History of Colorado Railcar and the Development of the Ultradome Concept
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.