TRAIN BLOG (WSAU) After three days of pampered luxury at the Palmer House, I was ready to begin my trip home. Honestly, I didn’t see much of Chicago. It was February. It was cold and windy. My first day walking outside The Loop, the road salt on the sidewalk ruined my dress shoes. I was ready to head home.
The two classic railroad cars that are almost fully withdrawn from service are observation cars and dome cars. Observation cars were wonderful for passenfers, but were a pain-in-the-neck to railroads. They needed to be turned after each run, and added to terminal delays and switching costs. But what a view! From the rear of the train looking out the picture window in a deep plush seat, you got a sense of speed and space that was impossible to experience from anywhere else. The eight or ten seats at the back of the observation car were “the railfan seats” – and they were the best seats on the train.
The dome car had elevated seats under class, and after climbing a few steps you could sit down under the stars and see over the top of the train. Another unique panoramic view that captivated travelers on luxury trains.
What few observation cars remained in the 1960s were quickly mothballed in the 1970s. Amtrak simply refused to run them. An expensive luxury for a government-funded railroad that ran on a shoestring.
But Amtrak inherited a larger number of dome cars, and many of them remained in service. There was a dome car on the Capital Limited. I’d never ridden in one before.
The Capital Limited was painted in Amtrak red, white, and blue, although most of the cars dated back to when the train was owned by the Baltimore & Ohio. The equipment was well maintained but gently worn. The Capital Limited was B&O’s flagship train. In the day, it would have gotten the railroad’s very best cars. No tiny slumbercoaches on The Capital. My sleeping car was “Maumee River”, an old 4 4 & 2 sleeper. Four standard rooms, four compartments, and two luxury drawing rooms. I was booked in a deluxe room that stretched two-thirds the width of the car. One car up was a full dining car. Dinner would be served after leaving Chicago. The train didn’t have an observation car… but dome car “Moonlight View” was two coaches up.
As we pulled out of Chicago, I ate at first call in the diner. The flat iron steak was satisfying. The baked potato was certainly roasting in the oven long before the train’s departure. Desert was apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Ah, an after-dinner drink. “Is it ok if I take my whiskey sour to the dome car?” Of course, sir. And up the stairs I go to sit under the glass dome. There were just a few other passengers there.
The view up there is captivating. The train’s speed whips up the snow as we speed past a white, swirling fog. The diesel’s exhaust blows a cold, white smoke into the air above us. The sun is setting, and the dimming light of day reflects off the frozen ground as the horizon turns from dim orange to grey. Night is falling. Looking ahead you can see the green signals flicker from green to red as our train passes by. The effect is hypnotic. The train rocks me to sleep like no car or airplane can do. This is travel as it was meant to be.
Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau