Train Travel Through the Years
Times sure have changed. Before we had planes and cars to get us wherever we wanted to go, we had trains. And people used to travel everywhere on them.
The first passenger trains didn't go very fast or far. Nor did they have many amenities besides a seat. But that didn't last long. Trains quickly became faster and more extravagant, and by the 1920s, train travel was the central form of travel for people all over the world. While train travel took a backseat to planes and automobiles in the 1930s and 1940s, it didn't go away. It just evolved like everything else.
It's easy to forget how revolutionary trains were when they became available to the public over 100 years ago. Here's a look at the evolution of train travel and how it transformed human transportation.
In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first company to offer passenger and freight service in the United States, flying in the face of skeptics who thought a train could only work on flat terrain by navigating a loop around the outskirts of Baltimore.
The first railroad track was only 13 miles long, but when it opened, it began to change the lives of the people who lived nearby in some pretty incredible ways.
And more than that, Americans started thinking about all the ways they could expand those railroad tracks.
The William Crooks was a wood-burning passenger locomotive built in 1861 by Smith and Jackson Builders in Paterson, New Jersey, and was still in use in some capacity in 1948 in Chicago.
The train was operated as part of the first division of railcars from the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and was the first locomotive to operate in Minnesota beginning the year it was built.
Its first route was only 10 miles long and traveled from Minneapolis to St. Paul.
By the 1890s, the full boom of intercontinental train travel was happening all across the United States and beginning to criss-cross the middle parts of the country, where people were experiencing the phenomenon for the first time.
Nowhere did trains come more into play at this time than leading up to the Land Run of 1893, when 100,000 settlers converged on 6 million acres of land and 40,000 homesteads that had been taken from the Cherokee Indians by the U.S. government.
The first electric-powered train car was the Baltimore Belt Line, which began running in 1895 on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It was a four-mile stretch that connected the main portion of the B&O Railroad to New York through a series of tunnels around the outskirts of downtown Baltimore.
This was just the beginning of electric travel for American railways, and within a decade, all of the major railways were relying on electricity to power their trains in one form or another.
An uncomfortable overnight trip on a train inspired engineer George Pullman to design and manufacture the Pullman sleeping car. Pullman's idea became a worldwide phenomenon that changed travel all over the world and serviced approximately 26 million people per year in its heyday.
Pullman's creation, essentially a "hotel on wheels," ended up becoming one of the more complicated business legacies of its time. It included the incorporation of the town of Pullman in the Chicago suburbs to house the company's thousands and thousands of (mostly underpaid) workers.
You know how today's professional athlete travels by private jet to games and, depending who it is, are taking those same jets to travel in the offseason? That wasn't the case just over 100 years ago when the biggest sports star in the world was baseball player Babe Ruth.
"The Bambino" and his contemporaries traveled all over the East Coast on trains during the season, and took those same trains west for barnstorming events in California in the offseason, with MLB yet to have made its way to the West Coast.
Passenger trains were in their prime in the 1920s — the last decade before the United States went headfirst into airplane travel and automobile travel. Those two industries were being heavily subsidized by the government to get them rolling, which wasn't extended to trains.
If you were traveling on a train in the 1920s, there were luxuries that hadn't been afforded to Americans before and not for anyone besides luxury boat travel. To many Americans, the concept of having someone transport you over a long distance in any sort of comfort seemed almost too good to be true.
The Valley Railroad Company of the Connecticut Valley Line is one of the most beautiful routes you can take in the United States — 44 miles of beautiful scenery that connected people in Connecticut to New York City for the first time in 1871.
By the 1920s, trains like Steam Engine No. 40 were using the newest technology to connect residents to steamboats that took them across Long Island Sound to the city.
Today, it operates as an antique riding experience on property leased from the state of Connecticut.
The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Pacific Railroad Company — also known as Milwaukee Road — began operating its "Olympian" passenger train in 1911.
The Olympian model was the all-steel, luxury passenger train commissioned for the trip, with two Olympians going into service on the route that went Chicago-St. Paul-Milwaukee-Seattle-Tacoma, and added a stop in Spokane in 1914.
By 1927, Milwaukee Road claimed its Olympian line could make the trip from Chicago to Seattle in just 70 hours. The Olympian was succeeded by the even speedier Hiawatha Olympian line before the route was discontinued in 1961.
Train travel made another humongous leap forward in 1930 when it debuted the first passenger cars fully equipped with air conditioning.
The B&O Railroad debuted the first passenger train with AC on April 28, 1930, when the Martha Washington model dining car was unveiled in Baltimore. It was a sensation that The Baltimore Sun said turned train travel into a "resort on wheels."
Inventor Willis Haviland Carrier wasn't done with the Martha Washington. Carrier continued his work, and B&O debuted its first fully air-conditioned train, The Columbia, in 1934.
As the 1930s chugged along, train companies found themselves being forced to push the envelope even more when it came to the amenities they offered on their routes.
That meant major upgrades in areas like dining cars, which were the social hubs for all train rides, and no one did dining cars better than the B&O Railroad Company.
The Royal Blue line was the flagship train for B&O and was known for having the best of the best dining cars for its route between New York City and Washington, D.C.
The Pennsylvania Railroad company struck a major blow to the competition when it debuted the new version of its Broadway Limited train in the summer of 1938 — a sleek, modern marvel that shepherded passengers from Chicago to New York City.
The 1938 version of the Broadway Limited was remarkable because it was the first version of the streamliner to replace the bulky steel trains that ran for the previous two decades.
The New York to Chicago route was the biggest moneymaker for Pennsylvania Railroad for the entirety of its existence.
The New York Central Railroad's signature train was the Empire State Express early in its existence, earning worldwide acclaim for a route that was originally from New York to Buffalo but eventually expanded to Cleveland.
The Empire State Express was so popular and so dominant that it did little to change its way of business from its start in 1892 until 1941, when the new stainless-steel Empire State Express debuted.
Unfortunately for the new train, the massive amount of money spent shrouding its development in secrecy, then promoting and marketing it ahead of its debut ended up not helping.
That's because the Empire State Express was introduced to the public on Dec. 7, 1941 — the same day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The Olympian line for Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad was so popular that the company eventually upgraded the train on the Chicago-to-Seattle route to the Olympian Hiawatha model in 1941.
The company's signature, high-speed train added some notable features with the introduction of the Hiawatha. The most notable were "skytop observation" cars that evolved into "super dome" cars with even more glass observation areas.
The Hiawatha line may have been the pinnacle of long-distance train travel and the last generation of trains that went head-to-head with airplanes in competing for passengers.
As airplane and automobile travel began to overtake train travel in the United States, railroad companies began to increase their amenities where they could to try and stay in the picture.
One train managed to hold its head above the rest — New York City Railroad's famous 20th Century Limited model that ran from New York City to Chicago from 1902 to 1967.
The 20th Century Limited was described as "the most famous train in the world" by The New York Times, and the term "red-carpet treatment" comes from the specially designed crimson carpets passengers walked on before boarding the train.
The railroad industry and passenger trains had a long history of exclusion when it came to African-Americans, exploiting them as cheap labor on one end and restricting their access to travel through strict policies of segregation on the other end.
In 1950, Elmer W. Henderson's lawsuit was the basis for permanent change in train travel after he was denied a seat in a dining car on Southern Railway's Washington to Atlanta route in 1942.
The case made it to the Supreme Court, which abolished segregation of railroad dining cars in an 8-0 vote.
The Union Pacific Streamliners in the 1950s were also classified as the E-Series and notable because they were the trains that went fully diesel. They were hulking, faceless monstrosities that were mainly used on shorter routes.
These streamliners weren't as creative in their cab designs as other models and moved to plainer-looking dining cars than the extravagance of the past.
By this point, the writing was on the wall for train manufacturers. Despite their best attempts to keep up, plane and automobile travel was now the de facto standard.
Overnight train travel wasn't totally out the door in the 1950s — especially when traveling in large groups.
These passengers were part of a large group of people traveling with the Rev. Billy Graham from Nashville to San Francisco in the spring of 1958, when Graham traveled cross-country to host "The Billy Graham Special" at the Cow Palace.
Just like Babe Ruth traveled by train in 1919, almost 50 years later, celebrities were still turning to train travel to get them where they needed to be.
In the case of Paul McCartney and the rest of The Beatles in 1964, that place was an undisclosed location to film scenes from their ultra-secret first feature film.
The Beatles left from London's famous Paddington Station that day, and the movie they were filming was the classic musical comedy "A Hard Day's Night" directed by Richard Lester.
Up until this point, we've focused almost solely on the United States as far as train travel, but it's a big ol' world out there. Not everywhere abandoned train travel as quickly as Americans did.
For example, in 1965, you could still hop on a train that took you from Moscow to Vladivostok, Russia — a 5,775-mile trip with more than 100 stops in Europe, across Asia and all the way to the Sea of Japan.
The Trans-Siberian Express was nothing to play with, and the seven-and-a-half-day journey from one end was the longest, daily-serviced route to ever exist.
We've already talked about the 20th Century Limited as the most famous train to ever exist. But by the 1960s, trains were in a decline, not just the 20th Century.
The line ran its last route from New York to Chicago on Dec. 2, 1967, and it was a dubious ending. The half-full train was almost 10 hours late due to a freight derailment in Ohio.
If you've got a knowledge of classic films, you'll remember the 20th Century Limited played a large role in two of the greatest movies of all time — Alfred Hitchock's "North by Northwest" starring Cary Grant and "The Sting" starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The Japanese took a lot of pride in their innovation in train travel, most notably in their incredible "bullet trains" that began running in 1964.
The bullet trains weren't just fast. They were safe. By 1970, they'd carried 300 million passengers without a single death.
They were still fast, as well. The bullet train "Hikari" could take a load of passengers from Osaka to Tokyo in approximately three hours — a distance of 344 miles.
No group of pictures portraying the history of train travel throughout the years is complete without including the famous Orient Express, which ran its last 1,900-mile voyage from Paris to Istanbul, Turkey, on May 20, 1977.
The once magnificent train of red velvet and mahogany-lined Pullmans and dining cars was reduced to just one sleeping car and three-day coaches by the time of its final run.
The train traversed five countries for 88 years before railroad administrators from the five countries decided its expenses no longer validated keeping it going.
There would be one more time when Americans turned back to train travel in droves — when the nation's air traffic controllers walked off the job on strike on Monday, Aug. 3, 1981.
Amtrak officials went into overdrive in anticipation of heavy traffic, adding additional cars to trains. They ended up being right.
Determining that the union's strike was illegal, President Ronald Reagan gave the air traffic controllers 48 hours to return to work. They called his bluff, and Reagan fired all 11,345 striking air traffic controllers on the spot and banned them from federal service for life.
Can you imagine what would happen in 2021 if someone lit up a cigarette on a public form of transportation like an airplane, bus or train? It would be utter chaos. But that wasn't always the case.
Nowhere was smoking more encouraged than on trains, which had over a century of ashtrays and special smoking cars in the books when they finally banned smoking at the beginning of 1988.
Commuters in New York hit back in court, backed by the tobacco companies. They lost.
Amtrak's Broadway Limited line ran from Philadelphia to New York and Chicago started in 1912 and through 1995 before budget cuts forced it to shut down.
It was Pennsylvania's premiere form of train transportation throughout that time and in its prime competed with the New York Central Railroad's 20th Century Limited line and Penn Central's line when it opened in 1968.
By 1995, the Broadway Limited was just a shell of its grand, former self, and Amtrak shut it down for good.
By the late 1990s, the influence of daytrippers on train travel was being seen from coast to coast, with some of the best scenery you can find in Northern California.
The "Skunk Train" was one of the most popular — a scenery-chewing ride from Fort Bragg to Willits, California, that's been running since 1885.
It was given its name originally because of its gas engine and the smell, with locals saying, "You can smell 'em before you can see 'em."
Amtrak's Acela Express was the first high-speed train in the United States. It made its debut on Monday, Dec. 11, 2000, in Boston, when it arrived about 10 minutes late on its first scheduled trip from Washington, D.C.
Amtrak's hope was the trains that mimicked the "bullet trains" in Japan would renew interest in train travel in the U.S. and lure business travelers away from airlines.
Spoiler alert: It did not.
Amtrak's Coast Starlight line is about the closest you can come to getting the experience of what it was like to travel by train long distances in the 1930s.
In 2017, the Coast Starlight upgraded many of its amenities to appeal to a new generation of travelers, including an updated menu of steamed mussels and spicy chilaquiles.
It takes 35 hours to get from Los Angeles to Seattle, much of which runs by uninhabited parts of the country you would otherwise never get to see. Get a sleeper cab and just do it, why don't you?
Is it any surprise that Carnival Cruises also has a line of trains? The Holland American Line operates a large fleet of dome railcars in Alaska that tourists are drawn to.
The McKinley Explorer model is by far the most popular of the bunch. It's an all-inclusive train experience with large, curved domes that offer 360-degree views.
In a throwback to days of train travel past, there's a buffet of amenities — tour guides, an upstairs bar, and an outdoor viewing platform and restaurant on the lower level.
The future of train travel, outside of subway and tram systems in major cities, looks essentially like boutique, regionally specific routes and experiences.
Marketing for train travel seems best served as geared toward daytrippers, offering a unique experience in a unique place, and definitely not overnight trips.
Part of that draw will be unique trains, such as art deco models, which give people an experience like that of someone traveling in the heyday of passenger trains.
Related: Airplane Cabins Through the Years