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Alaska Railroad's new dome cars

Early in the year, the Alaska Railroad announced that it would be purchasing two dome cars for a new, upscale first class service on the Denali Star passenger train between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. That announcement was followed by RFP document 04-4-42012, which set the specifications for the cars and opened the bidding process. Seeing that Colorado Railcar was probably the most qualified company to meet the specifications, and noting some interesting requirements in the 95 page document, I set about to fancifully envision what the cars might look like if built by CRM. The results of that project can be seen here.

When I visited Colorado Railcar recently to take a look at the new DMUs, I also took the time to study the Alaska Railroad's new cars, which were still in the early stages of construction. There's a lot going on at CRM right now, and it's all still fairly early. So forgive me if it doesn't quite look like the finished product yet. With the upstairs observation platform, these cars will be unique among ultradomes.

While the lower level windows still hadn't been cut into the exterior skin of ARR 651, the basic structure of both cars had taken shape. Sorry about the bar in the way, but it would seem that the folks over at CRM are bent on keeping the roof up, because the support bars are all over the place.

As with Rocky Mountaineer 9523, which we toured under construction last year, the exterior sheeting is welded in place, then the welds are ground smooth and filled with Bondo to give the cars their smooth appearance. While the cars have taken shape structurally, the end sheets weren't yet in place. The large gap in the upper area will be an outdoor observation platform — the first ever applied to the upper level of a dome.

The new cars will run at the head end of the train, directly behind the baggage car in the train. While it was my initial understanding that the observation platform was to run facing forward, I have had it clarified that the cars will indeed run with the platform facing toward the rear of the train, and the passengers will be able to avoid getting blasted by a gale force wind when they go outside.

There still isn't an interior to the cars, so much so that the floors aren't even in place yet. Some of the interior walls are in place downstairs, and from inside you can see where the window openings will be. The signature spiral staircase on the left is completed as a separate assembly outside the car then lifted into position and welded in place. When finished, the downstairs will be home to a dining room and sizeable kitchen equipped to serve not only this car but an adjoining diner. The opening in the ceiling at right is where the ADA wheelchair lift will be. The space requirements downstairs were what forced the observation platform upstairs.

The observation platform will have glass windows in the upper panels, with open sides. Should be a great place to watch Alaska roll by. Now for me, I like the idea of spreading out a chase lounge and kicking back. But that probably won't happen. One significant difference between these cars and the platform on ARR's lounge car Aurora is the collision posts on the ends, which support the car end, thus eliminating the need for center beams. The white mass in the right corner is the stairway. The bulkhead and door to the outside will be just behind it. The floor panels shown here weren't tacked in place, and may not even be the actual floor.

Definitely a work in progress. That's where the upper level is at. It's a good opportunity to see what lies beneath the skin of these cars. Note the white paint, which is applied to all metal surfaces to prevent rusting. By the time it enters service, virtually nothing that we can see in this view will be visible. This view was shot looking down the car from near the platform end, basically 180 degrees opposite the previous shot. With the lack of a proper floor, we didn't venture too far into the car. The far end stairway is visible in the back of the car on the right.

Sitting right beside the 651 was the ARR 652. Progress was very similar on both cars. It's a good indication of Colorado Railcar's manufacturing method, which increases efficiency by building multiples of the same assembly. Typically, duplicates stay duplicate for much of the construction process.

Like the 651, this car still doesn't have its lower level window openings, or end sheeting. The opening on the lower level is the vestibule. The observation platform is directly above it.

For some reason, in comparison to my visit last year, it seemed that the shop area was a little darker. It could be my imagination, but the photos from this visit definitely didn't turn out quite as well. To my own blame, I didn't bring along a tripod or anything, opting instead to handhold with a fairly powerful flash so I didn't take up too much of anybody's time.

Stopping by when I did not only afforded me a look at these unique cars, but it gave me the chance to see the very early part of the manufacturing process. I am indebted to CRM VP Tom Janaky for hosting me during this visit, and even more importantly, for placing his trust in me to navigate through a busy work area. Thanks also goes to the employees of Colorado Railcar who tolerated my presence, and the frequent photo flashes.

I hope that you have enjoyed this look at Alaska Railroad's new cars. I look forward to seeing them once they are completed, and I hope that you will consider riding them on your next trip to Alaska.

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