Ride Like A Railroad Baron

Here's how you can charter a luxurious vintage private car -- and hook up to an Amtrak train

Breakfast is served. We're about an hour out of Union Station in Los Angeles as we sit down to a meal of crab quiche and fresh fruit, laid out on tables bedecked with china, linens, and flowers. Through the wide expanse of windows of our private dome car, the Bella Vista, we can see the skyline giving way to row after row of warehouses, then to modest residential neighborhoods. Soon the Pacific Ocean comes into view on the right. We're hooked on the back of Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, on our way to San Diego. Such is the world of "private varnish," a nickname for any privately owned railroad car. It comes from the high-gloss exterior finish and hand-rubbed wood interiors of the sumptuous cars built for the personal use of railroad barons early in the 20th century.

If you're itching to recall the halcyon days of rail travel, there are 100 or so private cars in the U.S. certified to ride on Amtrak or VIA Rail Canada trains, and about half of them are available for hire. But private varnish isn't the way to go if you're in a hurry, or strapped for cash. Prices to charter a car start at around $3,000 a day and can easily top $5,000 or $6,000, depending on which car you choose, how far you're going, and how many switches between Amtrak trains you need to get there. The price includes a crew of at least a chef and a steward. For most private cars, what you'll pay per person works out to be comparable to accommodations in a veranda or penthouse stateroom on a high-end cruise.

"It's like chartering a business jet," says Tom Tilford, a retired lawyer from Spokane, Wash. "It makes no economic sense to compare the price to a commercial airline ticket." Tilford hired the Bella Vista for a weekend in April to treat family members and friends to "the most spectacular scenery in the U.S." on a San Francisco-Denver trip that traveled over the Sierra Nevada and Rockies.

Planning starts with picking a car. The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) has pictures on its Web site, aaprco.com, of all the private cars available for charter, with contact information. Or you can buy its Private Car Charter Guide for $7.50 (800 856-6876).

You'll probably want either a business or dome car. Business cars, mostly built for railroad execs in the 1920s, sleep four to eight in two to four staterooms. They have a dining room in the center, a lounge at the back, and usually an open-air rear platform of the type used by politicians for whistle-stop tours. Classic business cars include the Chapel Hill, built in 1928 for stockbroker E.F. Hutton and now based in Cincinnati, and the New York Central 3, built in 1922 for the last Vanderbilt to run that railroad and now housed in Brookfield, Conn. One of the newest business cars in private service, the Los Angeles-based Scottish Thistle, built in 1959, logged more miles on Amtrak last year than any other private car.

OVERNIGHT STOPOVERS

Because of the 20-foot upstairs lounge, you'll get more space in dome cars, all built after World War II. The poshest rebuilt cars are the Bella Vista and the Northern Sky, which author Tom Clancy chartered five years ago for his honeymoon. Dome cars generally sleep eight in four double bedrooms and sometimes have a downstairs lounge as well. Because of height restrictions, you can't travel in domes in the Northeastern U.S.

Most private cars can accommodate more passengers during the day than overnight, so consider coupling one to a sleeper car for larger groups or to spread the cost among more people. (Amtrak has a reduced rate for second cars, and crew costs will be less for the sleeper.)

Look at as many pictures as you can, visit the car if it's berthed locally, and ask for references. If it's yesteryear elegance you dream of, you probably don't want to be stuck in a car that still has its original 1950s stainless-steel fittings and Naugahyde divans. On the other hand, you may not be comfortable in one outfitted with period Victorian furnishings either. Check the sleeping arrangements carefully: There's usually a mix of larger cabins with full beds and tiny compartments with upper and lower berths.

You'll save a substantial amount if you fly to where the car is based rather than having it come to you. That cuts down on the owner's costs to position the car. If you're traveling one way, expect to pay for the empty car to deadhead home.

STOPOVER CITIES

Plan overnight stopovers in cities you'd like to explore rather than simply rolling across the countryside at night. Again, you'll save on mileage costs -- Amtrak currently charges $1.15 per mile -- and in many cities your car can serve as your hotel. The favorites by far are Denver, where you're in the heart of the hip LoDo (lower downtown) district, and New Orleans, whose station is a short hike from the French Quarter. Other popular layovers: Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, B.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Whitefish, Mont., the starting point for tours to Glacier National Park. For cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami, and Boston, Amtrak has no facilities to accommodate private cars overnight, or they're in marginal neighborhoods: You'll need to book a hotel.

If you don't want to reserve a whole car, buy a compartment instead. Check out AAPRCO's Web site for public trips run by owners trying to defray their costs. A good bet are voyages to AAPRCO's convention in September in Missoula, Mont.; 27 private cars are scheduled to make the journey. Some cars' sites, such as that of the New York Central 3, seek compatible groups to fill up cars chartered by their clients.

Other options: Bella Vista spends summers in first-class service on Montana Rockies Rail Tours (800 519-7245) between Spokane, Wash., and Livingston, Mont., a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. American Orient Express (800 320-4206) runs trains of 16 vintage cars on 10 itineraries in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Sleeping cabins start at about $500 per person per night.

No matter how you go, riding these cars is bound to rekindle nostalgia for a slower, more romantic way of travel all but lost in the U.S. today. You'll feel it when you hear the first "all aboard."

By Larry Armstrong

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