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Private railroad cars provide a step back in time

Sunday, November 5, 2006

By LISA CORNWELL

The Associated Press

CINCINNATI -- Financial barons and wealthy socialites once traveled the country on luxurious private railroad cars, dining on fine china and crystal and pampered by stewards. Today's travelers can recapture that romantic era with journeys on some of the same cars.

A relatively small number of train devotees have purchased and refurbished the private rail cars familiar in the first half of the 20th century -- the golden age of passenger rail travel.

Passengers can sip cocktails and nibble on hors d'oeuvres while sinking into deep leather sofas in lounges paneled in rich mahogany and be lulled to sleep at night by the rhythm of train wheels rolling down the rails.

"I wasn't a train buff, but I am now," said Donna Cothron, who took a trip with her husband on the Cincinnati-based Oliver Hazard Perry sleeper-lounge. "I could travel like this forever. It's so relaxing."

The Cothrons' car was part of a train that went to Chicago for shopping and sightseeing, then through picturesque Michigan towns such as Petoskey on the banks of Lake Michigan and Boyne Falls, where the train pulled into a Polish Festival.

The private single cars and multi-car trains normally travel Amtrak routes, hooked onto the back of Amtrak passenger trains as they wind through the Sierra Mountains or the Great Plains or into bustling metropolitan areas such as Chicago, New York and Washington.

Brian Collins, owner and president of the Cincinnati Railway Co., says most of the 50 or so owners around the country who provide charter service charge by the car. He also makes trips available per individual. A four-day trip to Washington might cost $1,000 per person, including the accommodations on the train, food and drinks. Off the train, passengers pay for their own meals and activities.

"The cost can be comparable to a high-end ocean cruise," Collins said.

Sometimes they go off Amtrak lines, hiring a freight engine to pull the cars along short-line railroads that are less traveled and offer a more leisurely pace and the opportunity to stop in small towns.

The Cothrons leased a car with three bedrooms, two showers, kitchen, dining room and lounge solely for themselves and were served by a chef-concierge.

"It's like riding in a million-dollar motor home on rails," said Edwin Cothron, a real estate developer, as he relaxed in the car with a glass of wine as the 1940s song "Long Ago and Far Away" played softly in the background.

There are 130-140 private rail cars for charter certified for Amtrak routes in nearly every section of the country, and some for Canada and Mexico, according to Diane Elliott, executive director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car.

Businesses, organizations, families and groups of friends lease the cars to go to reunions, celebrate birthdays or anniversaries and attend sports events like the Kentucky Derby or the Super Bowl.

Interior design varies from the brass trim and wood paneling of luxurious business cars to the high-gloss enamel and stainless steel of the Art Deco style popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

Brian Collins, owner and president of the Cincinnati Railway Co., says most of the 50 or so owners around the country who provide charter service charge by the car. He also makes trips available per individual. A four-day trip to Washington might cost $1,000 per person, including the accommodations on the train, food and drinks. Off the train, passengers pay for their own meals and activities.

"The cost can be comparable to a high-end ocean cruise," Collins said.

Lifelong rail fan Ted Hutton, 59, of Cincinnati, said he paid about $200 a day for the recent eight-day trip from Cincinnati to Michigan.

"Part of the appeal to me is the nostalgia, but it's also more comfortable and convenient than Amtrak," Hutton said. "I can park my car, get on and off when I want and have all the amenities."

Collins, who took his first private rail car trip in 1996, eventually bought the Birch Grove, a 1950 sleeper car that served on the Southern Pacific's "Sunset Limited" between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

"I decided that if I bought a sleeper, I could partner with owners of lounge and dining cars for trips," said Collins, who handles the complex scheduling involved in switching back and forth between railways and arranging destinations.

His sleeper car has 10 private one-bedroom roomettes with pull-down sinks and beds and six double bedrooms. Each sleeping room has a sink and toilet, and there is a shower onboard.

Roger Verbeeren Jr., owner and president of the suburban Chicago-based American Rail Excursions Inc., also puts cars together from a fleet of sleepers, lounges, coaches and business cars based just outside St. Louis, where most of the company's trips begin.

His Silver Quail sleeper features 11 bedrooms that have either a short sofa, lounge chair and fold-down table or a long sofa and fold-down table. At night, an upper bed stowed against the ceiling or wall is pulled down and the sofas convert into lower beds.

The Silver Quail and the Royal Street, a sleeper-lounge observation car, hooked up with the Cincinnati Railway on the recent trip to Michigan.

"I loved to just relax on my lower berth and watch the countryside passing by," said passenger Jan Caudell, a middle school teacher from South Bend, Ind., who had never ridden on a private car.

It was the fifth trip for Ron Arturi, of Willow Springs, Ill. He said the service was similar to an ocean cruise, but with a more intimate atmosphere.

"It's more of a casual elegance," he said.

"There weren't chocolates on the pillow, but stewards were there to serve you and turn your bed down at night," Caudell said.

Roy Wullich, owner and president of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Rail Journeys West, has leased his 1948 Silver Solarium dome observation car to film companies. He said singer Barry Manilow once chartered four cars for himself, his family and friends.

Wullich said his typical per-car charge might be $5,000-$8,000, but there are ways to defray costs.

"One group of ladies from the Denver area got together to charter a car one way to a cooking school they were attending in the Napa Valley, and then flew back," he said.

Trip length and destination also factor into affordability.

"People can still get a high level of service without being an oil baron or millionaire," said Verbeeren, who offers extended weekend trips such as St. Louis to Chicago for around $650 a person.

Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine, said that traveling on private rail cars of the kind that carried business magnates such as J.P. Morgan and E.F. Hutton certainly isn't inexpensive, but there is a strong nostalgic appeal.

"You get travel, history, romance and intrigue -- all in one," he said.


If You Go ...

CINCINNATI RAILWAY CO.: http://www.cincinnatirailway.com or 513-791-7245, based in Cincinnati.

AMERICAN RAIL EXCURSIONS INC.: http://www.americanrail.com or 708-758-6680, company based in Sauk Village, Ill.; trains based in Madison, Ill., just across the river from St. Louis.

RAIL JOURNEYS WEST INC.: http://www.railjourneyswest.com or 408-241-7807, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF PRIVATE RAILROAD CAR OWNERS: http://www.aaprco.com or 202-547-5696. Provides information on private cars available for charter, chartering process, destinations.

COST: Prices range from under $1,000 per person for a long weekend, to more than $8,000 per car, depending on length of route, number of days, number of passengers, amenities, and other customized features.

PRACTICAL TIPS: Pack light, not more than one or two bags, preferably soft-sided for easier storage. Expect when paying flat fee or individual price to put down deposit with final payment required before trip.


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