A porter is a railway employee. The role of a porter is to assist passengers at railway stations, and to handle the loading, unloading, and distribution of luggage and parcels. In the United States the term is also used for staff who attend to passengers on board dining cars and sleeping cars, a usage unknown to British or Commonwealth English where such staff are known as attendants or stewards, terms which are also common in translation in non-English speaking European train travel.
Porters arose in the Traffic Department of early railway companies, as junior staff grades in most of the independent railway companies. Station porters handled passengers' luggage, assisted passengers to and from trains, carried out general cleaning duties in the station and on its platforms, and often assisted on ticket barriers and in booking offices as they advanced towards higher grades. Goods porters (also known as parcels porters) worked in the handling of parcels and packaged goods, especially in left luggage offices and in relation to parcels vans on trains.
Porters were, in most railway companies, the most junior grade of station staff, although some companies had the more junior position of station lad, usually held by a young unskilled and unqualified teenager, who would aspire to the role of porter after training.
A typical career progression would see a porter advance to become a head porter, then a ticket collector or booking clerk, which could in turn lead to the senior roles of assistant station master or station master. Other career progressions were also common on some railways. Research at the London School of Economics has shown (with particular reference to the Great Eastern Railway) how advances in rail signalling in the late Victorian era led to a shortage of skilled labour, with many unskilled porters advancing to porter signalman, and ultimately qualifying as signalmen.
Although porters are traditionally associated with railway stations, the role of travelling porter also existed on the British railways of the pre-grouping and Big Four era. Travelling porters travelled in the parcels cars of passenger trains organising luggage and parcels so that those required at any given station were always closest to the door upon arrival at that station. It was heavy manual labour, but was one of the roles taken over by female workers during the second world war.
In Australia, a railway porter had various roles, similar to those described above. A baggage porter assisted with luggage; an operating porter assisted with safeworking duties; a station porter assisted with general station duties; and as in British usage a lad porter was a junior station porter.
The US term porter has a somewhat different history and contemporary usage, than the rest of the world. Until desegregation had its effect in the United States in the 1960s, the occupation of porter was almost the exclusive province of African American men. It was the Civil War policy of George Pullman, head of the Pullman Company, who wished to tap into a huge potential work force that was also non-unionized. This eventually changed with the organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. Until the latter 20th century the work included providing a variety of on-board personal services, such as shoe shining.
Although the role of porter originated in the United Kingdom, and continued after railway nationalisation, it went into decline by the 1970s, with the general station duties role taken by station attendants, and the role of carrying luggage largely abolished. In more recent times however, following the privatisation of British Rail, the role of porter has made a limited comeback, particularly at busy city stations and stations with high numbers of tourists and holidaymakers in transit.
In India red-jacketed station porters are common at almost all stations across the network. Although Indian railway porters are not employed directly by Indian Railways they are centrally trained and licensed, holding a licence issued in the name of the President of India, and their role is carefully regulated, with local services (such as porters' offices, lavatories, and canteens) provided by the railway company. Their role is the traditional luggage-carrying job at railway stations.
In the United States the term porter has the somewhat different meaning of a member of staff attending to passengers on board trains, particularly in dining cars and sleeping cars, a role known as steward in most other countries.