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28 Different Types of Train Cars Explained

28 Different Types of Train Cars Explained

Trains have been the backbone that many countries and the economies of many countries have been built on. The train made it possible to haul large quantities of heavy freight as well as passengers over long and difficult territory. Trains and train cars have been transformed and improved to carry all manner of freight, from mining ore to livestock and even chemicals. Passenger trains have also transformed over the years to produce many variations for different applications.

There are train cars for transporting people and hauling freight. Many types of train cars have been created for specialist applications for military, commercial, and for private use. There are even specialist cars that have been developed for the maintenance of railway tracks.

Train cars have evolved over since the first days of rail transport to incorporate a type of car for almost any purpose. People carrier train cars have changed with the increased speeds of the trains and to carry more people in more comfort. Freight cars have also evolved to the point that many economies rely heavily on the cargo transported by these workhorses of the transport industry.

1. The Locomotive

Many people are unaware of the terminology around railway cars. The locomotive is also called a railway car, but it has a specialized function. Many railway cars linked together is called a train, and the first train car is usually the locomotive.

The locomotive is the moving force for the train or cars and can push or pull the other cars in the train.

Locomotives can be powered by steam, diesel engines, or electricity. Steam-powered locomotives have largely become of historical importance only and are sometimes used for tourism purposes for historic rail journeys.

Diesel and electricity-powered locomotives are the engines that are used on modern trains. Diesel engines are more common for freight and for servicing remote areas where there is limited electricity. Electric locomotives are more common for passenger transport, especially in urban centers.

2. Passenger Car Or Coach

A passenger car or coach is the generic name given to a train car that is designed as a people carrier. Passenger cars have been used on trains since the early history of rail transport as a means to carry passengers over long distances, sometimes spanning many days of travel.

Amtrak passenger train

An Amtrak passenger train at a train station in winter.

A passenger is designed for the express purpose of carrying people and can be outfitted in various ways depending on the duration of the travel time, the comfort needed by the passengers, and the number of people needed to be transported. Passenger cars are used for commuting and for tourism.

Passenger cars are known by different names depending on the configuration of the car and its intended purpose.

3. Bilevel or Double-Decker Coach

As rail travel became more popular and used by man people as a primary form of travel, a type of car was needed to increase the carrying capacity of the standard passenger car.

A bilevel or double-decker coach is a passenger car that has two decks on each car for carrying passengers. This configuration doubles the capacity of each car. Bilevel cars are usually used for medium to long train journeys rather than short inner-city commutes.

4. Baggage Cars

Baggage cars are also a type of passenger coach, but they were also used to carry some high-priority freight in freight compartments.

Baggage cars are passenger cars that are placed directly behind the locomotive to enable easy and quick switching out and loading of these cars. They carry passengers and high priority, lightweight freight such as post for the postal service. These were high-profit cars for the railroad.

Some baggage cars were solely for high priority, high-profit freight, but others were mixed and carried passengers as well in limited quantities. Some baggage cars that were dedicated to freight were used to store the luggage of the passengers for longer duration trips.

5. Compartment Coach

A compartment coach is a passenger car that is not commonly seen on modern railroads. It was a more common sight in the early days of railroad travel across America and Europe.

A compartment coach is divided into individual compartments that can accommodate several passengers in each compartment. Each compartment had its own door for the entrance and exit of the car. There was no corridor or means to move from compartment to compartment.

6. Corridor Coach

The corridor coach was an advancement on the compartment coach car and was generally used for long-distance passenger travel.

The corridor coach car was divided into compartments but had a corridor down the entire length of one side of the car. The entrance to the car was via doors at either end of the corridor.

Each compartment had its own door that opened to provide access to the corridor.
There was no access to the compartments other than via the corridor.

7. Couchette Car

A couchette car is a type of passenger car that was used for long-distance travel and particularly overnight travel for passengers.

A couchette car is divided into compartments, and each compartment has a number of benches or seats that can be converted into beds. This configuration or rail car allowed passengers to travel for numerous days and nights with the comfort of being able to get a good night’s sleep aboard the train.

Couchette cars often had an attendant that would bring the bedding around at a designated time and convert the compartments into sleeping quarters for the passengers at night. The attendant would then collect the bedding in the morning and restore the compartment for daytime travel.

8. Comet Coach

The comet coach is a car that was designed as a short-distance passenger carrier. They are still commonly used as commuter coaches ferrying people to and from the city for work.

A comet coach is a passenger coach designed for short trip passenger transport. Some have a combination of sitting and standing room while others have sitting room only. This type of coach is used most often as a commuter coach in and around large cities.

9. Dining Car

Dining cars are convenience cars that are included in trains that cover long distances where people are typically aboard for a few days.

A dining car or restaurant car is a car the is fitted with tables and chairs for people to sit down and eat a meal. Some dining cars include a bar to serve drinks to the passengers. The cars often include a limited kitchen for food preparation. These cars are usually included in long-distance trains.

10. Observation Car

An observation car is a passenger car designed to give passengers a better view of the scenery that the train travels through.

An observation car is intended to give the passengers an unobstructed view of the scenery that the train passes through. Some observation cars have no roof, while others are covered but with open sides or panoramic windows. These train cars are often included on tourist trains.

The configuration of the observation cars can vary depending on the purpose of the car and the scenery that is traveled through.

11. Dome Car

Dome cars are passenger cars that are an adaptation of the observation car. There are various designs and configurations of dome cars. Dome cars are often included on tourist trains.

train dome car

Talkeetna Whistle Stop Train dome car.

Dome cars have a glass dome included in the design of the car for observation purposes. The dome can be central on the car or at one end. The dome is often accessed via an upper level. The dome car can be configured as a dining car, compartment car, or lounge car, providing scenic views.

12. Open Coach

An open coach is a passenger car that is used for short to mid-distance train travel and accommodates the passengers in an open plan design.

Open coach cars have no compartments or dividers but have seats arranged on either side of a central passageway. The open coach layout is similar to that of a passenger aircraft, and the seats often provide a reclining feature and a built-in folding table.

Open coach seating can be configured to face the direction of travel or away from the direction of travel. Some seats can be arranged facing each other with a small table in between the 4 facing seats. High-speed trains often use the open coach style for passenger transport.

13. Parlor Car

A parlor car is a passenger rail car that is designed for more luxurious travel for passengers looking for a little more comfort for their trip.

A parlor car provides passenger transport with more luxurious comfort similar to first-class air travel. Seats are more luxurious and spaced further apart, providing the passengers with a little more privacy and exclusivity. Parlor cars feature couch-type swivel chairs and service by waiters.

14. Sleeping Car

A sleeping car is a passenger train car that can provide sleeping arrangements for all its passengers in various formats.

A sleeping car is a railway car that provides sleeping facilities for its passengers. The beds could be in a number of different configurations, from bunks slung from the roof of the coach to benches that folded out to form beds. This is an open plan arrangement with no private compartments.

The sleeping cars normally had two configurations; day travel configuration and night or sleeping configuration. The cars are changed to a sleeping configuration as nighttime approaches and converted back to a daytime configuration in the morning.

15. Slip Coach

A slip coach is a passenger car that is not used much in modern rail transport. The slip car was designed to be detached from the main train and roll, not the station under its own momentum.

A slip coach was designed to be detached from the main train while the train was in motion. The main train then carried on with the journey while the slip coach trundled into the station under its own momentum. This was done to save time by not bringing the main train to a stop.

Slip coaches were also known by the names slip carriage, slip portion, and in the US as a flying switch. The slip coach could then be picked up by a different train and taken to a different location from the original main train.

16. Superliner

Superliner coaches are double-decker passenger coaches that are used for long-haul passenger trains that travel long distances.

Superliner coaches are double-decker or bilevel coaches that can be configured as compartment coaches, diners, and lounge cars to provide long-distance passengers with comfort and convenience. The coaches are all double-decker to increase the carrying capacity of the train.

17. Freight Car

Freight haulage has been an important component of railway systems all across the world since the inception of the railroad.

Freight car is the generic term that is applied to any train car that is designed for the purpose of transporting goods via rail. There are many types of freight cars that have special features built into their design for the type of cargo that the car is made to carry.

Freight cars are the backbone of many economies across the world, and in some locations, it is the only way to deliver supplies to remote or outlying communities. The freight can vary from food to construction material to petroleum and other supplies necessary for small towns and settlements.

18. Boxcar, Double-Door Boxcar, And Hicube Boxcar

The boxcar is an American term for a freight car that is enclosed and considered to be versatile because of the wide range of freight that it can carry.

A boxcar is a freight car that is enclosed on all sides to form a closed space for accommodating freight. The doors on the boxcar are sliding doors so that no additional space is required inside or outside the car to open the doors. A double-door boxcar has a sliding door on both sides of the car.

Outside of America, the boxcar is known as a covered goods wagon, a goods van, a louvre van, and a covered wagon.

A hicube boxcar is a type of boxcar that is taller than a normal boxcar, giving the car greater capacity for carrying larger freight items. The additional height on these cars restricted their use to tracks where there is sufficient clearance to cater to their increased height.

19. Boxmotor Car

A boxmotor car is a self-propelled boxcar using an electric motor to drive the car. These freight cars were often converted passenger cars that were remodeled by removing the seats to make room for freight and adding the electric motor. They are used mostly for short freight trips within city limits.

20. Hopper Cars And Covered Hopper Cars

Hopper cars are types of freight cars that are produced in two configurations; open hopper cars and covered hopper cars.

Hopper cars and covered hopper cars are freight cars that are designed to transport loos and fine-grained bulk cargo such as mining ore, coal, sugar, fertilizer, and grain crops. They have doors on the bottom of the car that are opened to dump the cargo, often from an elevated position.

Covered hopper cars are used where the cargo is sensitive to the weather or can be damaged by rain.

21. Gondola Cars And Open Wagons

Gondola cars are freight cars that are intended to haul cargo similar to hopper cars, but without the doors at the bottom of the car to unload the cargo and without the sloping sides.

Gondola cars are freight cars that have an open top and are made to transport bulk loose materials such as ore and grains. They can also be used for solid freight as well, and loading is made easy due to their low sides. Some of these cars are made to tip to one side to dump the loose cargo.
The gondola is a name that is common for these types of freight cars in the US. In many other parts of the world, gondola cars are known as open wagons or open goods cars.

22. Flatcar

A flatcar is a generic name that is given to a flatbed, open-sided freight car, but there are many different designs of flatcars.

Flatcars are open-sided flatbed freight cars that are used to carry large, heavy freight that does not fit on any other type of freight car. Flatcars can be modified to carry different types of cargo, from logging timber in skeleton flatcars to specialized flatcars for intermodal container transport.

Flatcars are versatile freight cars that can be adapted to carry a wide range of oversize and bulky cargo types.

23. Well Car

Some railroad freight cars have been specifically designed for the transportation of intermodal containers or shipping containers. Once offloaded from ships, the containers are loaded onto these cars for further transportation.

Well cars are freight cars designed to transport intermodal containers. The bed of the car is suspended low on the tracks between the two wheel trucks rather than on top of the wheel trucks. This allows containers to be stacked two at a time on the car and lowers the center of gravity of the load.

These freight cars are also sometimes known as stack cars or double-stack cars in reference to the way the containers are loaded on the car.

24. Refrigerator Car Or Refrigerated Van

Refrigerator cars were developed for the transportation of goods that required controlled temperature environments to ensure the goods to not spoil in transit.

Refrigerator cars are boxcars that are modified to be insulated and employ a range of cooling mechanisms to cool the interior of the car. These cars are used for the transportation of perishable goods or temperature-sensitive cargo such as fresh vegetables, dairy products, fish, and meat.

Refrigerated cars are also called reefers and can be cooled with ice, dry ice, or carbon dioxide in liquid form.

25. Stock Car

Livestock is an important cargo that is often transported long distances by rail. Live animals require specialized transport cars to limit distress for the animals and provide them with the necessary food and shelter for the duration of the trip.

Stock cars are freight cars that have been designed for the specific purpose of transporting live animals, particularly for the agriculture sector. Stock cars have different designs intended to be specific to the type of livestock they are to transport. They are also used to transport racehorses.

Stock cars are sometimes modified box cars, but sometimes their design is completely adapted for different animals. For large-bodied animals such as cattle or horses, usually a single deck stock car is used. For smaller livestock such as pigs, sheep, and poultry, two or three deck stock cars are used.

Specialized stock cars are made for the transportation of racehorses which have special padding to prevent injury to the animals and are equipped with feeding and watering apparatus.

Stock cars have even been produced for the transportation of live fish from fish hatcheries to stock waters for sport fishing.

26. Tank Car Or Tank Wagon

Transporting large volumes of liquid is always a major challenge for any means of transport because the nature of the load means that it is always shifting. Transporting liquid cargo necessitates specially designed freight cars for the task.

Tank cars are freight cars that are designed for the purpose of transporting liquid cargo. The tank cars have different designs appropriate to the type of liquid cargo they are transporting. Volatile liquids, corrosive and dangerous chemicals have different tank trucks to less dangerous cargo.

Tank cars often transport dangerous cargo, which requires specific designs to transport this cargo safely. The cargos can be anything from liquid gas that needs to remain pressurized or corrosive or volatile liquids such as petroleum.

On unique design is the torpedo tank car which is designed to transport molten pig iron as part of the industrial process of steelmaking.

27. Brake Van Or Guard Van

A brake van was the last car that was placed at the end of freight trains or even some passenger trains.

A brake van was equipped with a hand brake that assisted the locomotive to brake the train. This was necessary before the invention of the continuous braking system that modern trains use. The brake van also housed guards that monitored the cargo for shiting or damage.
Brake vans were also used to stop parts of the train should the couplings come loose and part of the train became separated from the engine. Brake vans are now obsolete and are only seen on historical trains and in railway museums.

28. Caboose

The caboose is the American version of the brake van and was located at the back of a freight train, but the role of the caboose is slightly different from that of a brake van.

A caboose is the very last car on a freight train. It is used to accommodate the crew at the end of the train tasked with taking care of the cargo and for switching and shunting tasks. Switching and shunting are no longer required, but a caboose is still used occasionally to check for load shifting.

The caboose often had elevated structures to give the crew a platform from which to observe the cargo and check for problems. The caboose also contained the sleeping and cooking facilities for the train crew.


Trains and rail transportation are an important component of the economy of many countries. In many locations, the development and growth of nations could not have been accomplished without rail transportation.

Train cars have been developed and designed for a multitude of purposes which have helped with the advancement of trade, industry, agriculture, and the movement of people across large distances.
The humble train car has played an important role in our history and continues to be an important link in our industrialized world!