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Modern glass observation dome cars were introduced to the rail car in 1945 as a means of allowing passengers a better view of the passing scenery through a raised panoramic mostly-glass enclosure (dome). Cyrus Osborn, of General Motors EMD, was inspired to introduce Dome Cars after riding through Glenwood Canyon in 1944, realizing he was missing much of the scenery through the restrictive views of traditional side wall windows.

By the end of the 1940’s, railroads began to use Dome Cars as a means to inspire continued rail travel, which was beginning to suffer as the convenience of air travel improved and the ease of automobile travel took hold. By the late 1950’s rail travel was declining, and due to the expense of Dome Car construction and a lack of ridership, the production of new Dome Cars declined, as well. Today, many of these unique cars continue to offer spectacular views on tourist and excursion railroads around North America. Here are the different types of domes you can find on trains.

Full-length Domes

The Full-Length Domes represented the pinnacle of Dome Car design with the upper level glass enclosure running from one end of the car to the other. However, only 30 total full-length domes were designed and built by the two leading passenger car manufacturers at the time. Pullman-Standard was first with an order of ten built in 1952 and Budd followed closely behind with orders of 14 in 1954 and 6 more in 1955.

While similar in design, there are distinct mechanical and engineering differences between the two manufacturers both inside and out, as well as unique design differences amongst the manufacturers themselves.

Our 4 Full-Length Domes were purchased in 2005-2006 from Holland-America Westours (known for their cruise ships and vacation packages), and all had operated in Alaska through the Denali National Park under contract with the Alaska Railroad. While in that service, each car was named after a river in that region. Prior to operation in Alaska however, these ubiquitous cars have a captivating history.

Budd Domes

Not to be outdone by competitor Pullman-Standard, the Budd Car company took orders from both the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad (ATSF), and the Great Northern Railroad (GN) for a total of 20 Full-Length dome cars, 14 to be built and delivered in 1954 to the ATSF and 6 to be built and delivered to the GN in 1955. The Santa Fe cars became known as Big Domes and the Great Northern Cars were dubbed Great Domes.

Our two Budd’s came from the Santa Fe’s Big Dome fleet of 14. They were originally assigned to the San Francisco Chief between San Francisco and Chicago and the El Capitan operating between Chicago and Los Angeles. By 1968, the Big Domes were replaced by newer “HI-level” equipment and reassigned to the Texas Chief, running between Chicago and Galveston, TX. The advent of Amtrak in 1970 ended passenger service by ATSF, and 13 of the 14 Big Domes were acquired by the famous Auto-Train in 1971.

While Auto-Train was very successful, it also succumbed to Amtrak in 1981 and the Big Domes were once again up for sale. Eventually, 10 of these Big Domes went to Holland America’s Westours at the end of 1985 for their new service hauling cruise ship passengers through the scenic Alaskan Wilderness on the land portions of the Inner-passage cruise itineraries that were exploding in popularity at the time.

The Royal Gorge Route purchased 2 of the 10 Big Domes, 507 in 2005 and 553 in 2006 from Westours. Now named after two local mountain towns Monte Vista and Buena Vista, they both have been remodeled to contain full kitchens in their lower section to prepare our delicious 403 grill menu, while still allowing unparalleled views to 68 passengers up above in comfortable booths with tables.

Pullman Domes

The renowned Pullman-Standard Company in Chicago was first on the scene with a full-length dome car design seating 68 above and 28 in a lower level cafe. These were also the first Pullman domes designed with actual curved glass panels. Delivered in a total order of ten in 1952 (no’s 50-59) to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (a.k.a. Milwaukee Road), the Superdome, as it was named, also turned out to be the last Domes ever built by Pullman.

The first of the ten cars (No. 50) derailed and mostly burned during a break-in test run near the Pullman Standard Plant. While it was being rebuilt, the other nine were completed and delivered to the Milwaukee Road by December of 1952 and all ten entered service January 1st, 1953. The Superdomes were built for premium service on the Olympian Hiawatha, and by 1961 they had been canceled and the Superdomes became surplus and ran only short-haul routes in the Midwest.

In 1983, two of those six Superdomes (No’s 50 and 56) were purchased by a start-up tour operator in Alaska, and later rebuilt in 1989 to begin service behind Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle. Amtrak acquired the cars in 1990 when the private tour operation faced bankruptcy. In 1995 the Superdomes were sold at auction to Holland-America Westours to supplement their growing service hauling Inner-passage cruise ship passengers from Anchorage to Fairbanks via Denali National Park. The Royal Gorge Route purchased them in 2005 along with the one of the two Budd Big Domes described next.

Our two Pullman Superdomes are now proudly named Oro Vista (Gold View) and Rio Vista (River View) to reflect local Spanish influence that the original line’s operator (D&RGW) used to name much of its railroad equipment. These grand dames have been elegantly outfitted to mainly host our first class lunches, dinners and other upgraded special events.

Board the Historical Royal Gorge Route Railroad

With years of exciting history under its belt, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad combines breathtaking scenery and exceptional service with delicious food, sourced locally and prepared fresh right on board. Grab your tickets today.