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Pullman Company sleeping car Malay, photographed at Colorado Springs, Colorado on October 18, 1936.
The interior of a Pullman car on the Chicago and Alton Railroad circa 1900. In this photo the car is configured for daytime operation.

The sleeping car or sleeper (often wagon-lits) is a railway/railroad passenger car that can accommodate all its passengers in beds of one kind or another, primarily for the purpose of making nighttime travel more restful. The first such cars saw sporadic use on American railroads in the 1830s and could be configured for coach seating during the day. Some of the more luxurious types have private rooms, that is to say fully- and solidly-enclosed rooms that are not shared with strangers.

In the United States today, all regularly-scheduled sleeping car services are operated by Amtrak. Amtrak offers sleeping cars on most of its overnight trains, using modern cars of the private-room type exclusively. In Canada, all regularly scheduled sleeping car services are operated by VIA Rail Canada, using a mixture of relatively-new cars and refurbished mid-century ones; the latter cars include both private rooms and "open section" accommodations.

An example of a more basic type of sleeping car is the European couchette car, which is divided into compartments for four or six people, with bench-configuration seating during the day and "privacyless" double- or triple-level bunk-beds at night. Even more basic is the Chinese "hard" sleeping car in use today, consisting of fixed bunk beds, which cannot be converted into seats, in a public space. Chinese trains also offer "soft" or deluxe sleeping cars with four or two beds per room.



The first American sleeping car, the "Chambersburg" started service on the CVRR in 1839

The Cumberland Valley Railroad pioneered sleeping car service in the spring of 1839, with a car named "Chambersburg," between Chambersburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A couple of years later a second car, the "Carlisle," was introduced into service.[1][2]

The man who ultimately made the sleeping car business profitable in the United States was George Pullman, who began by building a luxurious sleeping car (named Pioneer) in 1865. The Pullman Company, founded as the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867, owned and operated most sleeping cars in the United States until the mid-20th century, attaching them to passenger trains run by the various railroads; there were also some sleeping cars that were operated by Pullman but owned by the railroad running a given train. During the peak years of American passenger railroading, several all-Pullman trains existed, including the 20th Century Limited on the New York Central Railroad, the Broadway Limited on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Panama Limited on the Illinois Central Railroad, and the Super Chief on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

Pullman cars were normally a dark "Pullman green," although some were painted in the host railroad's colors. The cars carried individual names, but usually did not carry visible numbers. In the 1920s the Pullman Company went through a series of restructuring steps, which in the end resulted in a parent company, Pullman Incorporated, controlling the Pullman Company (which owned and operated sleeping cars) and the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company. In 1947, in consequence of an antitrust verdict, a consortium of railroads bought the Pullman Company from Pullman Incorporated, and from then on railroads owned and operated Pullman-made sleeping cars themselves. Pullman-Standard continued in the manufacture of sleeping cars and other passenger and freight railroad cars until 1980.


Open-section accommodation

In 1964, aging open-section Pullman cars waited in Portland, Oregon, available for "emergencies."

From the 19th to the mid-20th century, the most common type of sleeping car accommodation on North American trains was the "open-section." Open-section accommodations consist of pairs of seats, one seat facing forward and the other backward, situated on either side of a center aisle; the seat-pairs can be converted into the combination of an upper and a lower "berth," each berth consisting of a bed screened from the aisle by a curtain. A famous example of open-sections can be seen in the movie Some Like It Hot.

As the 20th century progressed, an increasing variety of private rooms came to be offered. Most of these rooms provided significantly more space than open-section accommodations could offer; some of them, however, such as the rooms of the misleadingly named "Slumbercoach" cars manufactured by the Budd Company and first put into service in 1956, were triumphs of miniaturization.

Modern times

Today, Amtrak operates two main types of sleeping car: the bi-level Superliner sleeping cars, built from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, and the single-level Viewliner sleeping cars, built in the mid 1990s. In the most common Superliner sleeping car configuration, the upper level is divided into two halves, one half containing "Bedrooms" (formerly "Deluxe Bedrooms") for one, two, or three travelers, each Bedroom containing an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; and the other half containing "Roomettes" (formerly "Economy Bedrooms" or "Standard Bedrooms") for one or two travelers; plus a beverage area and a toilet. The lower level contains more Roomettes; a Family Bedroom for as many as two adults and two children; and an "Accessible Bedroom" (formerly "Handicapped Bedroom") for a wheelchair-using traveler and a companion; plus toilets and a shower.

The Viewliner cars contain an Accessible Bedroom (formerly "Handicapped Bedroom") for a wheelchair-using traveler and a companion, with an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; two Bedrooms (formerly "Deluxe Bedrooms") for one, two, or three travelers, each Bedroom containing an enclosed toilet-and-shower facility; "Roomettes" (formerly "Economy Bedrooms," "Standard Bedrooms," or "Compartments") for one or two travelers, each Roomette containing its own unenclosed toilet and washing facilities; and a shower room at the end of the car.

A double-deck passenger sleeping car of China in April, 2006.

A particularly interesting practice in sleeping car operation, one that is not currently employed in North America, is the use of "set-out" sleepers. Sleeping cars are picked up and/or dropped off at intermediate cities along a train's route so that what would otherwise be partial-night journeys can become (in effect) full-night journeys, with passengers allowed to occupy their sleeping accommodations from mid-evening to at least the early morning.

Cultural impact of Pullman porters

One possibly unanticipated consequence of the rise of Pullman cars in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was their effect on civil rights and African American culture. Each Pullman car was staffed by a uniformed porter. These were almost always African-Americans and, by convention, were often addressed as "George" by passengers. Although this was servant's work, it was relatively well-paid and prestigious, and so "Pullman porters" were in a position to become leaders in the black communities where they lived, contributing to the nucleus of the nascent black middle class. And, like all the other railroad trades, the porters came to be unionized. Their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, became an important source of strength for the burgeoning civil rights movement in the early 20th century, notably under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. Because they moved all about the country, Pullman porters also became an important means of communication for news and cultural information of all kinds. The African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender gained a national circulation in this way. Porters also used to re-sell phonograph records bought in the great metropolitan centers, greatly adding to the distribution of jazz and blues and the popularity of the artists.

Night trains today

Although reduced in prevalence in recent decades in the Western world, sleeping cars retain a powerful ability to provide travel that is both reasonably comfortable and potentially time-saving, especially between points that are between 800 km (500 miles) and 1,600 km (1,000 miles) apart, distances that one can travel in a simple overnight trip, perhaps with dinner at the beginning of the journey or breakfast at the end. This offers efficiency in passing the time and distance by allowing travellers to do things that might be done in a hotel room during the same hours. The obvious advantage over day trains (even high-speed ones) is that it takes up less daytime. Sleeper cars are still very popular in the Indian sub-continent where trains are the major mode of transport.

A sleeping car is, in essence, a moving house of lodging. A night in transit can replace a stationary hotel stay at the destination. Even where sleepers are more expensive than high-speed day trains or other modes of transport, the extra cost may be less than that of a night at a hotel.

Despite its decline in recent eras, overnight sleeping car still has its advantage over air travel. Many overnight trains arrive at their destination cities in the morning, hardly possible with air travel as modern airports tend to be built at quite a distance from city centres and extra transport is necessary to enter cities. This advantage is especially pronounced in major cities of China, where hard sleeper prices are very competitive, or in Russia and Ukraine, where sleeper prices are reasonable and the train compartments can be quite comfortable.


Overnight trains in Australia, which usually run between state capital cities, have changed over the last 20 years or so, probably as the result of competition by cheaper air fares between those same cities. Either they have been replaced by day trains (such as The Overland between Adelaide and Melbourne) - sometimes medium-speed day trains (such as the CountryLink XPT between Melbourne and Sydney) - or else they have remained, but been refurbished with the intention of attracting tourists for whom the train trip is itself an attraction, instead of being a functional means of transport (such as The Ghan, running between Adelaide and Darwin, and the Indian Pacific, running between Sydney and Perth). In these cases, the facilities provided are often upgraded, so that the train becomes almost like a hotel in some ways, and the fares in such cases can be very expensive. This has happened at approximately the same time as management of the trains has been transferred from government railways to private companies.


Sleeper high-speed bullet train in China

China's railways operate an extensive network of sleeper trains throughout the country with high ridership, covering all provincial capitals and many major cities. Many tracks are being upgraded and service speeds increased. Inception of high-speed CRH2E EMU bullet sleeper train service was introduced on December 21, 2008. The price from Beijing to Shanghai will be 730 (lower berth) or 655 (upper berth) yuan.


A CityNightLine double-decker sleeping car

In Europe, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (French for "International Sleeping Car Company") first focused on sleeping cars, but later operated whole trains, including the Simplon-Orient Express, Nord Express, Train Bleu, Golden Arrow, and the Transsiberien (on the Trans-Siberian railway). Today it once again specializes in sleeping cars, along with onboard railroad catering. In present-day Europe, a substantial number of sleeping car services continue to operate, though they face strong competition from high-speed day trains and budget airlines. Trains are extensively split and recombined in the dead of night, making it possible to offer many connections with a comparatively modest number of trains. In the United Kingdom, a network of trains with sleeping cars operates daily between London and Scotland (Caledonian Sleeper), and between London and the West Country as far as Cornwall (Night Riviera). Using rolling stock designed and formerly operated by British Rail, these services offer a choice of single- or double-occupancy bedrooms. A very modern company, is CityNightLine officed in Switzerland and is a daughter company of the Deutsche Bahn. They service the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and recently, Denmark. The services usually leave at around 20.00 hours and arrive at around 09.00 hours at the destination. In Italy, Ferrovie dello Stato operates an extensive network of trains with sleeping cars, especially between the main cities in Northern Italy and the South, including Sicily.

Another of the more substantial examples of current-day European sleeping car service is the Train Bleu, an all-sleeping-car train. The train leaves the Gare d'Austerlitz in mid evening and arrives in Nice about 8 in the morning; it provides both first-class rooms and couchette accommodations. The train's principal popularity is with older travelers; it has not won the same degree of popularity with younger travelers, who, perhaps not fully appreciating the time-saving advantages of comfortable overnight sleeping car travel, are strongly drawn to budget flights or the daytime TGV.

In Russia and Ukraine, the national rail services operate a large number of night trains with private compartments containing seats convertible into sleeping berths. These night trains are a prime method of travel, with ticket prices quite reasonable by Western standards, and with the distances between the capitals of Moscow and Kiev and many outlying cities being ideal for overnight trips that depart in late evening and arrive at their destinations in the morning.


Non-Airconditioned Sleeper Car coaches at Vishakapatnam Railway Station

A major portion of passenger cars in India are sleeper / couchette cars. With railways as the primary mode of passenger transport, sleeper cars vary from economical to First Class AC (air conditioned). Most Indian trains (all operated by the state-run Indian Railways) come in combinations of first class A/C and non-A/C private sleeper cars with doors and A/C and non-A/C 3-tier or 2-tier couchette arrangements.

See also Indian Railways - Travel Coach types and their seating / berths


JR East Cassiopeia sleeper car service from Tokyo to Sapporo with 180 degree views

Japan has a number of sleeper car trains. Many routes are still popular despite curtailment after the arrival of a high speed rail system. They offer the advantage of dispensing with the extra cost of a night in a hotel.


Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian national railway company, offers sleeping car service on several of its long-distance trips. Sometimes the same trip can be made either during the day in a normal carriage or at night on a sleeper. The Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai train has sleeping cars since the journey takes 14 hours.

See also


  • The American Railroad Passenger Car by John H. White, Jr. Two Volumes (1978) by Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • ISBN 0-8018-2743-4 (pbk.: set: alk. paper)
  • ISBN 0-8018-2722-1 (pbk.: v.1: alk. paper)
  • ISBN 0-8018-2747-7 (pbk.: v.2: alk. paper)


External links

Simple English

The sleeping car or sleeper is a part of a train with beds built in, mostly for making nighttime travel more restful.

Other websites


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