Trains have been a part of my life as long as I can remember. My dad worked for the Union Pacific Railroad which to me seemed the best job any dad could have. .The house I grew up was only about the length of a football field away from railroad tracks plus the state I grew up in was Utah. Completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad where the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad met took place in Utah. At 12:57 p.m. railroad dignitaries hammered in ceremonial golden spikes at 12:57 p.m. local time, in a place called Promontory Summit Utah.
As a kid I would visit the tracks often. My friends and I would leave pennies on the tracks and wait in excitement until the next train came by and left the coins flat. Flat coins became good luck pieces for us.
Late at night the sound of trains going by would put me to sleep. It became comforting for some reason knowing that the familiar sound of train wheels going down metal tracks would happen almost every night.
Another benefit of having a dad work for the railroad was getting to ride on trains. Every summer we would take a trip or two. Either to Los Angeles or Seattle we would go on a Union Pacific passenger train. I really enjoyed those trips. Everything from sleeping cars to the dining cars. I can still smell that favorite breakfast of mine on the train. My favorite part of the ride though was the dome car.
The earliest documented predecessor of the dome car was first developed in the 1880s. It was known as the “birdcage car”, and was used on an 1882 sightseeing tour on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Later on the Canadian Pacific Railway used “tourist cars” with raised, glass-sided viewing domes on their trains through the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the 1920s. This and other early dome designs did not prove successful, and further refinements to the idea didn’t come for a few more decades.
By the 1940s dome cars started being used more and more by railroad companies in North America.
The first successful dome cars were conceived by Cyrus Osborn of General Motors Electro-Motive Division (EMD). In 1944, while he traveled in an EMD-built Denver & Rio Grande Western locomotive through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, he recognized and imagined the wonderful views the passengers might 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. Osborn then took his idea to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to make it a reality. Vista – Dome
Thanks to Cyrus Osborn the first modern and successful dome car called the “Vista-Dome” was introduced by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which was made out of an existing car in July 1945. It was only 13 years later, in December 1958, that the last classic dome was built.
In North America a total of 237 dome cars were manufactured by the Budd, Pullman Standard and American Car & Foundry companies. Railroad companies such as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad, The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad plus the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad were just a few of the railroad companies who used dome cars to attract passengers.
In the west especially, every major railroad had its own version of a dome. The Union Pacific operated (Astra Domes) in which those cars featured dining services and observation seats. The Milwaukee Road and Santa Fe had (Super Domes), Great Northern had (Great Domes), and the Northern Pacific had the (Vista Dome).
By the 1950s dome cars had became very popular for the traveling public. Riding on a train while looking out huge windows in a dome car created the ultimate traveling experience. There is nothing better than seeing beautiful vistas of the passing landscape, especially the Rocky Mountains. Passengers would get a 360-degree panoramic view and a whole new perspective on the scenery as they rode past looking out above the train.
One famous train which used dome cars quite extensively was the California Zephyr. The California Zephyr was first operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q), Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) and Western Pacific railroads, all which dubbed it “the most talked about train in America.” It used dome cars (Vista Domes) almost exclusively so that passengers could be afforded maximum views of their trip through the Rockies and Feather River Canyon. During the so called “Golden Years” between 1949 and 1970 each train was equipped with five of these cars. You can still ride in a dome car on the Zephyr through Amtrak. California Zephyr video
Passenger trains were the dominant mode of transportation until the mid-twentieth century. Until 1920, rail was the only practical form of intercity transport. Rail passenger revenues declined dramatically between 1920 and 1934 because of the rise of the automobile. In the same period, many travelers were lost to interstate bus companies such as Greyhound.
One of the reasons dome cars were created and used by railroad companies in the 1940s was to compete with other types of transportation and bring customers back to trains. Dome cars did increase ridership in the 1950s but it was short lived.
With the introduction of jet airplanes on major U.S. routes plus the completion of the Interstate Highway system decline in rail passenger demand accelerated during the 1960s. This resulted in the sharp curtailment of passenger service by private railroads. This led to the creation of National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) by the federal government in 1971.
After Amtrak took over most of the rail passenger service in America, some dome cars were used as before. But by the 1980s Amtrak has replaced them with Superliner bi-level passenger cars.
The first Superliners entered service in February 1979.
Amtrak has just one original dome car in its active fleet today, a former Great Northern full-length dome that it operates in New England during the fall color season and on other special trains.
If you want to relive your youth of riding in an original dome car, or ride in one for the first time, you still can. Holland America Holland American Line and Pullman Rail Journeys Pullman Rail are a couple of companies that still offer the experience.
Canada has a lot to offer for dome car lovers. Canada’s VIA Rail (their version of Amtrak) still operates 30 former Canadian Pacific Skyline and Park dome cars. VIA Rail Canada
If you ever get a chance … take a ride in a dome car. I would make it a priority. It’s worthy of any bucket list.