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Travel 2006    

Road & rail


Millions of Americans still prefer to see the U.S.A. the old-fashioned way.

Travel in the luxury of the past in private rail cars

Years ago, the wealthiest Americans -- the likes of the Vanderbilts, Chases, Morgans, Woolworths and the Rockefellers -- traveled in first-class luxury in fabulously appointed private rail cars only the super-rich could afford.

But, that was yesteryear. Today, you don't have to be a prince of industry to enjoy that same elegance. Private rail cars, complete with sleeping accommodations, an entertainment system (when you get tired of watching the scenery roll by), and even a staff to clean and cook, not only still exist, they're available for individual travel and charter to groups.

It's not what you'd call a budget vacation, but if you're looking for a unique experience, a vacation a la private rail car certainly fills the bill. And if you have a good-sized family or group, the per-person cost for travel, lodging and meals could be downright affordable.

Dedicated owners
In the U.S., private rail cars are mostly owned by collectors who saved them from the scrap heap, restored them and now offer them for charter as a way to pay for their pricey hobby. The average cost to buy a restored car, or buy a junker and fix it up, can run to half a million dollars, says Bart Barton, president of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners. AAPRCO is the main membership organization for car owners and is a clearinghouse for information on private rail travel.

Riding in a private car is a way to get a taste of the days when first-class train travel was the first choice of America's well-to-do. The names of the available-for-charter private cars listed on AAPRCO's site -- Silver Lariat, Scottish Thistle, Glass Slipper and Northern Dreams -- evoke a nostalgia for a time when the act of traveling was pleasurable.

The AAPRCO's site glossary describes the cars and their amenities. For instance, business cars, usually built prior to World War II and used by railroad officials, typically come with a kitchen, crew quarters, dining room with seating for six to 10 people, two to four bedrooms, a lounge and an open, brass-railed platform.

Observation cars usually have a rear lounge and rear-facing windows. The forward end may contain the business car arrangement or any combination of lounge, dining, bar, or sleeping space.

On Amtrak's schedule
The cars usually are hooked to Amtrak trains and therefore subject to the whims of those schedules. And you can only couple and uncouple at major stations. However, some car owners will structure an entire trip that includes the private use of a locomotive that allows them to go where Amtrak does not. For instance, one trip listed on AAPRCO's site takes Chicagoans to the Kentucky Derby via the sleeper car Birch Grove for $2,500 per person.

The costs of chartering a private car vary widely depending on where you want to go, how many people you want to bring along to split the cost and how fancy you want to be. Average costs can run between $2,500 and $7,000 or more per car per day, according to AAPRCO. Fees include $1.75 toll per mile paid to Amtrak, and connection costs to couple and uncouple the rail cars. These are usually about $800 to $1,000 per coupling or uncoupling. Then there is the cost of the crew and food.

-- Posted: May 15, 2006
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