Amtrak Dome Car Ride
December 1, 2013

by Dave Ingles

Before the photos of the actual dome-car ride, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a prelude, if you please. Thanksgiving Day was quiet for us, with daughter Suzy working on a holiday as usual, so official dinner will be another night; she's a salaried Walgreen's store manager, but earns more money on a holiday. The day was sunny, the pathetic Packers were getting stomped, so I went to downtown Milwaukee to shoot a Hiawatha with the dome car. This first photo is not Amtrak, and therein is a tale. While patiently waiting for train #335 at Maple St., having confirmed with a friend on board that it was on-time, I heard and then saw -- and then was skunked by -- an eastbound CP oil train with new white tank cars. You can see by the next 2 photos how close I came. (The coming-on photo of the tank train's engines misfired on the digital -- I got only slides.)

So I just waited him out and got the same train set leaving as train #338 a half hour later or so. Note the cab control car is 90200, remade from the first-ever F40PH, Amtrak No. 200.

Intending to go back to the depot to get my ticket for Sunday's planned ride to Chicago, I got stopped just east of the depot by this slow-moving eastbound CP freight, led by GE unit 8876, which my friend and diesel expert Greg McDonnell of Ontario confirmed to me was one of several CP units lettered up for the Calgary Olympics, the special decorations replaced by the small "Canadian Pacific" letters. This was the first time i'd seen one of these units.

With time to kill and no easy, fast detour to the depot available, I went back to the nearby Florida Street overpass for another "runby."

The idea to ride the dome car on the Thanksgiving weekend first germinated when this Amtrak news release regarding its only dome car, ex-GN full length Great Dome lounge 10031 “Ocean View,” came out. To increase capacity on the Chicago–Milwaukee Hiawathas during the holiday weekend, the car would be added to one trainset to make a 7-car train. Said Amtrak: The car is planned to operate on these trains and these dates:

Nov. 25 and 27: Hiawatha Nos. 329, 332, 333, 336, 337, 340, and 341

Nov. 26 and 28: Hiawatha Nos. 330, 331, 334, 335, 338, 339, and 342

Nov. 29 and 30: Lincoln Service Nos. 303, and 306

Dec. 1: Hiawatha Nos. 331, 334, 335, 338, 339, and 342.

In reality, the dome car stayed on the Hiawathas on Friday, Nov. 29th, but the state of Illinois, which funds the Lincoln trains, complained, and the car was switched out to run on Nos. 303 and 306 as scheduled on Saturday the 30th. It returned for Sunday on the Hiawathas, and thru retired Amtrak engineer Craig Willett’s impetus, several of us “signed up” and got tickets to ride the 334-335 turn on Sunday, December 1st, leaving Milwaukee at 11 a.m. and returning after 2:30 p.m. 

Five of us from our little local “Tuesday slide group” were on board: Craig, me, Otto Dobnick, Rob McGonigal, and Tom Hoffmann. Former Amtrak conductor T.J. Van Haag of Waukesha helped secure seats in the north end of the dome car. Several of Craig’s friends also rode with us: Adam Harrington (CP engineer, Portage); Ken Oberneder (CN conductor, N.Fond du Lac); Scott Asher (railfan from Sussex, Wis.); and Mark Ziebell (CP yardmaster, Milwaukee). Here is a closeup of the car's exterior, shot after our ride concluded as the car left Milwaukee for Chicago again on train #338.

Otto Dobnick and I drove downtown and with help from T.J., boarded early. This is the unusual view from our seats while still parked on Track 1 in the depot.

Our consist on #334-335 was, from the east (Chicago) end to the west (Milwaukee), NPCU/HEP ex-F40 406 (which had been the HEP auxiliary for Amtrak’s anniversary train, painted in the old stripes), Horizon coaches 54559, 54554, 54519, 54513, 54557, and 54581, with P42 25 at the rear; dome 10031 was in the middle position between the 3rd and 4th Horizons. Here, misshapen by the dome window glass, is our special "Heritage" cab car unit 406 leading us around the curve out of the depot right after our on-time 11 a.m. departure.

Our conductor was veteran Ray Kravis. Eastbound, with a moderately heavy passenger load, we operated pretty much on-time, leaving Milwaukee at 11:00, Airport at 11:12, Sturtevant at 11:27, and Glenview at 12:06, then catching up to and following an inbound Metra, on Track 2, despite having Track 1 available. We arrived onto Track 17 at Union Station at 12:33, and our group, plus some others just out for the dome experience, stayed on board (as some had done in Milwaukee, arriving on #331). 

Here, while stopped at the Airport station, are Tom Hoffmann (left) and Otto Dobnick; I then handed my camera to one of them, and they pointed it at Rob McGonigal and me.

This is the Sturtevant station, looking back from the dome; our seats were on the north (Milwaukee) end.

Conductor Kravis, shown below, and the two assistant conductors scanned the tickets out of Sturtevant. Normally the Hiawathas have only one "A.C.," but the longer train and big crowds necessitated two on this day.

Craig Willett (left) and Tom Hoffman adhere to the old Southern Railway motto south of Sturtevant: Look Ahead, Look South.

As normal, we crossed over after the Airport stop at Lake from Track 1 to 2, and passed Amtrak #333 just after Franksville around 11:25. At the new WEPCO East crossover at MP 48.5, we went from 2 to 1 at 11:40 to overtake a long CP freight with 3 units, making our Glenview stop on Track 1 and crossing back over to 2 at Morton Grove. We caught up to the Metra train after Mayfair at 12:15. We arrived onto Track 17 at Union Station at 12:33, and our group, plus some others just out for the dome experience, stayed on board (as some had done in Milwaukee, arriving on #331). Once stopped in Chicago, we took advantage of being "in the dark subterranean station" to make some people photos in the dome. Sayre Kos, a onetime frequent TRAINS contributor, has been with Amtrak for a few years now, and is serving as Trainmaster in Milwaukee. An assistant was covering Milwaukee while Sayre was helping covering the busy and crowded Chicago Union Station scene. On this Sunday to conclude Thanksgiving weekend, Amtrak operated extra trains on 4 Chicago-based short-haul routes: the Wolverines in Michigan, Pere Marquette to Holland, Mich.; Lincoln Service to Normal, Ill.; and the Zephyr/Sandburg route to Quincy, Ill. Sayre assisted in boarding our #335, whose passenger count eventually would total 406 riders.

Rob shot me and Tom, and i shot our "entertainment committee," Otto and Craig. The man behind them with the beard, at right, is Adam Herrington; at the left, to Adam's right, is T.J. Van Haag.

Across the aisle were three more of Craig's pals. Left to right, they are Ken Oberneder, a CN conductor from N. Fond du Lac, railfan Scott Asher of Sussex, Wis., and Mark Ziebell, a CP yardmaster in Milwaukee.

We left Chicago on time at 1:05 pm with a pretty full load, and would pick up 35 or 40 more at Glenview, but conductor Kravis confirmed, when he lifted our tickets, that there were no standees, though it was close, as the final count of passengers handled by #335 was 406. T.J. says the dome car is listed as seating 91 (52 in table booths, 39 in lounge seats, both figures including both top and bottom levels). The Horizon coaches, which date from the early 1980s, each seat from 60 upwards. As we left Chicago, Rob McGonigal assumed a "lookout" position, ready to spot the few remaining PRR-style position-light signals still in use. The route from Union Station to Tower A-2 at Western Avenue was originally the route of PRR's "Panhandle' subsidiary, the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis.

This span serves as a very large signal bridge for this Amtrak trackage, also used by Metra and a nightly NS switch job for one industry; it was built for the Logan Square "L" line.

The approach and home signals for Amtrak at A-2 still are position-light signals.

Tower A-2, aka Western Avenue, guarding the crossing of the Metra MILW Dist./Amtrak tracks with UP's West Line, plus a Norfolk Southern track, is the first of three Metra-staffed towers one passes on a Milwaukee-bound Amtrak train.

In the Metra Milwaukee District coach yard, Metra's two remaining F40C units, 611 and 614, are stored. Last used some months ago, they do pinch-hit from time to time during a power shortage, and word is they will be overhauled in 2014.

Tower A-5, aka Pacific Junction, where the Metra MILW North and West lines diverge, is to close soon, replaced by three separate interlocking plants within the junction.

T.J., ensconsed in the single seat left forward in the dome, opposite the stairway, a great photo spot looking ahead, must have shot 500 digital frames of our northward (by geography) journey.

We made Glenview at 1:26 for a 2-minute stop but then became the victim of questionable dispatching out of Rondout. Here is the crowd awaiting us at Glenview.

Just shy of Junction A-20 (aka Techny), where CP's freight connection from Bensenville Yard joins the C&M (Chicago & Milwaukee) main, we go under the UP Milwaukee Sub, formerly C&NW's "New Line," with its characteristic C&NW through truss bridge overhead. This area was the site of many Milwaukee Road publicity photos in the original-Hiawatha era.

Rondout is the crossing of CN's EJ&E line and where Metra's MiLW North line (aka MiLW "J line" to Janesville) diverges from the C&M. The tower is the last of the 3 staffed structures we'll pass. The operator's desk is right inside the windows above the sign.

Past Rondout came the lousy dispatching. There were two eastbounds coming at us, CP stacker 198 on Track 2 and Amtrak 336 on Track 1. Instead of holding us east (geographically south) of Rondout until 336 could come through and cross over ahead of 198, freeing  us up to continue on Track 1 at track speed, at 1:45 or so we were routed onto the extra siding outside of Track 1, forcing us to go at 10 mph for 3 miles or so. Here we are entering the siding as CP 198 appears in the distance.

Off to the west, on a second track next to Metra's line to Fox Lake (aka MILW's old "J Line"), Metra is storing retired bilevel electric Highliners, which date to the early 1970s on Illinois Central and are being replaced by new cars being built by Nippon Sharyo at Rochelle, Ill.

CP stacker #198 now passes us, at 1:46, on track 2.

A few minutes later, as we mosey north on the siding, Amtrak #336 passes us, led by P32 No. 500 instead of the usual NPCU (“F40-bag”)—perhaps some in use on the day’s extra trains?—with P42 63 on the west end.

Here is a general view of the length of the upstairs level in the dome.

Somewhere north of Sturtevant, where we stopped from 2:20 to 2:22, Tom Hoffmann is talking with his daughter Debbie, who after visiting for Thanksgiving weekend, is headed home on I-90 with her sons to Rapid City, S. Dak. She is reporting that she has just entered the state, near Sioux Falls. She left Waukesha after breakfast and had called entering Minnesota. Rob McGonigal, meantime, is positioned to watch for his wife, Peg, who is trackside at Oakwood Road to watch us pass and make a movie with her iPhone.

After our Airport stop (2:35-2:37, now down about 10 minutes thanks to going thru the siding west of Rondout),  CP 2nd 484, led by 8786, rounds the curve at St. Adalbert Cemetery on the south side of Milwaukee. My D70 refused to focus on the distant train as it had been doing so well, hence the softness. That's T.J. at left making his own images.

Now on the last lap, we swing around the S curve between Florida and Pittsburgh Streets. The line at the left is the freight route to CP's Muskego Yard west of downtown. 

I managed to frame part of the Menominee River drawbridge, Otto Dobnick taking a picture of it, and our head end as we approached the depot, and then ditto as we crossed 1st St.

We arrived at 2:47, leaving the crew only 13 minutes to unload and reload to depart with #338 on-time at 3 p.m. I took these farewell views on the platform and of our head end, then Otto and I headed for his car, parked in the Amtrak employee lot (It's Sunday, remember), and then got back over to 1st St. for a good-bye sequence of #338.

The crew whistled off at 3:03, which meant a 16-minute turnaround, a feat I've seen accomplished before, and we made this good-bye sequence at the Menominee Drawbridge at 3:05, to finish up a most interesting and fun day.

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