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What is a Dining Car?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 23, 2024
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A dining car is a car on a passenger railway train that has a small kitchen where food is prepared along with a dining area where it is served to travelers. Due to size constraints, both the dining and kitchen areas of these cars are generally designed to use all available space as efficiently as possible. During the height of passenger rail travel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a train’s dining car often offered high-quality food in an elegant atmosphere. As of the early 21st century, many formal dining cars have been supplanted by casual snack bars.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when long-distance passenger train journeys were commonplace, the dining car was a practical necessity. As its name suggests, its primary function was to provide an onboard space where travelers could enjoy freshly prepared meals. With an onboard restaurant at their disposal, passengers did not need to worry about bringing their own food on their journey or intermittently disembarking from the train for meals. Additionally, the dining car offered train patrons an area in which they could mingle and socialize with other passengers.

Due to size limitations, both the dining and kitchen areas of a dining car are designed to maximize all available space. The dining area usually consists of two rows of square or rectangular tables which are separated by a central aisle. A dining car’s kitchen, often situated at the car’s rear, is usually designed in a galley style. Its two walls are lined with typical kitchen equipment, such as cupboards, drawers, refrigeration units, ranges, ovens, worktops, and so forth. Between these walls of equipment is a narrow aisle where one or more cooks can move about, preparing orders.

Despite these size constraints, however, during the height of passenger rail travel, dining cars were often very elegant. Many featured pristine linens, expensive china, ornate chandelier lighting, and immaculately dressed and mannered wait staff. With the proliferation of passenger railway lines in the US, Europe, and elsewhere during this era, the creation of increasingly elegant dining cars was in part an effort by these lines to attract customers.

As of the early 21st century, automobiles and airplanes have largely made long-distance rail travel a phenomenon of the past. In many countries, however, short-distance train travel does remain a common method of commuting into and out of cities, usually for work purposes. While this abbreviated form of train travel may persist, most commuter trains do not have a dining car. Those that offer food often do so in a casual snack bar format rather than a formal dining area.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including WikiMotors. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On May 26, 2011

It's kind of sad that many of the old dining cars have been replaced with snack bars. At least you still have the opportunity to meet and talk with other passengers, but just would not have quite the same feel as the old passenger cars with a special dining car menu.

I know there are some places where you can still get this type of experience, but it seems to be more for tourist reasons than for actually taking a tip across the country.

The tourist experience might even be more elegant than it really was in earlier years, as I'm sure they really cater to the passengers.

By golf07 — On May 26, 2011

The closest I have been to riding in a railroad dining car is taking a scenic ride on a local railroad. We have an old railroad that passes through some scenic country, that is now used to give rides.

They will usually serve some kind of dessert for most rides. They also have special occasions when they serve an elegant meal and it gives you the feeling of going back in time a little bit.

Along with the beautiful scenery and the excitement of riding in an old locomotive it makes for a relaxing and informative way to spend an afternoon or evening.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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