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What are Ultradomes?

Imagine riding through the scenic Alaskan wilderness. The soothing clickety clack of the rails only a distant sound, the majesty laid out before you virtually unimpeded by walls or structure. As you gaze at the splendor, you become immersed. You are a part of it. That's the Ultradome experience.

History — For much of the first half of last century, railroading was a luxurious, competitive industry, wooing travelers with opulent car decor and top notch service. Inroads from the newfangled automobile and later the airplane took their toll on passenger trains, eroding customer bases and reducing profits. Following World War II, the introduction of new streamlined equipment to many well known trains and routes helped bring about a brief and well remembered revival.

One of the most recognizable icons of those days of trains adorned in matched, brilliantly painted schemes or bedecked in gleaming stainless steel was the glass topped vista dome car. Inside, riders were treated to a spectacular panorama on the train's route. Some trains sported several in their consist. The original domes seated either 20 or 24 depending on configuration. The dome section on those cars comprised only about half the total length of the car. Later full domes seated as many as 72 riders.

Passenger railroading has experienced a renaissance over the past decade, having reinvented itself as a luxury mode of vacationing. Today's ultradome is an extension of that legacy. It's a dome car with a modern flair. Bigger, roomier and stronger than the domes from streamlined railroading's golden age, ultradomes are some of the most luxurious railcars riding the rails today.

The history of the cars and the history of their builder, Colorado Railcar of Ft. Lupton, CO., are intricately interwoven. I would encourage you to read the company history that I have compiled for a more complete look at the formation of Tour Alaska and the inspiration for the original ultradomes.

Overview — Ultradome is a trademarked name owned by Princess Cruises, and refers to their cars built by Colorado Railcar. Throughout this site, you will see the word ultradome used in reference to the cars as a whole, mainly for lack of a better term. In effect, every dome has been custom built. You can't just pick one out of the CRC catalog. But they follow some basic criteria.

The most recognizable thing about the ultradomes and their single level variants is the glass. And lots of it. Each of the curved glass panels measures six by seven feet, and weighs in at about 600 pounds.

Construction — The first four Ultradomes (Tour Alaska 7080, 7081, 7082 and 7083, later to Princess Tours) were built using former Southern Pacific Railroad bilevel gallery commuter cars. In effect, the tops were chopped off of each car, and replaced with a taller upper level with frames to accommodate the large glass dome windows. These cars are easily distinguished from all other ultradomes by the doors in the center of the carbody.

While this was a good method of proving the concept, it proved to be very time intensive. In order to streamline the process of building the cars, it was decided for the second order (also for Princess Tours) that the cars could be stripped right down to the center sill and then have the entire body built from scratch. From there, it was only a logical step to an all-new car construction.

Today's ultradomes are built from the ground up at Colorado Railcar's facility in Fort Lupton, CO. and custom decorated to the purchaser's order. The cars utilize a bridge truss-like design built out of tubular steel, with steel sheathed sides. For a closer look at the manufacturing process, click here.

Features — A car mechanic I know once likened a Budd full dome car to a big rolling greenhouse. Well, that applies to the ultradomes doubly so. That's why so much effort is put into creature comforts. From the top, the ultradomes feature a triple laminated glass the use five layers of tinting to reduce solar gain by an impressive 62 percent. Add to that an amazing 40 tons of air conditioning, and the ultradome is well equipped to handle the needs of its interior environs. And that's quite a bit of room — over 1600 square feet between the two levels. (bigger than my house...)

The cars are designed to be ADA-accessible — the first dome cars to be thus equipped. The majority of the CRM domes built after 1995 feature wheelchair elevators to reach the upper level, as well as wheelchair tiedowns and ADA-compliant restrooms.

All ultradomes are built basically to order, but there are a number of options available, including kitchen/galley space, downstairs dining areas, outdoors observation platforms, and downstairs lounges. Colorado Railcar also has touted a number of options that have yet to be built into an ultradome, including balconies, upstairs lounges, and (this would be great) upstairs sleeping quarters. For a look at some of these concepts, take our tour of demo cars SC-1 and LC-2.

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