The Private Passenger Railcar Experience

by Lily Blouin

It’s the railroad industry’s best-kept secret, offering the elegance and grace of a bygone era.

Pictured: Built in 1948, the Sierra Hotel is one of the few restored railcars to feature both a rear observation platform and 360-degree vista dome above train level. It began private charter operation in 1980 after being acquired from Amtrak.

Doug Spinn fell in love with trains when he was just six years old. A Peoria native, he remembers waving at the trains on the Illinois Terminal Railway as they passed by his house. “I grew up on the railroad line that ran through Morton on its way to Peoria. That’s how it all started: because a train went through my backyard.”

Like many railfans, Doug’s childhood fascination grew into a lifelong passion, but his love affair with trains took an extraordinary turn in 1996, when he purchased his very own passenger railcar. “I was lucky enough to take a trip on a private car in my 20s, but I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that I would own one.” But there he was, the proud new owner of a 1950s Pullman sleeper car.

More Than a Fan Club
Doug is one of more than 120 private passenger railcar owners currently in the U.S., a unique subset of rail enthusiasts, many of whom belong to the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). Headquartered in the heart of Galesburg, Illinois, AAPRCO serves as a political advocate and professional network for private railroad car owners, trade associates and rail enthusiasts alike. Their mission is to promote the ownership, safe operation and enjoyment of the private passenger railroad car.

A private passenger railcar, also called a “private varnish,” or “PV” for short, is a railroad car which was originally built or later converted for service as a business or leisure car for private use. The term “varnish” references the beautiful, polished wood paneling and trim originally featured in many of the older railcars.

“We have always seemed to have a love affair with trains,” the AAPRCO website confesses. “The railroad passenger car represents a more relaxed and civilized time, and the private car is the epitome of the elegance and grace of a bygone era.”

Indeed, those who remember the streamliners of the 1930s and ‘40s will tell you it was an experience unparalleled in the modern age. But the association is more than just a PV fan club—it also helps coordinate private charters, and works closely with Amtrak to promote expanded private railcar services and safety standards throughout the national network.

To garner public attention and appreciation for private passenger railcar travel, AAPRCO hosts two special train trips each year in conjunction with its mid-year and annual membership meetings. Past convention specials have included trips to Portland, Maine; Spokane, Washington; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Montreal, Quebec. This year, plans for the annual special anticipate a New Orleans departure, with overnight stops in Memphis, the Quad Cities, and Minneapolis-St. Paul while en route to Duluth, Minnesota.

Preserving the Past
Private railcars have a history as old as passenger rail travel itself. In the mid- to late 19th century, as passenger routes expanded across the country, private business cars were often used by railroad officials as traveling offices, while wealthy individuals used private railcars for personal travel and entertainment. Anybody who was anybody had a railcar.

Cars like the Chapel Hill epitomized the luxury and sophistication of their day, catering to some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals. Originally built in 1922 for Post Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Chapel Hill, then known as Hussar, featured such extravagant elements as mahogany-paneled rooms and German silver.

Politicians and presidential candidates also used private railcars for “whistle-stop campaigning,” a practice still in use today. Both Presidents Taft and Wilson traveled by private railcar between 1911 and 1916. Their car, the Federal, was one of the first all-steel business cars built by the Pullman company. It is still in use today—the oldest Amtrak-certified PV in operation.

More recently, President Barack Obama boarded the beautiful Georgia 300 for a campaign trip between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2008. Pullman-built in 1930 as a lounge car known as General Polk, it was purchased by its present owner, Jack Heard, and fully upgraded in 1986. The car has hosted numerous whistle-stop campaigners since then, including Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, the streamliner was king, but the so called “silver age” was short-lived, as the rise of the automobile and the dawn of jet travel led to steep declines in rail ridership. By the late 1960s, passenger services had nearly come to a halt in the United States. Cars like Doug Spinn’s Pacific Sands embody those final decades of luxury rail travel in America. Built in 1950, the Pullman sleeper car served on the Union Pacific “City” trains until the 1971 formation of the National Passenger Rail Corporation, or Amtrak, forever changed passenger rail travel in America.

Today, thoughts of rail travel conjure images of crowded Metra lines and Amtrak coach cars, but the history and romance of that forgotten age live on in these cars and others like them—living museums and rolling artifacts that have been carefully and lovingly refurbished, preserving the past for generations to come.

Once In a Lifetime
To Katy Gullette, owner of Pacific Sunset, rail travel is supreme. “I love to travel on the train… the motion, the sound, even the smell of it,” she says. “It’s kind of a throwback to a past era when everything wasn’t electronic and high-tech, and you can kind of just breathe… It’s just very relaxing [and] peaceful.” She and her father Fred bought Pacific Sunset in 2010 and have since traveled all over the country with their trusty crew-dogs, Pearl and Maggie May.

Like most railcar owners in the 21st century, Gullette charters her car to others to offset some of the costs of maintenance and travel. “I don’t have time to charter all the time—I have a job and a business to run,” she notes. “It’s not always practical, but I didn’t buy a car thinking that I would make money on it. If you’re smart, you can offset costs and enjoy your car.”

Private railcars can be charted for private events, special occasions or “just because.” A trip can range from a weekend to as many as three weeks or more—and offer everything from Michelin-star chefs and five-star service to more casual, self-serve options. Private cars usually hook onto the back of regularly scheduled Amtrak trains, so wherever Amtrak goes, adventures and railfans may follow. Almost.

Take a look inside any of the cars listed on the AAPRCO website and you’ll see they are no ordinary railcars, and this is no ordinary travel experience. From business cars to sleepers, lounge cars and domes, each offers something unique—a once-in-a-lifetime experience catered to your wildest dreams.

Cars like Gullette's, which are known as 10/6 sleepers, can accommodate eight to 12 guests in 10 roomettes and six double bedrooms. You won’t have turn-down service aboard Pacific Sunset—the environment is more casual—but Katy promises delicious food, comfort and relaxation for those looking for adventure and a little R&R.

Other railcars, like the Chapel Hill, promise to grant your every desire while onboard—a level of style and extravagance that might make one blush if they were not already accustomed to such attention. “Enjoy gourmet meals created by your private chef and served in style by a personal steward. Relax with a cocktail in a leather club chair within the luxurious surroundings of a mahogany-paneled observation room.” You get the picture. A more intimate setting, the car has just four bedrooms, with 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets to boot.

For the most part, railcars with sleeping options provide all the modern amenities one might expect: a private bedroom and bathroom (complete with sink and sometimes shower); electricity, of course; and some of the finest foods and views one could imagine.

A cross-country trip with friends and family aboard a 1940s observation car, or a honeymoon aboard a 1911 sleeper, undoubtedly make for a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but “once-in-a-lifetime” doesn’t come cheap. According to AAPRCO’s website, the cost of a private charter is comparable to the cost of a high-end cruise. On average, all-inclusive costs can run between $2,500 and $10,000 or more per car, per day, but several factors can influence the final sum—including labor and crew expenses, Amtrak mileage fees, parking and servicing fees, and food and beverage costs. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Few travel options are as personalized and unique as chartering a private railcar—and most people don’t even know about it. “There are lifelong railfans who don’t really know about it,” Doug Spinn notes. “It’s the best-kept secret.” iBi

Visit aaprco.com to view railcars available for charter and learn more about private railcar service.

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