Passenger rail service in the US began in the 1830s and over the next 100 years it would become the nation’s primary mode of intercity transportation. The growth slowed in the 1920s as the public began to switch to the roadways with new automobiles and buses on a rapidly expanding network of nationwide highways.
Passenger volume was further reduced during the depression of the 1930s and by travel restrictions during World War II. As the war ended, a return to rail travel was blunted by an aggressive air travel industry. The glamour of flight and the greatly reduced travel times led to a cultural change that virtually ended intercity rail transportation.
Today, there is somewhat of a resurgence in rail transportation. Fuel costs and highway congestion are making the automobile less attractive for long distance travel. Safety concerns, increasing costs and airport hassles are having a negative impact on air travel. High speed rail travel has emerged in the Northeast corridor and several railways are doubling up on track to accommodate projected traffic increases.
Throughout its evolution, the rail industry considered passenger service a high revenue component of the business. Passenger comfort and convenience were top priorities. The railways attracted customers by making rail travel a special experience. Dining cars served restaurant quality meals and private sleeping compartments provided privacy and comfort for the long distance traveler. Lounge cars gave businessmen a place to work and baggage service (and cars) eliminated passenger baggage hassles. Wealthy individuals could attach private luxury cars on many routes.
The conductor was ultimately responsible for the passenger experience. Conductors managed the service crew, security personnel and ticket staff and handled customer service problems. They were also responsible for train operations, including all movement and coordinating with stations and yards.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a unique exhibit of the types of passenger vehicles used by the rail industry.
Come for a visit to experience the way America used to travel.