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Dome car: Wikis


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Former California Zephyr dome car in excursion train service with the Inland Lakes Railway – Plymouth, Florida.

A dome car is a type of railway passenger car that has a glass dome on the top of the car where passengers can ride and see in all directions around the train. It also can include features of a coach, lounge car, dining car or observation. Dome cars were primarily used in the United States and Canada, though a small number were constructed in Europe for Trans Europ Express service.

In North America, dome cars were manufactured by the Budd Company, Pullman Standard and American Car & Foundry. Southern Pacific Railroad built its own dome cars in their Sacramento, California, shops. In the 1990s Colorado Railcar began producing dome cars. Generally, seats in the dome were considered "non-revenue" like lounge car seats. When dome cars operate today in excursion trains, the dome seats often command a premium fare.



A plan view diagram of the Challenger dome car, built in 1958 by Pullman-Standard as Union Pacific Dome Coach #7015, the last such car built.

A portion of the car, usually in the center of the car offset towards one end, is split between two levels. This resulted in the floorplan having a "long end" and a "short end" on the main level. Stairs would go up to the dome and down to the lower level. The lower level below the dome usually contained the car's restrooms or a small lounge area, while the upper portion was usually coach or lounge seating within a "bubble" of glass on the car's roof. Passengers in the upper portion of the dome were able to see in all directions from a vantage point above the train's roofline.

Union Pacific Railroad operated dome dining cars. These cars had a kitchen in the "short end", with a pantry in half the space under the dome. The other half of the space under the dome was a private dining room for small groups. Between the pantry and kitchen there was a dumbwaiter to transfer items between the kitchen and the dining area in the dome portion of the car (see photo below). The "long end" was the main dining area.

Northern Pacific Railway operated dome sleeping cars. The cars had 4 bedrooms in the "long end", 4 roomettes in the "short end" and 4 duplex single rooms under the dome.

The Wabash Railroad and Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad operated dome parlour cars for first class day service.


The upper level interior of a dome car that has been configured as a dining area, on display at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Although the design of a dome car can be likened to a cupola caboose, the dome car's development is not directly related. The earliest documented predecessor of the dome car was first developed in the 1880s; known at the time as the "birdcage car", it was used on an 1882 sightseeing tour on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. In 1891, T. J. McBride received a patent for a car design called an "observation-sleeper"; illustrations of the design in Scientific American at the time showed a car with three observation domes.[1] Canadian Pacific Railway used "tourist cars" with raised, glass-sided viewing cupolas on their trains through the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the 1920s.

These dome car designs did not prove successful, and further refinements to the idea didn't come for a few decades. The first successful dome cars were conceived by Cyrus Osborn of General Motors Electro-Motive Division (EMD). In 1944, while traveling in an EMD-built Rio Grande locomotive through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, it was Mr. Osborn that recognized the wonderful views the passengers could enjoy from a panoramic dome. His idea was to provide a full 360-degree view from above the train in newly built "Vista-Dome" cars.[1]

Mr. Osborn took the idea to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). The CB&Q took a stainless steel Budd-built coach and rebuilt it at their shops in Aurora, Illinois, with the Vista Dome imagined and sketched by Cyrus Osborn. The dome area featured seats that were positioned lengthwise in the cabin facing double-pane windows which were designed to improve insulation. This first Vista Dome was called appropriately, Silver Dome. On July 23, 1945, the car was tested in the consist of the Twin Cities Zephyr.[1] Vista Domes quickly found their way into many Burlington Zephyr consists, culminating in 1949 with the inauguration of the California Zephyr.

The monument from Glenwood Canyon in its current location at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

Soon after Silver Dome entered service, railroad managers and passenger train executives met to discuss the merits of the dome car design. In the United States, domes could only be readily used on railroads west of the Mississippi, due to lower clearances in tunnels in the eastern USA. (In Canada, Canadian Pacific would run its domes from coast to coast.) The managers also noted that the passenger carrying space was regarded as non-revenue space because the managers believed that passengers would not want to spend their entire trip in the domes. These factors and the added costs of car construction in adding stairs, two levels of car floors and air conditioning increased the costs to railroads that chose to operate dome cars.[2]

Despite the costs involved, Pullman completed the first four production dome cars for GM's Train of Tomorrow in 1947. The four cars, dubbed Astra Liners, were similar to Silver Dome and were displayed to the press on numerous private charters and to the public at the Chicago Railroad Fairs in 1948 and 1949 before they were sold to Union Pacific Railroad for use between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.[2] Other passenger car manufacturers soon built their own dome car models to compete with Pullman; Budd's first domes, completed in Fall 1947, were the first to feature curved glass and full streamlining effects on the domes and entered service on the Burlington's Twin Zephyrs between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.[2] Pere Marquette Railroad was the first to operate dome cars east of Chicago in 1948, and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first railroad to operate dome cars on the east coast when it added domes to the Baltimore-Chicago Columbian.[3] B&O also went so far as to add floodlights on the roofs of its dome cars to illuminate the scenery during nighttime travel.[4]

On September 14, 1950, a monument was established at Glenwood Canyon. Called "Monument to an Idea", this monument celebrated the Vista Dome at the place where it was first inspired.[5] In the late 1980s, the monument was moved to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado, to make way for expansion of Interstate 70.[6]

As dome cars became more common on North American passenger trains, some western railroads purchased or built "superdomes." These were dome cars where the upper level of the car extended for nearly the entire length of the car. The cars' dimensions were all larger than standard dome cars of the time, all except the overall height; a superdome's height was only 15 ft 6 in (4.72 m), rather than the 16 ft 2 in (4.92 m) of standard domes. The first ten of these cars were built by Pullman for the Milwaukee Road's Chicago-Seattle Olympian Hiawatha. The Milwaukee Road paid $320,000 each for these cars and operated them on that route until 1961, after which four cars remained in service between Chicago and the Twin Cities; these last four were sold to Amtrak upon its formation in 1971. The Santa Fe and Great Northern also purchased superdomes from Budd in 1954 and 1955. All but one of Santa Fe's cars were sold to Auto-Train in 1971.[7]

Amtrak Dome Car. June 1974.

Starting in the 1980s, the use of the dome car has become rarer as Amtrak has introduced new Superliner bi-level passenger cars that reach the maximum possible height over the length of the car; however, the Superliner lounge car can be considered as a dome car. Dome cars are very popular on tourist railways and private charter rail services. While the dome car is a mostly North American feature, a few also operate in the scenic areas of Europe.

Downfall and preservation

As railroad passenger ridership declined in the late 1950s, some railroads retired dome cars due to the extra maintenance costs. Other railroads that had not purchased dome cars new bought them second hand. Illinois Central purchased several cars from Missouri Pacific and Canadian National bought several cars from Milwaukee Road for example. Because of their enormous usage of sealed glass, the cooling of the cars required massive air conditioning capacity. Both maintenance and repair to these cars ran high. Breakdown of the air conditioning system on the road, even in winter, could render a car unusable.

Some railroad museums have preserved several dome cars. These cars are very popular with visitors who often remember the spectacular rides they had in these cars.

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum at Portola, California, rosters several Budd-built Vista-Dome cars from the original California Zephyr train. These are being restored as part of the museum's Zephyr Project, a program to re-create the CZ experience.

Current Usage

Amtrak currently operates one dome car #10031. It is a Budd full length dome car, former Great Northern Railway 1391 "Ocean View". It is used on special services such as the Oakland, CA to Reno, NV "Reno Fun Train" or the Seattle, WA to Leavenworth, WA "Snow Train". Most recently (November 2007) it operated on the "Adirondack" in fall foliage service.

The Branson Scenic Railroad operates a dome car on all excursions.

The Conway Scenic Railroad operates a dome car on the Crawford Notch train.

The Grand Canyon Railway operates three dome cars between Willams, AZ and the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

The Inland Lakes Railway operates one dome car on its dinner train out of Eustis, FL.

The Napa Valley Wine Train operates a Pullman 1952 Vista Dome, which it uses as one of its dining areas on its daily service.

The Ontario Northland Railroad operates dome cars on the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosenee.

The Panama Canal Railway operates a 1938 dome car acquired from Southern Pacific on its route between Panama City and Colon alongside the Panama Canal.

Via Rail Canada operates the largest fleet (28) of true dome cars in the classic sense in that they offer a 360° view of scenery. All were built by Budd for the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1950s, and transferred to Via service in the 1970s, where they continue in service as of 2009.

Manufacturing companies such as Colorado Railcar have built modern dome cars with updated versions of original dome design, used by American Orient Express, Holland America, Princess Tours, Alaska Railroad, Royal Caribbean, Via Rail Canada and Rocky Mountaineer Railtours.

Several of the private railroad cars available for charter listed on the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners' website have domes.

According to it's website, West Texas Polar Express includes a dome car.


Dome rail travel was highlighted in the PBS-aired program Dome Car Magic. Produced by award-winning Richard Luckin, it is narrated by actor Michael Gross and chronicles the history of the railroad sightseeing cars, from Burlington's 1945 "Silver Dome" to the full-length models operating today in Alaska and Canada.

See also


  • White, John H., Jr. (1978). The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-2743-4 (pbk.: set); ISBN 0-8018-2722-1 (pbk.: v.1); ISBN 0-8018-2747-7 (pbk.: v.2); ISBN 0-8018-1965-2 (hc.).  
  1. ^ a b c White, p 197
  2. ^ a b c White, p 198
  3. ^ White, p 199
  4. ^ White, p 306
  5. ^ Schafer, Mike, and Welsh, Joe (2002). Streamliners: A History of the Railroad Icon. MBI Publishing Company. p. 58. ISBN 0760313717. Retrieved 2008-08-14.  
  6. ^ Welsh, Joe; Boyd, Jim; and Howes, William F. (2006). American Railroad: Working for the Nation. MBI Publishing Company. p. 83. ISBN 0760316317. Retrieved 2008-08-14.  
  7. ^ White, p 200

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