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A History of Colorado Railcar and the Development of the Ultradome Concept

Throughout several incarnations, Colorado Railcar has been delivering high quality luxury railcars for about 20 years now. The ultradome traces its history back to the tiny town of Tillamook, OR. There, in 1988, the first of an innovative line of cars envisioned by CRM executive Tom Rader took shape in a massive wooden building that formerly served as a Navy blimp hangar.

But that's not the beginning of the story. Rader, previously the VP and General Manager of Holland America Westours' Alaska division, had envisioned a sweeping change in the Alaskan cruise industry. At that time, cruise passengers typically ventured up to Skagway, in southern Alaska, and back in a water-borne round trip. Any trips to the interior required a grueling eight day, eight hours a day bus ride.

Rader's vision was to continue the ships' voyage from Skagway up the Inside Passage to Whittier, then give passengers the opportunity to ride inland along the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage and Fairbanks before completing their journey by plane. In 1982, Rader joined with Tom Janaky to form Alaska Cruise Tours. The fledgling company renovated four former Milwaukee Road full dome cars and began booking passengers on cruise and land tours. In 1983, the company changed its name to Tour Alaska.

Tour Alaska was an innovation. For the first time, scenic inland points like Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park and cities like Fairbanks became accessible. It was a move that not only proved successful, but revolutionized the Alaskan market. Tour Alaska was so successful with its vintage domes that it was soon purchased by cruise operator Princess Tours.

The effect on the market has been phenomenal. When Tour Alaska started up, a total of 13 cruise ships — each with a capacity of 600-1000 people — frequented the state during the four month cruise season. Roughly 5% of those riders opted for the tour. Today, 27 ships — each with a capacity of 2,000-3,000 passengers —  make the run, and about 50% opt for some sort of land tour. Needless to say, the market explosion has had a huge impact on Alaska's economy. As a result, Rader was awarded the Alaskan Visitor Association's North Star Award in 1986, the same year that he sold Tour Alaska to Princess.

The first threads of idea regarding the ultradomes came about while Rader was operating Tour Alaska. It was noted that, among other shortcomings, the glass in the vintage domes wrapped around overhead, but only over the passenger in the outside seat. What he proposed was to go one better — to create a newer, stronger, roomier, glassier luxury dome. The idea was to extend the cruise experience inland, to make the cars cruise ships on steel wheels.

In 1988, Princess decided to tap Rader's vision and have the cars built. Rader, who had entered the railcar rebuilding field, teamed up with Tillamook businessman Bob Steele to convert four ex-Southern Pacific bilevel commuter cars into the finest luxury cars to be found. By literally lopping the tops off of the four cars, rebuilding the roof and encasing them in glass, the first ultradomes were born.

The road from those first cars to today's luxurious models hasn't always been an easy one. Having moved to Denver, CO and reorganized as Rader Railcar, the company produced several more cars for Princess and Canadian operator Rocky Mountaineer Railtours. Rader again sought to revolutionize the industry through two completely different products.

First, after six years of research and planning, RRC began construction on several cars for a special cruise train to be built for Marlboro, complete with hot tubs, a luxurious mezzanine reception lounge with piano, and sleeping amenities. For that project, several former Southern Pacific bilevel cars were procured for parts.

Also, for a venture called Florida Fun Train, RRC began construction on the first four single level domes, along with conversions of four more bilevel cars as cavernous single level restaurant, arcade and theater cars. A fifth single level dome was also built with an observation platform (actually the prototype for the single level cars, built several years before the FFT revenue cars), but never used due to liability concerns. With the additional work load, RRC opened a satellite plant in Fort Lupton, CO., about 20 miles north of Denver and named it Rader Railcar II.

Under staggering debt and less than expected ridership, FFT ceased operations after a very short period of time. Three additional single level domes were in the early stages of construction when FFT shut down. With all of the cars on the construction floor, Marlboro pulled the plug on its train as well. Rader Railcar was left with an extreme surplus of equipment and unpaid car construction, and was forced to regroup in 1997. All of its surplus assets — including its much of the contents of its Denver plant — were sold at auction. To most, it seemed that the Ultradomes had rolled into history.

But that's not the end of the story. In 1999, Princess took delivery of two more Ultradomes from the newly reorganized Colorado Railcar, formerly Rader Railcar II in Ft. Lupton, bringing their operating fleet to 10. Florida Fun Train's cars were back for a new coat of paint on their way to new owner Alaska Railroad. With Rader at the helm again, new domes began rolling out of the facility in Fort Lupton. According to Rader, Colorado Railcar Manufacturing was created to avoid the possibility of its customers becoming involved in the Florida Fun Train dissolution.

Since its rebirth, Colorado Railcar has made a statement as probably the strongest incarnation of Rader's revolutionary efforts. In 2000, BC Rail ordered three single level domes for its Whistler Northwind luxury train, making BC Rail the only other buyer of single level cars to date.

In 2001, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruise Lines entered the Alaskan market in a big way, forming a tour company called Royal Celebrity Tours and ordering the largest dome cars ever built, two CRM Ultradomes for a service dubbed the Wilderness Express. It was a game of inches, but Royal Celebrity had taken the lead. More impressive were the car's interior features — roomy seating, plush chairs, and full ADA compliance including a wheelchair elevator into the dome area. The order was followed with an order for two more cars in 2002.

Not to be outdone, Holland America raised the bar with an order for four slightly larger, roomier Ultradomes in 2003 to augment its fleet of vintage cars — including three of the cars that Rader had used to start the Alaska service two decades earlier. The first order was immediately followed by an order for four more, which will be delivered in 2004. Also, Colorado Railcar built several sleeper cars for the American Orient Express, and has done several other jobs as well.

CRM also introduced its DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) in 2002. A close cousin to the single level dome, this commuter vehicle is the first of its kind to meet the FRA's new Part 238 crashworthiness standards — something many foreign manufacturers swore couldn't be done. In Feb., 2002, the DMU frame withstood the mandatory 800,000 pound structural load test. The car began touring in late summer of 2002, courting present and prospective commuter operators all over the country with the safest commuter car available, operable at a significant cost savings over a commuter train and with plenty of modern amenities. And with a 1,200hp motor package, the DMU is advertised as being capable of hauling several additional coaches on level track. (And it's easy on fuel - two mpg in testing last year in Pueblo!)

The future also looks bright for Colorado Railcar. With many metropolitan areas looking for alternatives that will help take cars off of their congested highways, the touring of its DMU is attracting a great deal of interest, as well as its first orders. As of early 2004, more cars were under construction for Holland America and Rocky Mountaineer, and the game of inches for Alaskan superiority shows no signs of slowing down.

Also, CRC is presently seeking a financial partner to help with the launch of the Golden Eagle, an innovative transcontinental all dome cruise train that will blend the ultimate in posh opulence with many of the "outside the box" concepts that were developed for the Marlboro train. With any luck, the story of the Ultradomes will continue well into the future.

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