Coach or Chair

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This page was last updated on February 10, 2016.

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What is the difference between a Coach and a Chair Car?

The following comes from The Streamliner, UPHS, Volume 17, Number 2, Spring 2003:

Q357 - In the 1920's, 30's and even later, "Official Guides to Railway Equipment" for Union Pacific Passenger equipment and the Public Timetables have reference to Chair cars and Coach cars. The implication being there is a difference in service or perhaps comfort. What is the difference?

A357 - Bob Darwin wrote: "Since I was a kid, I always believed that a coach had bench seats on either side of the aisle and that chair cars had individual seats placed two side-by-side on either side of the aisle. Admittedly, this concept may have changed over the years and the UP, for one, certainly confused the issue with some of their terminology, but I believe this basic definition is probably closer to the fact than anything else we could dream of." Thanks, Bob. As Bob notes, UP was not precise in the terminology used in their Public Timetables, since they refer to "Reclining Seat Coaches", among other examples.

Larry Hochhalter described the Coach vs. Chair differences he found while doing research during 2002-2004 in various issues of the Official Railway Equipment Register, and Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment:

While doing all the Official Register work I did over last couple years I noted some things which may shed light on Coach/Chair subject. Seems Coaches in general seated more people than a typical Chair car. Example, the UP 400 series cars. When built and until about 1935/36 they were classified in the Register as Coaches and seating is designated as less than 80 seats. The 1931 UP Form 70 specifically states 77 or so seats. When the cars were re-designated to Chair cars seating went down to 50+ or - seats. Fairly significant drop, this I think supports Bob Darwin's thoughts about seating accommodations.

Some of the 400-series cars were renumbered into the 500 series in late 1930's by the way and they were given 44 seats at that time (they were not streamlined however).

Additional observations. To complicate things further, in the early registers UP had 1st and 2nd class coaches and chair cars. It appears that as cars aged they were moved down in class. If refurbished they moved back to the higher class. (Larry Hochhalter, email dated December 17, 2004)

Heavyweight Cars

In earlier years, it is probably best to use the designation used by the American Association of Railroads (AAR):

Class PA (Passenger Car) -- "A car for ordinary short haul suburban service, with seats and open platforms."

Class PB (Coach or Chair Car) -- "A vestibule (wide or narrow) car for through service, fitted with seats or reclining seats, and having toilet rooms for men and women, also wash basins."

In a list of Union Pacific passenger equipment dated April 1927, and updated through May 1929, the 400- and 500-series cars are shown as Coaches, and the 1000-, 1100-, and 1200-series cars are shown as Chair Cars. (reprinted in The Streamliner, UPHS, Volume 1, Number 4, October 1985, pages 18-19)

The folio diagram sheets dated October 1941 for a group of Union Pacific Chair cars, numbered as UP 424 through 436, show separate seats in pairs. Earlier sheets show these same cars with bench seats, and identifies them as Coaches, with a note that they were remodeled by UP in 1936. (PDF; 4 pages; 3MB)

Lightweight Cars

In later years, the use of terms Coach vs. Chair seems to be used almost interchangeably, since later lightweight cars were all equipped with paired reclining seats with individual arm rests.

Dick Harley wrote on December 8, 2010.

Research suggests that sometime in the mid-1950s, UP gave in to popular conception and went back to calling them all coaches. By then, bench seats were a thing of the past. As I recall, the UP Public Timetables' equipment information made the switch years before the diagrams did. Today, UPRR's website calls them all Coaches, with nary a mention of a Chair Car.

A check of the 1962 and 1967 diagram books shows that UP called UP 5301-5527 Chair Cars, and UP 5528-5556 Coaches. But the drawings show exactly the same seating type, which look to me to be reclining chairs.

  • UP 5400-5449, new in 1950 = Chair
  • UP 5450-5487, new in 1954 = Chair (Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment entry changed from Chair to Coach in January 1956)
  • UP 5488-5507, new in 1959 = Chair
  • UP 5508-5527, new in 1961 = Chair
  • UP 5528-5542, new in 1964 = Coach
  • UP 5543-5556, rebuilt from "Alpine" series in 1965 = Coach

During the 1950s, Union Pacific called all the 5200, 5300, 5400 and 5500 cars "Chair" cars. But beginning with the rebuilt Alpine sleepers they reverted to using the term Coach. In fact, there are drawings with the 5488-5542 cars designated as Chair Cars, and on the same piece of paper the 5543-5556 group are called "Coaches". All cars had 44 seats. It seems clear the 5543-5556 cars were added to existing drawings and the new draftsman had his own ideas as to what things were. (Larry Hochhalter, email dated December 17, 2004)

In the modern Official Railway Equipment Registers, beginning with January 1956, the use of the term "Chair" disappeared. All the 5300 and 5400 and 7000 cars were called "Coaches". This started in the Registers from delivery date in 1955, yet on drawings the 7000 series were called "Dome Chairs" until mid to late 1960s. (Larry Hochhalter, email dated December 17, 2004)