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.
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.
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
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.