Passenger Train Cars, "Varnish," Once The Only Way To Travel
Passenger train cars, also referred to as "varnish," were once not only an important part of a railroad's equipment roster but also travelers relying on such to reach their intended destination before commercial flight
and reliable roads and highways came into widespread use. Unless one could afford the plush
comforts of first class, dining, and sleeping arrangements most folks
probably remember the "Golden Age" of rail travel no better than riding in a cramped and uncomfortable coach. While coach was the way to travel for most passengers as the 20th century progressed trips by rail greatly improved comfort-wise, especially if you were traveling cross-country. With the advent of Amtrak in 1971 passenger rail
travel has slowly lost its romantic appeal with many amenities no
longer available, such as on board meals, cooked by chefs from scratch.
Southern FP7 #6133 is about to depart Alexandria, Virginia with an excursion train during September of 1977.
Passenger varnish is broken down by the service they provide and often times,
particularly in the streamliner era (post 1930s), railroads would
combine the names of cars. The most basic names for
cars include sleepers, diners, observations, standard coach, parlors,
and dome cars. However, combined cars included names like
parlor-observations, sleeper-observations, and diner-dome cars (famous
on the Union Pacific's City fleet of streamliners). Utilitarian
cars that always traveled along on passenger trains included baggage and
RPO (railway post office) cars for express and mail service as well as
storing passengers' belongings and baggage (hence its name).
The earliest train cars, dating back to the late 1820s and
1830s, were simply coaches 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. By the mid/late-19th century railroads began diversifying into different passenger car
types such as diners, RPOs, baggage/combines, and early sleepers. This
period also saw the development of the standard coach car, whereby it
featured a center aisle for passengers to more easily exit and enter the car, the same type of setup you still see today particularly on buses.
It's dinner hour aboard the Southern Crescent during June of 1978. With only a year left under private ownership the train was by then experiencing a surge in ridership from railfans and those wishing to take one last trip while it was still in Southern's hands.
Even by the end of the 19th-century most cars were still
built almost primarily with wood, save for the support structures (such
as the center support beam, trucks, and other necessary railroading
components) which were made of early steel, which by the mid-1850s had
become inexpensive enough to be used in widespread applications within
the railroad industry. However, also around this time also what were known as "heavyweight" passenger cars were introduced, built almost entirely from steel, hence their name. Steel not only allowed the car
to be stronger but also reduced the chance that it would so easily
catch fire. However, steel was quite heavy and with the advent of
lightweight materials in the 1930s, when the streamliner was born, passenger trains became much lighter and cost less to operate just through sheer weight.
The DRG&W's Rio Grande Zephyr (a truncated version of the original CZ still operated by the railroad) boards passengers at the station in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on May 23, 1977.
The streamliner era of the 1930s saw the most advances in passenger train car construction as company's spared no expense wooing passengers to their trains. Comfort, relaxation, and stunning interior and exterior designs became the norm for a railroad's most prominent passenger train(s). 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 were built by the most famous names in manufacturing such as Pullman-Standard and the Budd Company.
Just as a point of reference, all of the passenger car equipment
built for railroads through roughly the 1950s is commonly referred by
railfans and historians as varnish, an endearing term that gained
prominence because of the grand designs, architecture and construction
built into the cars. This was especially true prior to the streamliner
era when car construction still carried a Victorian style and featured
much interior plush and wood designs, often employing the use of master
carpenters and woodworkers to complete the work.
For more information on cars, types, manufacturers and the
history of each please visit the links above. Also, for more
information regarding passenger train services currently available
around the country please click here.
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train #583 led by F59PHI #463 is about to board passengers at San Diego on May 3, 2005.
With the advent of Amtrak in 1971 not only did romance of passenger
railroad travel slowly lose its appeal (mostly because a decline in the
service provided, which had actually been taking place since the 1960s
when many railroads began to give up on their passenger train
operations) but car construction technology also declined. By the 1970s
many of the most famous manufacturers had left the business or were in
severe decline, such as Pullman and Budd. Today, Amtrak service has
continued to improve but the days of relaxing in a rear observation car
or enjoying a five star meal prepared by an on board chef are no more.
Hopefully, though, one day these services will return to the public.