Room with a view thrills train travelers

Amtrak's Great Dome car will spend November on Illinois route

Passengers ride Amtrak's Great Dome car train on Oct. 31, 2013 from South Bend Indiana to Chicago on a rainy fall Halloween Day. (Zbiegniew Bzdak and Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

ABOARD AMTRAK’S LAKE SHORE LIMITED

— Fran and Ellen Mach have passed many hours reading during the approximately 20 trips that the Massachusetts couple have made on Amtrak between the East Coast and Chicago over the years, but this time they can't keep their eyes on the pages.

Midway through the trip to Chicago last week to visit their children and granddaughter, they discovered a room with a view in the middle of the 13-car train.

It's the Great Dome rail car, built in 1955 and the only remaining dome car in Amtrak service. It will be running on the rails of Illinois this month amid the still-changing colors of maple and oak leaves.

"Even though we have made this trip numerous times, it is so much better to be up here in the dome car to look at the scenery," Fran Mach said, as his unread book sat on a table in the car, which is arranged with an assortment of casual seating, although minus the electric piano once on board.

"I wouldn't mind if they kept this car on this route,'' said Mach, who much prefers trains over planes, explaining: "Some comedian said that if the Lord meant for us to fly, he would have bought tickets."

Your Getting Around reporter and Tribune photographer Nancy Stone hopped aboard the Lake Shore Limited on Thursday in South Bend, Ind., to ride in the dome car as it was being ferried to Chicago.

Picture this: The car's upper level is decked out with windows on all four sides and along the entire length of the roof, providing a panoramic view that even on this rainy Halloween day was spectacular.

The dome car will be in service on Illinois Zephyr trains 380 and 383 from Tuesday to Nov. 22, according to Amtrak.

The Zephyr operates between Chicago and Quincy, with stops in Galesburg and Macomb. Seating in the Great Dome car is unreserved. Details are at Amtrak.com.

The dome car has a rich past. It was among six similar Great Dome cars built almost 60 years ago by the Budd Co. for the Great Northern Railway, which operated the cars on the Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle.

The dome cars, —the one I rode carried the name "Ocean View" — were also used by the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad (later the Burlington Northern Railroad). Amtrak took over all six cars when the federally chartered corporation began operations in 1971.

Most of the six original dome cars still survive, according to a website hosted by trainweb.org, but all except the one car remaining in Amtrak service were sold to private owners.

"They were stripped out and customized and some of them are used on charters during ski season in the West," said Amtrak conductor Tony Dyer, a 17-year Amtrak veteran who was aboard the Lake Shore Limited trip to Chicago on Thursday. "Amtrak ought to bring the dome cars back. People love them."

Passenger Brenda Dawson confirmed the dome car's popularity.

"It's like being in a bullet," Dawson, of Dallas, said as she enjoyed breakfast in the car. "You can see the color of the trees. It is heaven up here. It's like you are up in the sky almost."

But Amtrak has no plans to build new dome cars.

"On a lot of our trains we don't have sufficient coach seating capacity and the sleeping cars sell out," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. "The drive is for more revenue seats. That is how we are able to cover 80 percent of our costs."

The Great Dome car proved to be more than a conversation piece during our trip. The car's layout, with both forward-facing seats and benches positioned lengthwise in the cabin facing large windows, seemed to facilitate banter among strangers who shared the sights ranging from farm fields and woods to cities and industrial parks.

William Ames, a Chicago native who lives in Northfield, Mass., discovered a bond — fishing for walleyes and muskies in Wisconsin in the 1960s — with Gary and Barb Kieffer of Wausau, Wis.

"We used to go ice fishing every weekend in the winter and catch our limit," Barb Kieffer said, lamenting that the lakes have been overfished in recent years.

"Yes, it was a good time, just wonderful memories. I got a muskie like that," Ames said excitedly, gesturing with his hands. "We caught so many fish you couldn't lift the string."

Ames, who was taking the train to visit his daughter and grandchildren in Chicago, said he remembers when there were 26 railroad stations in the area around downtown Chicago.

"If you are born and raised in Chicago in the '30s, '40s, '50s or '60s, you took the train. You didn't take anything else," he recalled.

Ames is a onetime military fighter pilot who doesn't like air travel, because of the hassles, mainly, and because getting there isn't half the fun at 38,000 feet.

"This is your country so take a look, it's all around you," Ames said. "In many ways it's a passage through history, because you see what we were instead of what we are," he said as the train glided past closed factories in Indiana whose smokestacks have been idle for years.

Ames, a fifth-generation Chicagoan, said he has no doubts that manufacturing and jobs and passenger trains will make a big comeback in the Midwest.

Despite Amtrak ridership setting records in 10 of the past 11 years, it doesn't compare to the heyday that Ames lived through.

"You can't be born and raised in Chicago and not be a train buff. It just doesn't happen," Ames said. "Ridership today is as low as I have seen it. I don't know why that is. So maybe the dome car will help pick it up a little.''

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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