Cupolas on Baggage Cars

Cupolas on Baggage Cars

By Roger Heid


You may have noticed that some baggage cars have a cupola, others do not. If they do, what is it for, where in the train consist is it placed, and which way is it oriented? Those are the Shakespearean questions. This issue is also a can of worms. I am going to try to shed some light into this. Do not confuse a brakeman’s cab with a cupola. It’s not the same thing and does not serve the same purpose.


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Baggage Cars with Cupolas


Freight Car with Brakeman’s Cab

All US based railroads, for the longest time, used a ‘Caboose’, always placed at the end of a train. It provided living quarters for train attendants and a raised observation point, the cupola. No freight or baggage was hauled on a caboose. There were also mounting brackets for end of train (EOT) marker lanterns, serving the same purpose as the tail lights on a motor car.


Typical US Caboose


Sample of Caboose Interior

German railroad authorities did not feel the need to devote an entire car for the purpose as explained above.  Much shorter travel distances did not require outright living quarters. The observation cupola and a small office space proved to be sufficient. The remaining portion of the car could be used to carry baggage or payloads.

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Example of Era I Baggage Car

Just like on US railroads, this car was always placed at the end of the train, the cupola oriented toward the rear. But here is a clincher. Imagine a Head Station (aka Sack Station) such as the New York Grand Central Station. In Germany, samples of this type of RR Station can be found in Dortmund, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Stuttgart. The pictures below will explain that situation.

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When a train leaves the station, the locomotive is uncoupled, and a different loco pulls the train back out of the station. Now the baggage car with the cupola sits directly behind the locomotive. In order to stick to the rule, an additional car like this would have to be standing by, and the cargo would have to be transferred from one car to the other. Economical this is not. Ergo, there goes the rule. Bye Bye!

Then there is something else. In the early days of railroads, most all passenger cars were structured from wood, sitting on iron or steel under frames.  In case of a head-on collision, this would raise a havoc of destruction, all passengers being mangled beyond recognition. Not good! Please, spare me the details.

Therefore a rule was passed. The very first car behind a locomotive shall not carry passengers. Typically, some kind of freight car was squeezed between the loco and the first passenger car. If no such car was available, there were two choices. Either the cupola equipped baggage car is placed behind the loco, or, the first passenger car shall not carry any live passengers. I’m not kidding.

This situation became more relaxed when the bodies of passenger cars were made of steel. But this was a very gradual transition. This also depended who made the rules, in whatever location.

In order to add more confusion, there is another philosophy that entered the picture, along the line. If you ever rode on a passenger car strapped directly behind a steam loco and you look out an open window, you will know what I am talking about. This steam loco spews out small solid and hot debris that can do a number on your face or your eyes.  Don’t do it. I did it once, never a second time. On such an occasion, I saw a tiny piece of ember burning a hole in a lady’s blouse. Therefore, the powers to be maintained the rule that there will be no passenger cars placed directly behind a steam locomotive.

With the waning need to have observation points at the end of a train, the cupolas disappeared, altogether. On refurbished existing cars, the cupolas were removed, especially when the whole roof needed to be replaced. These days, there are typically no more steam engines in use. So you can forget about the discomfort aspect, anyway. The issue of the blog is no longer an issue. People travel lightly, these days. I think you can easily figure out the rest.

For freight train EOT, the Fred is the new thing. (Flashing Rear End Device)

This is about the brunt of it. More specific details could be mentioned, but I try to tell you as much as possible, using only the words needed.

If you’re trying to figure out just where and how to place a baggage car with a cupola in your train consist, use your imagination, after you read the above. You won’t be wrong, either way.

If any of you knows more and has something to add, please, leave a comment; it would be appreciated. If you have any questions, please, post them on the forum.

Thank you very much.



One Response to Cupolas on Baggage Cars

  1. peter martin says:

    Who knew? I was not aware of the details about the history of the cupola. The concept of the first car after the locomotive does make sense in the old days. But looking through one of those “Famous Train Wreck” books, usually on sale for $5.00, it looks like the other carriages took some pretty hard hits too! Thanks for the information.

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