Passenger Cars such as Ocean View Was the Difference Between a Train Ride and a Bus Ride on Rails

Trains magazine passenger writer Bob Johnston had a valid point when he argued on the magazine’s website on Tuesday that Amtrak’s retirement of its last dome car means the carrier is losing a valuable promotional tool.

But how valuable? Amtrak management might argue that whatever the value of the Ocean View was as a promotional tool was no longer worth the cost to maintain it.

The news broke last week that Amtrak has retired its last dome car, former Great Northern Great Dome Ocean View, which had been built in the 1950s for the Empire Builder.

Ocean View had in recent years appeared on special occasions, including operating on the Adirondack in upstate New York during the fall foliage season.

It operated on the Hoosier State when Amtrak took back control of that train from Iowa Pacific, it ran on the Cardinal, and it ran on the Downeaster during a marketing promotion.

Ocean View also made appearances on special Amtrak moves.

The official line from Amtrak is that Ocean View is old and the cost of keeping it going had become too much.

That same reasoning was given for the retirement of the Pacific Parlour Cars, which had been built as Hi-Level cars for the Santa Fe.

Amtrak has all but been out of the dome car business since retiring its Heritage Fleet of short domes that once operated on such trains as the Capitol Limited, Lake Shore Limited and City of New Orleans more than a decade ago.

Some of those domes are having third or fourth lives as private varnish or on tourist railroads.

Johnston noted that some Class 1 railroads have done cars in their executive fleet, including Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern.

“Current Amtrak management’s current intense focus on cost cutting, however, dictates retiring the type of equipment its host carriers continue to value,” Johnston wrote.

And what value do dome cars have? Johnston argues they help make a good impression when a railroad hosts movers and shakers to show them the property.

That’s probably true but the value of a dome car in that context is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

The cost of maintaining the Ocean View can be demonstrated in hard numbers, but not so much the public relations value of the car.

You could argue that Ocean View is worth X number of passengers on a train such as the Adirondack who might not have ridden had the Ocean View been absent from the consist.

But can you prove that? Amtrak management believes that if it wants to stimulate ridership on a given route at a given time it can do so with a flash discount fare sale.

The carrier has other equipment it can use to show off its routes to VIPs, including office car Beech Grove. It’s not a theater car per se, but does have full length windows on the rear.

Amtrak could lease a dome car from a private owner if it desired.

The lamenting by some of the retirement of Ocean View has less to do with its role as a “promotional tool” than it does the belief that dome coaches, full-service dining cars and Pacific Parlour cars are what distinguish riding a train from riding a bus.

Passenger train supporters have convinced themselves that these feature cars are necessary to entice ordinary people to ride trains.

Otherwise, the Amtrak experience would be rather mundane.

At a time when Amtrak management has professed its desire to do away with long-distance trains generally and transform those left into experiential services, whatever that means, the retirement of Ocean View and, for that matter, the Pacific Parlor Cars, is a loss, but imagine what it would be like if there were fewer trains intercity trains operating across America.

Which is the greater loss that you’d like to have back?

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