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What is a Sleeping Car?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A sleeping car is a railroad car which is designed to accommodate sleeping passengers on overnight trips. Numerous configurations of the sleeping car from luxurious and fully private sleepers to public and shared spaces are in use on railroads all over the world. Several manufacturers make sleeping cars, although the most famous was the Pullman Car Company, which was ultimately dissolved in the 1980s. Typically, a railroad ticket which allows a passenger to use a sleeping car is more expensive.

The origins of the sleeping car can be found in the early 1800s, when several American railroads started offering crude sleeping cars which converted daytime seating into nighttime berths. These early sleeping cars would have been far from comfortable, and also not terribly private. In the mid-1800s, George Pullman revolutionized the railroad industry and the sleeping car with his development of a luxury sleeping car. By 1865, when Pullman released the “Pioneer” sleeping car, “Pullman” had become a household name.

Pullman made several innovations to the sleeping car. The first was the creation of private or semi-private berths, where anywhere between one and four travelers could sleep in relative privacy. Pullman also tried to make sleeping cars more comfortable to sleep in, with the use of padded seating, curtains, sound buffers, and other homey gestures. In addition, Pullman leased most of his cars to the railroads, rather than selling them. The lease was accompanied by a full staff, which served passengers and enforced company policies. Pullman cars became well known for their comfort and cleanliness, especially on American railroads.

Numerous famous railroad routes offered overnight routes at some point in their history, including the Orient Express. In the days before sleeping cars, these overnight rides must have been excruciating, since passengers were forced to sit upright throughout the entire trip. Sleeping cars of various levels of luxury made railroad trips much more enjoyable for passengers, who usually had choices between a number of “sleeper” configurations.

Most modern sleepers include a small bathroom, which can be shared between multiple booths or entirely private. Many railroads offer sleepers with a single bed, intended for the use of one or two travelers. More budget-conscious travelers can reserve a shared sleeping car, in which two to four travelers may sleep together. In some parts of the world, it is still possible to find a mass sleeper car with no privacy measures whatsoever, usually for a very low price.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By JaneAir — On Oct 06, 2011

@sunnySkys - Those ladies on that television show probably had visions of a Pullman car in their head when they bought those train tickets. I would feel bad for them if they were real people!

I think if I had to take a train trip, I would spring for a sleeper car and hope for the best. Probably anything is better than having to sit upright all night!

By sunnySkys — On Oct 05, 2011

This article reminds me of an episode of Sex and the City. Two of the ladies decide to travel across the country by train, so they get a "deluxe sleeper car." They think the train trip is going to be luxurious and exciting, like in an old movie.

However, as you can imagine, their sleeper car didn't exactly live up to their expectations. They end up being so miserable that they take an airplane home instead of going round trip on the train!

After I saw that, I vowed that I would never travel a long distance by train. Maybe a few hours, but not across the country!

By Misscoco — On Oct 05, 2011

Even though some of the railway sleeping cars are very modern and private these days, I am not sure that I would want to use one. In the first place, they are very expensive.

I would love to take some of the long train rides, but if I had to sleep in a sleeping car, I don't think I would get enough sleep and wouldn't enjoy the trip.

One solution might be to get off the train every two days, sightsee, sleep in a hotel and board a train the next day. I don't know if this is possible, though.

By BoniJ — On Oct 04, 2011

I've talked to a couple of people who have used a sleeping car traveling through eastern Europe and some of the former Soviet Republics. They were pretty rustic!

There were four beds to each unit. The beds had very little padding and were small and hard to get into. Just a thin curtain separated the unit. It was noisy - people going to and fro and talking loudly.

It doesn't sound like my cup of tea! And you?

By lonelygod — On Oct 04, 2011

Can anyone recommend some things you should look for when choosing a sleeping car? Is it always a good idea to do with the best class, or are other classes good too if you are looking to stick within your budget?

I was really shocked when I was researching train travel across Canada. It turns out that nice sleeping cars can cost five to ten times more than a flight would going the same distance. I suppose train trips are all about the ambiance and the view, but still, very expensive in my books. I wish there was a way I could do the train trip, sleep comfortably, and not go broke.

By wander — On Oct 03, 2011

There are some amazing trips you can take in the world that are best done by train. As these trips are long, you'll definitely need a sleeping car, although how comfortable they are really differs on how much you're will to spend.

One of the class train treks you can take that is pretty famous throughout the world is the Trans-Manchurian line which can take you all the way from Beijing to Moscow very cheaply (starting at around $800). Of course, you need to remember that the trip takes you a week, so you may want to break up the journey by hopping on and off to see some of the amazing things along the way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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