Once the primary method of transportation to cross the United States, passenger trains have seen both their share of ups and downs in popularity over the last 150 years. From early wood sided cars with potbelly stoves, to the streamlined domes of the golden era of passenger travel in the 1930s to 50s, the trains themselves have continually changed to meet the demands and the technological requirements of the time.
Within the last 30 years, passenger rail travel has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, and as a result, the diversity of rolling stock and types of train have become more varied than ever. In this article, we’ll take a look at the most common forms of passenger train found traversing the rails of the United States today.
Long Distance Trains
Long distance trains are what many typically think of when passenger trains are mentioned. With nostalgic names such as the Southwest Chief, Capitol Limited, and California Zephyr, many of these services follow the routes of the famous express trains of the mid 20th century, traversing some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. Their role today however is typically less glamorous than their namesakes, as they run to primarily serve the small and isolated communities along their routes, helping to keep them connected with the outside world.
Exclusively operated by Amtrak, a typical long distance train will be powered by two or more P40 or P42 diesel locomotives to help with the challenging terrain, and will comprise either exclusively of Amtrak Superliner double-decker passenger cars, sometimes with a baggage car included, or of a mix between single level regional cars, and sleeping/dining cars known as Viewliners. The single level long distance trains are typically found on the east coast, whereas the Superliner sets mostly run out of Chicago and West Coast terminals. Occasionally other types of Amtrak equipment will appear on a long distance train, when being ferried from one terminal to another.
Regional trains typically run on shorter intercity routes confined to one or two states, or within a certain geographical region. Most regional trains make more intermediate stops than long distance trains, run at higher frequencies, and are usually comprised of one locomotive and single level Amfleet or Horizon cars. Depending on the route, Superliners can sometimes be found, and where consists can’t be turned, some require a locomotive or cab car at each end.
While mostly operated by Amtrak, some regional services are operated by the states they run in (with operations contracted to Amtrak). These trains typically feature more regionally unique equipment, such as the Spanish Talgo trains operated on the Pacific Northwest Cascade services, or the Superliner-esque double decker Surfliner cars used in California. Locomotives can also vary, with the Northeast Corridor exclusively running electric power, although Amtrak P42s can typically be found on any regional service elsewhere in the country. Some regional routes are additionally operated by private companies, such as Florida’s Brightline, using equipment exclusive to their operation.
Commuter trains typically radiate out of a major hub, serving the suburbs and communities within a realistic commuting distance from the city. These, similar to some regional trains, are almost always state-run, and as such are comprised of a vast variety of equipment types. Many commuter railroads use modern double decker cars, or “Gallery” style cars based on a Southern Pacific design from the 1950s. Others use single level cars of various designs, or a mix of single and double decker types.
Power can be either diesel or electric, and most commuter consists feature a locomotive at one end, and a cab car at the other, so that the trains can quickly be turned at their terminals. Additionally, some commuter railroads operate self-powered railcars. Unlike regional equipment, which is built to handle both low and high level platforms, some commuter equipment is built exclusively for high level platform use, and some exclusively for low level use, with more recent designs making provisions for both. Commuter trains run at high frequencies of at least one train every hour, and typically run more frequently during the morning and evening rush.
Urban Rail Transit
Urban rail transit comprises of high frequency, high capacity systems built to transport people within a city and it’s immediate suburbs. They are generally exclusively operated by self-powered electric cars, on either heavy-rail subways or light rail and streetcar systems. These types of rail transport are typically self contained, and don’t share their tracks with other types of trains. They are also typically lighter and more versatile than standard trains, enabling them to manage tighter curves and more seamless integration in a crowded urban landscape.
While subway systems generally run in their own isolated right of way, either elevated, underground, or at ground level, light rail and streetcar systems usually stay at ground level, and can be integrated into streets where they share the right of way with road traffic and pedestrians.
Excursion trains typically don’t serve as a transportation method, but as an experience in their own right. Excursions usually use historic equipment from days gone by, such as steam locomotives, historic passenger cars, and early diesel power. They can be found operating on active rail systems alongside freight and modern passenger trains, but more often, they will run on their own lines, usually on tracks which were abandoned by a major railroad and reopened by the excursion operator.
Excursion railroads offer a great excuse to run equipment from different eras and geographic areas, as they typically amass an eclectic collection of historic equipment from wherever they can. Occasionally excursion railroads will also offer freight interchanging to a major railroad, alongside their passenger operations.
With the vast amount of variety and flexibility which freight railroads offer, many model railroads will focus on these, however as we’ve demonstrated, there’s plenty of variety and interest within the passenger world as well, and incorporating a passenger operation into your layout can add a lot of fun and interest. You can get started on building passenger operations for your model railroad today with our wide range of equipment and structures, available in all scales from Z to O!
All Creative Commons imagery Attributed to original authors.