Passenger Rail Observation Car

The passenger rail coach car, baggage car, dining car, and sleeping car all have served essential needs on passenger trains for well over a century. However, historically, there have been additional types of passenger rail cars that cater to the wealthier clientele. One of these is the observation car or “Obs,” for short. These cars were always placed at the rear of passenger trains and afforded passengers who were willing to pay a premium price to “watch” the right-of-way recede into the distance, often while enjoying a drink or cigar while doing so. Due to the high cost of riding in these cars, they would often be reserved by the country’s most elite travelers, like the current sitting president of the United States, railroad executives, CEO’s of other large corporations, and the like. For example, United States presidential candidates often chartered the observation car on a train as part of their travel itinerary in campaigning for their presidency. But generally, any passenger who was willing to pay a premium price could get a seat in an observation car.

A heavyweight era observation car at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, IL.
Typical enclosed observation car.

The earliest observation cars has open rear platforms where the passengers would sit, this was most common during the heavyweight era in the first quarter of the 20th century. By the 1930’s, when streamlining was becoming all the rage, observation cars began to become enclosed at the rear end. to allow for less friction on faster trains. By then, may individual railroads were coming up with their own designs for their observation cars. The most distinctive of these designs was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad’s (the Milwaukee Road) “Skytop Lounge” (interior and exterior shots below).

Exterior of a Milwaukee Road “Skytop Lounge” observation car.
Interior of a Milwaukee Road “Skytop Lounge” observation car.
A Sightseer Lounge observation car on Amtrak today.

Although Amtrak operated observation cars for many years after their 1971 startup, they do not operate them in their original form today, but they do operate “Sightseer Lounges” on their Superliner trains, which are sort of like observation cars, although they are not usually positioned at the end of a train like the ones of yesteryear, and they don’t give you a view of the receding tracks. But like traditional observation cars, they are the best type of railcar today at allowing you to view the passing scenery, albeit from a different perspective. In addition, the Sightseer Lounge is open to all passengers, not just ones paying premium fares.

3 thoughts on “Passenger Rail Observation Car”

  1. Very interesting information. I would really like to see a Skytop Lounge car in person, it must be quite an experience.

    1. You can ride one on an excursion service called “Friends of the 261” They regularly run excursions around the Twin Cities area and they own a Skytop Lounge. They frequently use it on their excursions. Check out their website to find out more about when they will be holding their next excursion. Often times, they will run the Skytop Lounge as a private car behind the Empire Builder, which passes through Milwaukee.

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