passenger Rail Dome Car

A few weeks ago, I talked about the Observation car on passenger trains and mentioned that it provides the best view of the receding railroad right-of-way. However, there is another type of passenger rail car that is best for viewing the scenery, albeit from a different perspective. That type of railcar is called the dome car. Domes came onto the scene in the late 19th century, but didn’t become widespread until well into the streamliner era and especially after WWII. A dome car looked like a regular passenger rail car, but had a “bubble” of glass protruding from the roof of the car. Usually, it would only run part of the length of the car, but sometimes, it would run the full length of the car. The traditional dome cars were called and trademarked as “Vista Domes” and the full length domes were called “full domes.”

Amtrak’s former Great Northern Railroad “Great Dome” full dome railcar. The car was retired by Amtrak in 2019.

These cars gave railroad passengers sitting in the dome a 360 degree panoramic view of the passing scenery. As such they were used on some of the most scenic train routes in the nation, usually ones through mountainous areas, such as the California Zephyr, Empire Builder, and North Coast Limited. They were also used extensively on routes that went east of Chicago and through the Appalachian Mountains, including routes like the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad’s Colonial and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad’s Capitol Limited.

A “Vista Dome” railcar on a Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroad train, likely the California Zephyr.
Inside the “Great Dome” full dome railcar on an Amtrak train.

Even some routes that weren’t known for their scenery had dome cars because they were a status symbol of a successful train service due to their efforts to attract ridership to the trains carrying them. The cars were set up in a variety of configurations, including sleeper-dome, diner-dome, and dome-observation cars. Diner-domes, for instance, allowed customers to have a great view of the passing scenery while enjoying the utmost in opulence in meals.

Amtrak used dome cars for many years after their founding in 1971, as they had inherited the equipment from the railroads that handed their passenger service over to them. Amtrak retired many of their domes in the 1980s and 1990s. with the last one retired in 2019. The retirement of this dome car ended the era of Amtrak’s “Heritage Fleet.”

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