Dome car

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See also: Dome lounge
Former California Zephyr dome car in excursion train service with the defunct Inland Lakes Railway in 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, sleeping car or observation. Beginning in 1945, dome cars were primarily used in the United States and Canada, though a small number were constructed in Europe for Trans Europ Express service, and similar panorama cars are in service on Alpine tourist railways like the Bernina Express.

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 its 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.


The upper level interior of a dome car, configured as a dining area, on display at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Dome observation car at the rear of Union Pacific's City of Portland passenger train.

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

In the United States, the 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.[1] The "long end" was the main dining area.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad operated mid-train dome-dormitory-buffet-lounge cars on its California Zephyr, Kansas City Zephyr and American Royal Zephyr, and dome-dormitory-coffee shop cars on its Denver Zephyr. The dormitory space was used by on-board train crew such as the dining car staff.

Several railroads operated dome sleeping cars. Those of the Northern Pacific Railway had four bedrooms in the "long end", four roomettes in the "short end" and four duplex single rooms under the dome.[citation needed]

The Wabash Railroad and Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad operated dome parlor cars for first class day service. Wabash's Blue Bird included a Budd dome-parlor-observation as part of its original consist, and later added a Pullman-Standard dome-parlor car. The CB&Q operated dome-parlor-observation cars on the Twin Zephyrs, the Kansas City Zephyr and the Denver Zephyr.

Several railroads operated dome observation cars, usually at the rear of the train. These cars have a dome on top of the car with a rounded-end or flat-end rear "observation" section (on the main floor) where passengers can sit and look out at the receding scenery. These cars often have additional sleeping compartments under the dome and/or in the "short end" as well as a bar and/or additional lounge spaces.

The original California Zephyr, operated in part by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), referred to its car of this type as a Vista-Dome sleeper-lounge-observation, which had one drawing room and three double bedrooms as well as a dome and observation area. The Canadian Pacific Railway outfitted the 1955 Canadian with "Park"-series dome-sleeper-observations, most of which remain in service with Via Rail Canada.

Variations on dome cars[edit]

While the partial dome cars were the most common, a number of variations on the dome car (typically called "observation" cars) were developed. In particular the full length dome car, the dome lounge car, as well as the "transition" car stand out. In the case of the former, the observation dome extended the full length of the car, with a lower level which contained a lounge or bar beneath it. This type of car was used extensively by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road) railroads. Transition cars were similar to full length dome cars, save in one regard. These cars were intended to serve as a transition between regular rolling stock, and double deck stock. To facilitate this, one vestibule of the car was lower, while the other was at the height of the upper vestibule of the double deck stock. Amtrak utilized these transition cars for a time, primarily in situations where cars inherited from other railroads made up the bulk of Amtrak's rolling stock. The transition cars were utilized primarily in the early days of Amtrak, and began to be phased out of service as Amtrak began to purchase, or produce, its own double deck cars. The majority of transition cars were scrapped, though a few were kept in service and rebuilt into more "traditional" high vestibule double deck cars.


Silver Dome, the first Burlington Vista-Dome car.
A 1945 advertisement announcing the first dome car. The Burlington tested the popularity of the car by switching it onto various train routes. The railroad promised to build a fleet of these cars if they were successful.
The monument from Glenwood Canyon in its current location at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

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.[2] 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 Denver & Rio Grande Western locomotive through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, he 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.[2]

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.[2] Vista Domes quickly found their way into many Burlington Zephyr consists, culminating in 1949 with the inauguration of the California Zephyr.

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.[3]

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, included a coach, diner, sleeper and lounge-observation., 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.[3] 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.[3] The Pere Marquette Railroad was the first to operate dome cars east of Chicago in 1948, and in 1949 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first railroad to operate dome cars on the east coast when it introduced Pullman-built "Strata-Dome" coaches as part of the new consists for the Baltimore-Chicago Columbian.[4] B&O also went so far as to add floodlights on the roofs of its dome cars to illuminate the scenery during nighttime travel.[5]

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.[6] In the late 1980s, the monument was moved to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado, to make way for expansion of Interstate 70.[7]

The first ten full-length domes were built by Pullman for the Milwaukee Road's Chicago-Seattle Olympian Hiawatha. The Milwaukee Road paid $320,000 each for their "Super Domes" and used 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. Like most Pullman domes the Milwaukee domes were 15 ft 6 in (4,720 mm) tall rather than the Budd/ACF standard 15 ft 10 in (4,830 mm). The Santa Fe and Great Northern also bought full-length domes from Budd in 1954 and 1955. All but one of Santa Fe's cars were sold to Auto-Train in 1971.[8]

As railroad passenger ridership declined in the late 1950s, some railroads retired dome cars due to the 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. Maintenance and repair of these cars was costly. Breakdown of the air conditioning system on the road, even in winter, could render a car unusable.

Since the 1980s dome cars have become rare since Amtrak introduced Superliner bi-level passenger cars that are 16 feet tall over the length of the car (but at a stretch the Superliner lounge car could be considered a dome car). Dome cars are very popular on tourist railways and private charter rail services. 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.

While the dome car is a mostly North American feature, a few also operated in the scenic areas of Europe. The German Federal Railway had five low-profile dome cars built in the early-to-mid 1960s for its "Rheingold" and "Rheinpfeil" trains. After being retired from regular service, these cars operated in excursion and charter service throughout Europe.

Current usage[edit]

Park series sleeper-dome-lounge cars are usually on the rear of the Canadian and Ocean
Ex-Great Northern dome car "Dorothea Mae" on the Conway Scenic Railroad in 2008.
A full-length dome car. This preserved example is from the Milwaukee Road.


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 2014.

The Ontario Northland Railway operates dome cars on the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee.

The Canadian National Railway operates a former Great Northern dome coach in its business car fleet.

The Orford Express dinner/excursion train, which operates out of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, includes a former Northern Pacific dome sleeper.


The Panama Canal Railway operates a 1950s-vintage dome car originally built by Southern Pacific on its route between Panama City and Colón alongside the Panama Canal.

United States[edit]

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.

Amtrak currently operates one dome car, #10031. It is a Budd full-length dome car, former Great Northern Railway #1391 "Ocean View". Painted in Phase III paint, it is used on special services such as the Oakland to Reno "Reno Fun Train", or the Seattle to Leavenworth "Snow Train". Amtrak has also operated the car in fall foliage service on the New York-Montreal "Adirondack" and on several of its Chicago-based regional trains. In the summertime, dome car #10031 is used on the single level Pacific Surfliner trainset. Another dome car Amtrak used (no longer in service) was on the Capitol Limited, possibly removed when the train switched to Superliner I & II cars.

In addition, the following railroads and tourist railways operate one or more domes:


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[edit]


  1. ^ A similar dumbwaiter is sometimes found in double-deck intercity trainsets like the Dutch IRM.
  2. ^ a b c White, p 197
  3. ^ a b c White, p 198
  4. ^ White, p 199
  5. ^ White, p 306
  6. ^ Schafer, Mike; Joe Welsh (2002). Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon. Saint Paul, MN: MBI. p. 58. ISBN 0-7603-1371-7. OCLC 51069308. 
  7. ^ Welsh, Joe; Boyd, Jim; Howes, William F. (2006). American Railroad: Working for the Nation. MBI Publishing Company. p. 83. ISBN 0-7603-1631-7. Retrieved 2008-08-14. 
  8. ^ White, p 200
  9. ^ Museum, Mad River & NKP Railroad. "Mad River & NKP Railroad Museum". Retrieved 2015-08-23. 
  10. ^ "Missouri Pacific Planetarium Dome Coach 892". Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum. Retrieved 2016-01-05. 
  11. ^ site, referenced August 5th, 2015

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