Leave the highway traffic behind this fall and take a step — or a ride — back in time aboard the Amtrak Downeaster for a trip on the Great Dome Car, a 1955 two-level train car that offers panoramic views and a nostalgic experience.
Andy and Kelly Perry boarded the Downeaster Tuesday morning for a three-day visit with their daughter who lives in Boston. Andy Perry works for the Maine Turnpike Authority highway department, and he was happy to sit back, relax and let someone else do the driving while he enjoyed a cup of coffee and the views the dome car offers.
“It’s a different experience and it’s very relaxing,” he said.
The Great Dome Car is in service on the Downeaster for the second year, and seats are available at no extra cost, but available on a first-come, first-served basis on certain trains. To find the schedule for the Dome Car, visit www.amtrakdowneaster.com/dome-car. Passengers are encouraged to rotate in and out of the Dome Car to allow all passengers a chance to enjoy the experience.
The car was built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in 1955 for the Great Northern Railroad for $325,000 — about $2.7 million in today’s dollars. It features a lower level cafe reminiscent of a 1950s style diner where food service is offered to riders on the weekends, and an upper level where vintage style booth seats and Formica tables offer a comfortable and nostalgic ride with a spectacular view. The domed windows on both sides and ceiling offer panoramic views of the passing landscape.
When Amtrak came into existence in 1971 the car was used between Washington, D.C. and Florida. It was restored in 1985 and again in 1999. Before arriving in Maine this year it was on Amtrak’s “Pacific Surfliner service” between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, California, through the summer.
Joe Stroppel, 15, of Long Island, New York, is a train lover, and has ridden the Great Dome Car in the Adirondacks during the fall, an unforgettable experience according to the self-proclaimed “train freak.”
“I have a love of trains. I have an interest in everything to do with trains, and I just love this one,” Stroppel said. He and his father Fred spend summers in Kennebunk and they were headed for Boston for a day of sightseeing.
“I don’t know why everyone else isn’t sitting up here,” Fred Stroppel said. “There’s a whole bunch of people in those other cars looking at their computers, and it’s like why don’t you come up here and look at the world?”
Wayne Davis, chairman of Trainriders Northeast, said the Downeaster has been dubbed America’s most charming train, and the dome car only adds to that charm.
He said people discover neighbors on board and make connections with people they didn’t know, and it becomes a traveling community of shared experiences, unlike car travel.
“Rail travel brings people together, and the dome car is a nice feature to have here in Maine,” Davis said. “It’s an amenity. It convinces people ’Well, we haven’t been to Boston for a while, let’s take the dome car, it will be fun, let’s take the kids.”
Davis said Downeaster ridership was up 30 percent last year when the Great Dome Car was in service.
Natalie Bogart, marketing director for the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, hopes the dome car will encourage people to hop aboard the Downeaster for short trips, as well as trips to Boston. Riders can take any of the Downeaster stops from Brunswick to Boston, and plan a day trip, or a quick trip for dinner or shopping.
“My husband and I hopped on in Freeport and went to Old Orchard Beach for the evening. We had pier fries and an ice cream, and then headed back, it was a great little trip. Those are the kinds of trips we’re hoping people will take and enjoy the dome car this fall,” Bogart said.
Mason Clark, 12, and his brother Hayden Clark, 10, of Camden were headed to Boston for an overnight trip before school starts next week. Mom Paula Marshall said the boys love riding the Downeaster, and experiencing the Great Dome Car for the first time was a special treat.
“It’s a relaxing way to travel to Boston and we’re enjoying the views. It’s a neat experience,” Marshall said.
New station coming to Kennebunk
Davis said the next new station for the Downeaster in Maine will be in Kennebunk. Town Manager Mike Pardue said Kennebunk continues to advance the construction of a seasonal train platform.
“We have completed some of the engineering efforts and have a funding agreement with MDOT for completion by December of 2019,” he said. “We are currently on schedule to begin construction in 2018.”