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What is a Bar Car?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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A bar car is a once-popular form of rolling stock, or railway vehicle, where beverages are created and served. This train car compartment is also sometimes referred to as a café car. It was created to make train travel more pleasant by offering travelers a place to drink and socialize.

The interior of a typical bar car often resembles a traditional bar setting. Bartenders and waiters or waitresses serve many types of beverages, and alcoholic cocktail drinks are often in frequent stock. Televisions, gaming tables, and other interactive accessories may be prominently displayed as well. Passenger attire may range from casual to formal. In fact, many bar cars attempt to nurture an old-style, elegant atmosphere in their décor and seating options.

Bar cars are mostly a relic of the past. When trains were the main means of travel in many regions, this type of compartment offering was widespread. In the past, laws attempting to curtail alcohol serving threatened the novelty of the cars. Regional economic downturns pose the primary threat to bar cars in contemporary cultures, as does the decline in overall train transportation. Modern versions are found on only a select few railway lines. Cars specializing in dining or snacking have somewhat replaced the need for a bar car on trains.

Some faults also contributed to the bar car's decline. For example, smoking has been banned on many railways, decreasing one appeal for some individuals. Limited space within the compartment is a concern for others. The cars also experience frequent breakdowns in air conditioning and in overall function. Designers have proposed such changes as removable seats, smaller modernized bars, and multi-level cars. Many enthusiasts oppose these changes because of the belief that they will damage the unique identity of the bar car.

In spite of its drawbacks, the bar car offers several proposed benefits. Trains can often use bar cars to bolster their advertisements promoting convenience and luxury. Further, a healthy revenue is often generated from these ventures. Commuters may benefit because the drink and entertainment offerings provide an alternative to long periods of sitting and potential boredom for long commutes. The bar-like atmosphere also encourages social interaction between the railway riders. In addition, advocates frequently cite nostalgia for the early 20th century feel of many bar cars.

Contemporary versions of bar cars can even be found off the rails. A land train in Finland — the Sparakoff — regularly offers tours around the city of Helsinki. The roughly half-hour tour comes complete with a fully stocked onboard bar. These vehicles travel about 37 miles (around 60 kilometers) per hour. Such a specialty vehicle can often be rented for private parties or other paid functions.

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