All posts by Anthony Vaiarella

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.”

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.

Passenger Rail Dining Car

Rail passengers, like everybody else who travels, need food on long trips. That’s where the railroad dining car comes in. Like the sleeping car, the dining car was a product of George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company. In 1835, the Philadelphia & Columbia railroad tested the first dining car, the “Victory,” the first buffet car. Even though meals were not cooked-to-order onboard, passengers could eat without having to stop for meals. Before dining cars became widespread in the late 19th century, passengers would stop at trackside restaurants while the steam locomotive pulling their train was serviced and refueled. In fact, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had “Harvey Houses,” built by Fred Harvey, where passengers would eat meals while their train was being serviced. Today, many of these Harvey Houses still stand, and have been converted to other uses, like hotels or offices.

A preserved Harvey House in Barstow, CA. This continues to be an Amtrak stop for the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Due to the fact that western railroads ran through long stretches of largely uninhabited land, they were the first to offer dining cars on their trains. In the book “The American Railroad Passenger Car (Part 1)” by John White, Jr, it is mentioned that the dining car was the last type of railroad passenger car invented. This is not completely true, as dome, parlor/lounge, and observation cars would come later.

Despite the above fact, the dining car was mentioned before railroads even built their first track in the United States. The man who mentioned this was Benjamin Dearborn, who had several different jobs at the time, wrote that “a network of railroads should be constructed that offered the choice of on-board meals” to Congress.

An Erie Lackawanna Railroad dining car on their Chicago-Hoboken “Lake Cities” train in 1969.

Even though dining cars are considered an essential service, they lost boatloads of money, largely due to the high staffing costs and limited seating in them. Despite this, the railroads still offered the service because they felt it was an important service that was necessary to attract passengers to the rails. When Amtrak took over passenger trains in the United States in 1971, they continued to offer full dining service with cooked-to-order food throughout the 1970’s. Beginning in the 1980’s, there would be periodic experiments on how to lose less money on dining cars. All of these experiments would fail, and Amtrak would go back to offering traditional dining. The most recent of these experiments was from 2018 – 2021, when Amtrak, under a mandate to eliminate food and beverage losses, tried “Flexible Dining” at first on long-distance trains east of Chicago, then expanding it to their western counterparts. The above mandate was repealed in 2020, and because this service was unpopular with passengers, Amtrak is in the process of bringing back Traditional Dining to the long distance trains.

Passenger rail Sleeping Car

So far, we talked about passenger rail coaches and baggage cars, which accommodate the actual passengers and their baggage. But, for those passengers traveling further distances or at least overnight, they may want accommodations that are a little more comfortable than coach seats. This is where the sleeping car comes into play.

Sleeping cars date back to the 1830’s, with the first sleeping car built for the Chambersburg of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, However, they didn’t became more widely used until the 1860’s, when George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company unveiled the standard design in 1865, which included berths along the car’s walls, with men and women separated, as was standard at the time. Sleepers provided first class accommodations and were (and still are providing today) the most used car in providing these accommodations. Pullman was not the first, but was the most successful company in mass-producing sleeping cars.

A heavyweight era Pullman sleeping car at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois.

Pullman sleeping cars were usually painted in their signature forest green color, but the company could paint them in other colors if the railroad ordering the car wanted it in a different color to match a theme for the train it was used on.

By the beginning of the streamliner era, sleeping cars were redesigned to attract different types of passengers to the rails. Sleeping car interiors started to have different berth configurations, such as private roomettes or even full bedrooms complete with bathrooms for the highest-paying passengers. These “deluxe” accommodations were mostly found on the flagship trains of various railroads, like the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway’s Super Chief, and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited.

A traditional streamliner era sleeping car.

By the 1950’s, passenger rail service was beginning to decline due to the increasing prevalence of highway and air travel. The railroad’s response to this decline in the sleeping car industry was to design a sleeper that could maximize the number of berths per car so as to be able to offer sleeper accommodations to travelers on a budget, so they invented the “Slumbercoach.” The Slumbercoach had 24 single rooms and eight double rooms, the most of any sleeping car design per individual car. This kept the cost of sleeping car accommodations down to just slightly more expensive than coach class

A Slumbercoach sleeping car. Note the split-level pattern of the windows for most of the car’s length. This design allowed for the maximum number of rooms per car, allowing railroads to offer more affordable sleeper accommodations.

Although Amtrak used most of the rolling stock handed over from private railroads as part of their creation in 1971, and continues to offer sleeping cars to it’s passengers toady on all of their long distance trains. Amtrak retired most of it’s legacy equipment, including the sleepers in the late 1990’s. Most of Amtrak’s sleepers in use today were built in the 1970’s and 1990’s. Generally, Amtrak uses bi-level “Superliner” sleepers on the long distance routes west of the Mississippi River, although there are a few exceptions. Most eastern long-distance routes use single-level “Viewliner” sleepers instead due to the fact that the Superliners can’t fit into the tight clearances of their Washington DC – Boston Northeast Corridor.

An Amtrak Superliner sleeping car
An Amtrak Viewliner sleeping car

Passenger Rail baggage Car

While coach cars provide the accommodations passengers need for a rail journey, there has to be a place onboard to store their checked baggage, since not all of a traveler’s luggage can be carried onto the train and stored in the overhead racks. This is where the baggage car comes into play. Some baggage cars also had a Railway Post Office (RPO) in part of the car, because, until 1967, most mail being shipped by the United States Postal Service was moved by rail. These were called combine cars or just “combines.” Combines also may be a “coach-baggage” combine. These were largely used on branch lines due to the lower number of passengers on those lines, especially after the automobile became more common.

A “heavyweight” era baggage car. Note the Railway Express Agency markings on the side of the car. This car also had an RPO inside.
A Coach-Baggage Combine at the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom, WI.

In the streamliner era, most railroads used the same type of rolling stock as and painted their baggage cars to match the rest of the consist.

The railway Express Agency was the railroad equivalent to today’s FedEx or UPS. In which they handled express packages until the 1970’s, which is when they went out of business.

Baggage cars, like the rest of passenger train travel in the United States, experienced a serious decline in use starting in the 1950’s and continuing through the 1960’s. The end of mail and express service by passenger train was largely completed in 1967. By the time Amtrak was created in 1971, there was little need for baggage cars, but Amtrak still continues to use them on most of their long distance trains. In fact, Amtrak recently replaced all their “Heritage Fleet” baggage cars with new ones through an order for Viewliner II’s placed in 2010. The baggage cars were fully delivered by late 2015. Amtrak also ordered 10 “Baggage-Dorm” combines, so they could free up additional sleeper capacity on some long distance trains for revenue passengers, capacity of which was formerly being used for crew accommodations. These were delivered in the past few years.

Passenger Rail Coach Car

The most basic type of passenger rail cars is the coach car. This and the baggage car are the two earliest types of passenger rail cars. The design of the coach car was standardized in the 1820’s and 1830’s, and was based on the interior design of stagecoaches from that time period. The seats were initially not very comfortable, while often riding uncomfortable due to riding on only two axles. The interior was very crude, with little more than a roof to protect passengers from the weather.

An example of an early “stagecoach” passenger rail coach.

Later improvements in coach design and construction improved ride quality for passengers. By the mid 19th century, the design for the interior of a passenger rail coach was standardized as an aisle with seats down both sides, with overhead luggage racks, and is still the design used the most today. Some coaches had 2 seats on each side of the aisle (designated as a 2+2 coach), while others had 3 seats on each side (designated as a 3+3 coach). This was called the “Open” design. Passengers boarded these cars through a vestibule at the end of the car. Despite these innovations, many older, more uncomfortable coach cars continued to be used as late as the years leading up to the creation of Amtrak.

This has been the standard design for passenger rail coach interiors since the mid 19th century.

By the 1930’s, many coaches, especially those meant for first class passengers, evolved to include seats that were more comfortable and even swiveled. Around the same time, compartment coaches were developed. These had two sectioned seats facing each other. This design is still used today by Amtrak in their roomette accommodations on their long distance trains.

The interior of the observation car on the Nebraska Zephyr at the Illinois Railway Museum. Many first class coaches had the “swiveling” seats seen here starting in the 1930’s.

The 1930’s to the 1950’s was the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel, when passenger cars were built regularly by various companies, including Pullman-Standard and Budd Company. For a time after Amtrak was formed, they continued to use this “hand-me-down” rolling stock, until they ordered their present day Superliner and Amfleet equipment.

A modern Superliner railcar operated by Amtrak.

Passenger Trains in the Late 19th Century

By the late 19th century, passenger trains had become the dominant mode of intercity travel in the United States, and in many countries in the world. Innovations were already being made in improving speeds and amenities for passengers on these trains. However, at that time, rail travel was potentially dangerous due to increasing speeds, often poor quality track, and lack of train control technologies. As a result, train wrecks, many involving injury or death of passengers and crew members, were very common. (These wrecks often became a subject in many railroad ballads). In 1893, New York Central and Hudson River Railroad locomotive #999 allegedly became the first locomotive to ever break the 100 mile per hour speed record. However, the accuracy of this claim has been disputed by many railroad scholars. This first confirmed case of a train breaking the 100 mile per hour speed record was the British locomotive Flying Scotsman in November 1934.

This was allegedly the first locomotive to ever break the 100 mile per hour speed barrier, though this claim has been disputed.

Improvements in amenities for passengers also were being done. in the mid to late 19th century, most passenger cars were still made mostly of wood. Steel heavyweight cars didn’t come on the scene until the beginning of the 20th century. Also, most passenger rail equipment were coaches or baggage, or in some cases, “combines” of the two. Other types of passenger rail cars, such as dining and sleeping cars, didn’t arrive at the station until 1867, when George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company was founded.

The headquarters of the Pullman Car Company, now a museum dedicated to the history of the Pullman Company.

The Pullman Palace Car Company would later become just the Pullman Car Company. Founded in Pullman, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The company was the inventor of more than just sleeping and dining cars. They also invented the parlor car, club car, and the observation car, all of which were designed for wealthier passengers. The latter of these passenger car types is designed to be put on the end of a train. We’ll go into more detail on each of these car types in future posts.

Early Passenger Train Travel

The passenger train came about between the early and mid 19th century as a faster alternative to covered wagons and steamboats. Prior to the existence of passenger trains, most people traveled long distances via covered wagon over land-based wagon trails, or by steamboat over rivers. These journeys could take months to complete, and the overland journeys were very difficult and even often ended in tragedy due to injuries or disease. Indian attacks were also not that uncommon. If you’ve played the game Oregon Trail, you’ll know how rough the journeys over wagon trails were.

The paddle wheel steamer is how many people traveled
over rivers until passenger trains became more robust in the
United States. (photo source: Wikipedia)
The covered wagon is how many people traveled long distances over land prior to the advent of the passenger train. (photo source: depositphotos.com)

While easier, safer, and faster than traveling by covered wagon on trails or traveling by steamboat on rivers, passenger trains did not start catching on until the late 19th century. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10th, 1869, revolutionized rail travel in the United States. This made east-west overland wagon trails like the Oregon Trail obsolete.

However, northbound and southbound trips still often had to be completed via wagon trail or river until the mid to late 19th century, as railroad routes in that direction were not robust until then. The first north-south rail route in the United States was built by the Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo, IL (at the very southern tip of the state) to Galena, IL (in the northwest corner of the state) in 1856. A branch from Centralia, IL to Chicago was built later. Through acquisitions and mergers in the late 19th century, the IC reached New Orleans, LA, creating the first north-south rail line in the US. Passenger service on the route was provided by the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans trains. The latter train continues to operate today under Amtrak.

The Concept of the (Passenger) Train

Passenger rail was once the primary way people traveled the US and around the world over land. Before we get into passenger rail, we will give you a brief history how how trains came to be.

History of Railroads

The railroads were first invented to reduce the physical burden on draft animals, like horses, that were needed to haul coal from mines to towns for heating and electricity production. It was later discovered that it was easier on the animals to pull the heavy loads if they were pulled on rails rather than a dirt path. Originally, the rails were made of wood, but quickly changed to iron for more durability, The history of trains as we know them today goes back to 1827, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered to build the first rail line in the US. This rail line opened in 1828. It’s construction was prompted by the competition in New York for shipping to the Midwest via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.

Locomotives didn’t come onto the scene until 1814 – quite a while after the invention of the concept of moving items via railroads was conceived. Steam locomotives replaced horses because they don’t get tired as quickly as animals, meaning better productivity in the industries that used them. In fact, a steam locomotive is colloquially called an “Iron Horse” because of this historical fact.

The earliest steam locomotive to ever pull a passenger train. On display at the Darlington Railway Museum – Darlington, England.
(Photo taken from teachinghistory.org)

The Beginnings of Passenger Trains

With the success of trains in hauling coal, it soon became evident that the train could be an easier and faster way to transport passengers than stagecoach or (on rivers) paddlewheel steamer. By the 1830’s passenger trains started running in the Northeastern United States, as people looked for cheaper and faster ways to travel. By the 1860’s they had expanded to the Midwest. For example, the first railroad in Wisconsin was the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in the 1850’s, whose goal was to build a railroad between Milwaukee and the Mississippi River to boost Milwaukee’s economy. Passenger service on the line started in 1891.

Although early passenger rail travel was not very comfortable by today’s standards, it was much more comfortable than the alternative methods available at the time. However, after the Civil War, passenger comfort on trains greatly improved, so did speeds. By the 1890’s, railroads were expanding rapidly, and Chicago was becoming “the rail hub of the nation,” a designation that remains to this day.