budd Company. After the private railroads abandoned passenger trains giving way to Amtrak the national carrier continued to use second-hand equipment for years until the arrival of newer designs like Amfleets and Superliners. Today, Amtrak's coaches usually come in either an open or compartment setup and feature comfortable individual seats for passengers. Usually one can also now connect to the Internet or use portable electronic equipment with on board plug-ins and Wi-Fi access.
Today, the old standard bench seats found on heavyweight coaches have long since been relegated to history. However, you can still ride aboard a train equipped with them by taking one of the many tourist/excursion trains found across the country. Perhaps the most finely preserved and equipped railroad to operate these old cars is the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania. Likewise, many of the famous streamlined coaches are also gone, although you can also still find on tourist lines as well, including some of the more plush operations such as the Grand Canyon Railway and Napa Valley Wine Train.
For more reading about coach cars you might want to consider the book Streamliners: A History of the Railroad Icon from renowned author Mike Schafer who covers in detail most of the well known and remembered “classic” passenger trains to operate in the country. While Schafer's book highlights streamliners it also features differing car types (such as RPOs, combines, domes, diners, and sleepers) to operate on those trains. If you have any interest in such you should very much enjoy Mr. Schafer’s book. You may also want to consider picking up the book The Cars of Pullman from author Joe Welsh, Bill Howes, and Kevin Holland. As the title implies the book details and highlights the various types of cars Pullman built throughout the years, along with giving a general history of the company in the process. If you are interested in Pullman and the equipment it manufactured you will very much enjoy The Cars of Pullman. In any event, if you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.