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What is a Dome Car?

Lori Kilchermann
Lori Kilchermann

A dome car is a railroad train car that incorporates a glassed-in roof extension called a dome. This raised glass roof in the dome car allows passengers to have a 360-degree view of the countryside while traveling on the train. Used in many configurations from dining cars to sleeping and lounge cars, the dome car was specially constructed for individual railroad companies by several manufacturers, with one of the most noted being the Pullman Company. More of an aluminum frame with double-pane glass windows than an actual dome, the panoramic view was costly to maintain, which ultimately caused companies to remove them from regular service on most railroad lines.

First introduced in the 1880s, the dome car was originally called a bird cage car and was used as a sightseeing car. Early designs did not prove worthy of the investment required by the railroad to build and maintain them, and the dome car soon slipped out of railroad transportation offerings. In the early 1940s, however, railroad executives wishing to give passengers a thrilling view of the countryside began considering the dome car again. The new dome cars were named Vista-Dome by their designer, Cyrus Osborn, a General Motors Electro-Motive Division employee.

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Woman posing

The design for the Vista-Dome car was taken to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which reworked one of its stainless steel coach cars in Aurora, Illinois, into the first of the Vista-Dome cars. The first of the Cyrus-designed dome cars was named the Silver-Dome and was tested as a component of the Twin Cities Zephyr, a passenger streamliner operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad between Chicago, Illinois and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twin Cities Zephyr served passengers for 36 years until Amtrak took over the line in 1971.

Used primarily west of the Mississippi River in the United States due to the low overhead tunnels and crossings in the eastern part of the country, the dome car gave passengers a good view of the landscape while traveling across the country. The seats in the domed cars soon commanded a premium price. The cars became such a popular addition to the passenger lines of the railroads that some lines such as the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) mounted flood lights to the exterior of the cars to illuminate the landscape while traveling at night. Currently, Canadian railroads provide the majority of all dome car travel on sightseeing trains.

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