With last week’s announcement that Nickel Plate Road No. 765 will pull two daily Joliet-Chicago excursions June 17 and 18, we now have something on the table that may be unrecognizable, at least to veteran devotees of steam locomotives and their use in late 20th century and early 21st century excursions. For simplicity, let’s call the June 17 and 18 runs the non-excursion excursions, a train ride to get to a 1940s-theme party with food, music, re-enactors, cab tours, and cocktails. It is a bold and risky move – most operators of the last few big mainline steam locomotives still plan and execute full day and even overnight excursions that cater to their traditional customers -- but certainly one that is necessary and welcomed. After all, the number of folks who want to ride a steam train for eight, 10, or more hours or two days is a small subset of the population to start with and, alas, in the post-railroad era of American culture, it is growing smaller all the time. So, now is a good time to go after new markets: Families looking for unique Saturday entertainment; young hipsters, who want an experience they can brag about to their friends on Instagram and Facebook; Steampunkers, who worship a bygone era when technology would solve all problems; and suburbanites who relish the days of pre-Interstate America.
Trying out this concept in a large urban market strikes me as the best place to so. There’s a big population base, a large number of well paid and well educated residents, and a lot of income that can go toward such an outing. It’s also a population that might look at a traditional excursion and wonder why anyone would want to do such a thing – a population that might look at a combination of train ride, music, and food as something appealing.
No. 765’s keepers are not abandoning all the trappings of a good old fashioned steam excursion. In fact, open window cars, fast running, and a photo runby are part of the itinerary for each trip. But they’re only part of what’s being offered. The main event is the party at LaSalle Street Station with No. 765 as the centerpiece. Let’s hope that plenty of customers take note, find this to be irresistible, and buy a ticket. They’re on sale March 29, and for those who want to get a photo or two of the engine at the party, No. 765 is selling an event pass that gets you into the event at LaSalle Street Station. It sounds like just the ticket to have in Chicagoland come June.