Courtesy Patrick Henry
The Warren R. Henry is a dome car that was built in 1955 for the Union Pacific Railroad.
With Amtrak on pace to set another ridership record this year, it appears millions of Americans are reserving seats on the nation’s rolling stock. Some are going a step further and reserving entire cars.
“Chartering a private rail car is a civilized way to travel,” said Bart Barton, publisher of Private Varnish, the magazine of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). “It’s a step above Amtrak — and sometimes two or three steps.”
And just like Amtrak, the business is seeing a rebound. “Last year, the charter business was down,” said Barton, “but during the first part of this year, it seems to be coming back pretty strong.”
Of course, traveling by private rail car is not as simple as hopping on the Downeaster or Heartland Flyer. In most cases, the cars are owned by individual railfans and chartered by groups that must reserve them well in advance. Outfitted with chefs, stewards and well-stocked kitchens and bars, the cars are hooked on the tail end of long-haul Amtrak trains, which, needless to say, imposes limitations on itineraries and schedules.
“Mostly it appeals to people who have a love of railroads from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s,” said Patrick Henry, owner of the Warren Henry, a 1955 dome lounge car with a formal dining room, and the Evelyn Henry, a 1954 sleeper car with six double bedrooms and one queen suite. “It’s Americana at its finest.”
Courtesy Patrick Henry
The Warren R. Henry offers a panoramic viewing room upstairs.
It’s also a more diverse experience than many people may realize. As the leading organization for private rail-car owners, AAPRCO currently lists 63 cars available for charter, ranging from “party cars,” designed for special events and other one-day excursions, to combination sleeper/lounge cars configured for multi-day, cross-country trips.
Among the most posh are the so-called “business cars,” luxury-appointed sleeper/dining cars that railroad executives utilized to travel in comfort as they conducted business around their steel-railed empires.
The Chapel Hill, for example, features mahogany interiors, original brass hardware and vintage railroad silver and china. With a formal dining room, lounge area and four bedrooms, it’s a classic example of what fans of private train travel refer to as a yacht on rails.
Not surprisingly, such travel doesn’t come cheap. On the Chapel Hill, a three-day charter between Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., will cost around $20,000 as will a similar trip between Chicago and San Francisco on the Warren and Evelyn Henry cars. The former sleeps six; the latter, up to 10.
“It sounds like a lot, but remember, that includes a chef, a steward and your food and beverage,” said Henry. “In most cases, it also includes your alcohol which is really popular because it’s about the only thing to do other than watch the scenery go by.”
The rates also include the haulage fee — currently $2.10 per mile — that Amtrak charges to pull private cars as well as other ancillary charges.
There are also less expensive ways to get a taste of the experience. As past president of AAPRCO, Stan Garner operates the Pony Express, a 1941 baggage car turned party car with paneled walls, antique bar and parquet dance floor. Designed to carry 25 to 30 people, one-day excursions between Los Angeles and San Diego typically run $4,500 to $5,000, making it a unique venue for birthday parties, anniversaries and weddings.
“It’s about enjoying the trip,” said Garner, “instead of trying to get somewhere in a hurry because you’re just not going to.”
That’s a big part of the appeal for John Bertini, a Houston urologist who has chartered private train cars on several occasions for family vacations. “It’s an opportunity to slow down, to enjoy a different perspective and to spend time together,” he told msnbc.com. “It’s something we don’t get to take advantage of in our hurried lives.”
Which, says Bertini, speaks to yet another benefit of traveling by private train car — the benefit of what it isn’t.
“It’s not having to take your shoes off; it’s not having people be rude to you, and it’s not having to be crammed in a seat for hours,” he said. “Imagine the opposite of your typical travel experiences — that’s what the private rail-car experience is like.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.