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What Is a Railroad-style Apartment?

If you’re like a lot of Americans, house-hunting is a blessedly short-term nightmare. Most renters find a new place to live in under a month, though that time is often chock-full of research, apartment tours, and applications.

During the flurry of your hunt, however, you might come across a pretty strange phrase in a listing: “railroad-style apartment.”

These historical units are fascinating finds, but it’s not always easy to tell what to do with them. What should you expect? What are the pros and cons?

Don’t pass on the chance to check out one of these unique living spaces! Here’s what you should know, including a few design tips for making the most of the unusual layout.

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Layout of Railroad-style Apartments

First, let’s talk about the setup of these quirky apartment units.

You’ll most often find railroad-style apartments in subdivided apartment buildings, especially older brownstones. They’re long, narrow apartments that include a series of rooms that connect to each other in a single line.

In most cases, there is no hallway or connecting rooms. Instead, you have to walk through one room to get to the next.

However, some people claim that apartments with a single main hallway can still fit the definition of a railroad-style apartment. If a hall exists in one of these apartments, it’s often narrow to save more space for the neighboring rooms.

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Because of how they’re often laid out in the apartment building, these units tend to only have windows in the front and back of the apartment.

How These Apartments Got Their Names

Given the name, you might guess railroad-style apartments first popped up around trains. You’d be wrong!

Instead, these apartments get their name from their design. Tenants can walk through the rooms one after another in the same way they’d move through the cars of a train. If the apartment has a narrow hallway, it may feel more like an old passenger train in which a corridor runs alongside a series of cabins.

The long, narrow floor plan of the apartment can also look a little like the shape of a train car.

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Railroad-Style Apartment History

These unique apartments first became popular in the mid-19th century. During this time, urban overcrowding had become a huge concern in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Enter the railroad-style apartment. Because they’re so narrow, they became a great way to maximize space in large apartment buildings. Multi-story tenement buildings could fit more apartment units inside them, allowing more renters to find somewhere to live.

What About Similar Styles?

If you know a thing or two about architecture, you may be wondering about two similar styles. Let’s talk about how to tell railroad-style units apart from their architectural relatives:

Floor-Through Apartments

Floor-through apartments are a type of railroad-style apartment. If the apartment goes from the front of the building all the way to the back, it’s a floor-through.

Some floor-through units even take up an entire floor of the apartment building, making them a little wider than typical railroad-style units.

Shotgun Houses and Apartments

Shotgun houses are common in the Southern U.S. Like railroad-style units, these apartments are long and narrow, allowing you to walk from one room to the next in a straight line. However, they never have a connecting hallway.

There’s still some debate about how shotgun homes got their name. However, one popular claim is that it comes from the fact that if you fired a gun through the front entrance, it would fly straight through to the back door!

The main difference between shotgun houses and railroad-style apartments, though, is their origins. Shotgun houses have roots that trace from French Creoles who brought their Haitian influence to New Orleans.

In other words, if you like the feel of a railroad-style apartment but don’t live in areas where they’re popular, you may still find similar styles elsewhere in the country!

Railroad-style Apartment Pros

Next, let’s talk about a few advantages of living in these narrow apartments. Though their unusual design may be hard to get used to, there are a few key pros to choosing one:


Back when they were first designed, railroad-style apartments drew tenants because of their low cost. These apartments carve out a small amount of space in an apartment building, which can make them more affordable than other apartment styles.

Keep in mind that the price tag varies a lot. Your location and rental market will play a huge role in the cost!


It’s hard to beat the character of a railroad-style apartment. These units are full of unique flair and a layout you won’t find anywhere else.

Even better, many of these apartments sit in historical buildings and offer old-fashioned charm. You may find old-world design quirks like long windows and gas radiators in these units. For the right person, this can make them the perfect choice.

Compact Efficiency

There’s no way around it: you’re getting less room when you choose a railroad-style apartment. In some ways, though, this is an advantage.

Railroad-style apartments don’t have an inch of wasted space. There are no nooks and crannies or entryways to decorate, and many of these units don’t even have hallways!

This can force you to be thoughtful about how you arrange your home. For modern minimalists, this can be especially appealing.

Railroad-Style Apartment Cons

Despite the lower rent and cozy charm, these apartments have some clear disadvantages. Here are a few things to think about before you set your heart on a railroad-style unit:

Lack of Privacy

Unless you live alone, you’ll have to deal with a constant lack of privacy when you choose these long, narrow apartments. Because most railroad-style units connect each room to the other, you’ll have to walk through the rooms of your roommates or family members to get around.

This can be challenging, though many people get around it with smart privacy setups like room dividers or curtains.

Narrow Rooms

The size of rooms will vary from apartment to apartment, but you can expect rooms to be narrow. Some layouts have cramped rooms as well, which can make it difficult to find space to store all of your belongings.

Older Buildings

As we’ve mentioned, you’ll most often find railroad-style apartments in older buildings: they’re not in high demand with modern builders!

As a result, you may lack some of the amenities you’d get in newer buildings. If you’re fine using radiators or you don’t mind the lack of an elevator, this might not be an issue. Certain upgrades can also help, like installing a window AC if the building lacks a central HVAC system, for example.

Fewer Windows

Railroad-style apartments often have windows in the front and back of the unit only. This leaves your center rooms without natural light. It also limits your airflow, which can leave your center rooms warmer during certain months of the year. Replacing the windows with newer models may help you get more light into your new home.

Railroad-style Apartment Design Ideas

If you decide to take the plunge and try one of these units, you’ll have a fun challenge ahead! Making the most of your new apartment layout can be tricky, so let’s cover a few railroad-style apartment organization and design tips.

Go Minimalist

We’ve mentioned it above, but railroad-style apartments have very little space. You’ll need to go minimalist with your furniture, decor, and even belongings to keep rooms from feeling cluttered. With the right design, you can make the layout feel open and airy instead of weighed down.

Get Space-Saving Features

If you can afford to do so, make sure you’re choosing smart furnishings. Aim for items that do multiple jobs or are easy to store.

For example, consider choosing a Murphy bed you can fold away or a wall-mounted desk you can break down. Find a coffee table with built-in storage or choose a convertible dining table.

Don’t forget about your doors! Hiring a contractor to put in sliding doors is a great way to save space throughout your apartment.

Bring In the Light

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Supplement your limited natural light with sconces, lamps, and string lights. These features can keep the center rooms of your apartment feeling warm and bright.

To enhance this feeling, try bringing mirrors and metallic features into your space. These reflect light and make narrow spaces feel larger.

Another way to make the space feel lighter is the right paint job. Using bright but neutral colors can help make your apartment feel more spacious.

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With a narrow profile, old-world charm, and an affordable price tag, a classic railroad-style apartment might be your ideal next home! Consider the details above, and don’t hesitate to tour one of these apartments if you have the chance.

If you’re hoping to get more out of a railroad-style apartment, connect with local services through Alpha Living.

Our goal is to help you find expert contractors at competitive rates to help you take care of all your home needs. No matter how you’d like to improve or redesign your new lodgings, our contractors have you covered! Enter your zip code to find certified pros in your area.

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