45 Years Later Memories of My First Amtrak Trip Still Resonate

Forty-five years ago today I stood on the platform of the Illinois Central Railroad passenger station in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, in the early morning hours awaiting the arrival of Amtrak train No. 58.

It would be my first ever trip aboard Amtrak, a day trip to Chicago. It would mark my first experience riding in a dome car and my first experience eating dinner in an Amtrak dining car.

I’ve since ridden Amtrak dozens of times and had a full range of experiences good, bad and indifferent.

But none can quite compare to that first trip, which I still remember in some detail as though it happened not that long ago.

For example, I still remember the sound of the brake shoes being applied every time No. 58 approached a town where another rail line crossed at grade.

I also still remember the rush that I felt when I spotted the headlight of No. 58 a mile or so out of town as I stood on the platform. Train time was at hand.

The Panama Limited was about a half-hour late when it arrived in Mattoon and I was disappointed when I saw that the lead locomotive was painted in Amtrak colors rather than those of the ICRR.

The trailing unit still wore an IC livery as did the two units that pulled No. 59 that evening back to Mattoon.

Amtrak was 19 months old on Nov. 25, 1972, and still in he rainbow era in which cars refurbished in Amtrak colors and markings mingled with cars still in their as-received condition from Amtrak’s contract railroads.

I was impressed with the interiors of the refurbished cars with their blue seats and walls with paisley accenting. They looked modern. Today, when I see one of those cars in a museum or on an excursion train they look so Seventies.

At the time of my first Amtrak trip, I was a college student and my traveling companion was my sister’s boyfriend. He was still in high school.

In retrospect, I’m surprised that our parents let us travel to the big city by ourselves as neither of us really knew Chicago and we had some difficulty time finding Union Station to return home after a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.

We had ridden a CTA bus to and from the museum and back but we had had no idea which routes went where.

I had noticed when the train arrived in Mattoon that morning that it had a dome car toward the front of the train.

By chance it was a car or two ahead of the coach in which we had been seated and shortly after the train left Kankakee I asked the conductor if we could sit up there.

“I don’t see why not,” was the reply.

It was dome sleeper and I didn’t know there were such things. It would turn out to be the only time that I rode in one.

As No. 58 made the turn to get onto the St. Charles Air Line in Chicago, I had a view from the dome of the coach yard of the former Central Station.

It was filled with passenger cars wearing IC colors and markings. By November 1972, passenger cars in the IC livery were uncommon on the Chicago-Carbondale-New Orleans trains that I saw. IC passenger locomotives, though, were still the norm.

An IC employee was sitting in the dome section and had a radio. It was the first time I had heard railroad radio transmissions.

We halted and the engineer said on the radio, “Weldon Tower would you tell them that 58 is sitting here. Waiting. ”

I guess we didn’t have the signal yet from Union Avenue interlocking on the Burlington Northern.

No. 58 was scheduled to arrive into Chicago Union Station at 9:30 a.m. and we backed in shortly after 10 a.m.

Despite our adventures or misadventures in finding the correct CTA bus routes we got back in plenty of time to catch our train.

I remember a station announcement that still sticks in my mind because I’ve haven’t heard a boarding announcement quite like it since.

It came from the booming voice of man who wasn’t so much announcing the train’s pending departure as commanding passengers to get on board.

“Your attention please! Amtrak train No. 59, the Panama Limited, intends to leave at six ten p.m.”

It was the use of and emphasis on the word “intends” that got my attention.

This was a transition time between the era of passenger trains operated by the freight railroads and the Amtrak culture that was still taking root.

My ticket, which had cost $11, was on Amtrak stock and placed inside an Amtrak ticket envelope. But it had been endorsed with an ICRR stamp and issued by an IC employee.

My next Amtrak trip in December 1972 had a ticket issued on former Pennsylvania Railroad stock and placed inside a Penn Central ticket envelope.

Not long after the Panama Limited left Chicago, we made our way to the dining car. It had angled tables and seating, something I’d never seen and have not seen since.

I don’t remember what I ordered but am sure it was one of the least expensive items on the menu.

I was impressed with the efficiency of the waiters and their business-like approach to the job. They were constantly going back and forth from the dining area to the kitchen and doing so with authority as they carried their trays.

These men probably had worked for the IC or some other railroad before Amtrak and everything about them was old school.

There were a lot more of them than is the case aboard today’s Amtrak dining cars.

After dinner, we took it upon ourselves to go back to the dome car, figuring that the “permission” we had received that morning was still good that evening.

It was neat to see the signal bridges ahead as No. 59 rushed southbound. The green signal would turn to red shortly after the lead locomotive passed it.

A couple of sleeping car attendants – they might have still been routinely referred to as porters then – were sitting in the dome section and asked us if we were sleeping car passengers.

We were not.  One of them replied that the dome was supposed to be for those in the sleepers.

He didn’t exactly order us to leave, but we had gotten the message. We stayed for a few more minutes and then went back to our coach seats.

The trip seemed to end all too quickly. It had been slightly longer than three hours.

I stepped off the train in Mattoon feeling awed by the whole experience. I wanted to do it again and often, but it would be a few more years before I was in a position to do that.

By then Amfleet cars had come to the Midwest and Superliners were on the horizon. The Amtrak culture had taken a firm hold. The private railroad passenger service era had faded away.

Between 1994 and 2014 I would ride Amtrak from Cleveland to Mattoon a couple times a year to visit my Dad.

Every time I stood on the platform in Mattoon to wait for the City of New Orleans or the Saluki for Chicago, I would look to the south for the headlight of the approaching train and be taken back to that morning in November 1972 when my first experience with Amtrak was seeing the headlight of a EMD E unit charging northward into my memory.

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One Response to “45 Years Later Memories of My First Amtrak Trip Still Resonate”

  1. Bob Dau Says:

    my father worked at Weldon Tower on the 4pm to midnite shift back then. He might have been the one to help get your train to Union Station that night.I remember going with him on weekends then and watching the Amtrak trains take the south wye to Union Station instead of coming passed us to Central Station

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