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Classic Passenger Cars: Restored and On the Rails

Beckoned by a Clickety-Clack Clarion, Private Train Buffs Revel in the Ultimate Ride
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 2)

Purchase and restoration of a car to Amtrak standards can represent an investment of about half a million dollars, and as a result many owners make their cars available for charter. The per diem charge typically runs about $5,000, depending upon the itinerary and menu. In addition, owners usually add on Amtrak's hauling fee of $1.80 a mile, along with switching and parking charges.

Cars that combine sleeping and dining facilities may provide beds and berths for eight to a dozen passengers. AAPRCO's charter directory also lists sleepers with accommodations for up to 20. These often operate in tandem with a sleeper-diner. (The direc-tory is available for $5 from the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, 106 North Carolina Avenue S.E., Washing-ton, D.C. 20003.)

Often, the P.V.' s owner will travel along as host and troubleshooter. After all, any 75-year-old vehicle can display idiosyncrasies, and a railroad-oriented concierge is handy to have around--someone has to make sure the switch engine arrives to pull the car over to a siding for the night. One owner notes that he'll gladly prepare written trip guides, so passengers will "know mile by mile what they're seeing." Another, who indulges his other hobby, cooking, aboard his P.V., prepared meals for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward when they chartered his car for a birthday celebration. AAPRCO also publishes a magazine, unsurprisingly titled Private Varnish, in which P.V.s are advertised for sale along with accouterments ranging from wheel sets and generators to custom-made china. For those who don't care to don hard hats, a number of shops around the country restore and repair passenger cars.

AAPRCO was founded in 1973 so that private-car owners might deal as a group with Amtrak, which hosts most P.V. "movements" with its trains. The organization also functions as a clearinghouse for technical and safety information and helps car owners with issues such as insurance. AAPRCO also offers a membership category for those who do not own cars. According to Fred Seibold, the organization is eager to introduce P.V. travel--and interest in ownership--to those who may not have experienced trains during the years before Amtrak assumed operation of the nation's rail passenger service.

AAPRCO views an annual convention as an absolute necessity, and P.V. owners stage theirs in style. Special trains of up to 20 cars or more, coupled together behind 8,000 horsepower worth of rented Amtrak locomotives, converge on destinations such as Banff in the Canadian Rockies, New Orleans (K-Paul's Kitchen dished up the Cajun cuisine right on the platform) and Hoboken, New Jersey. (Surprising? Not to rail enthusiasts. The Hoboken terminal building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the views of Manhattan are spectacular, and, of course, P.V. owners bring first-class hotels with them). Conventioneers enjoy lectures on topics such as "air brake fundamentals" and, as the parties move from car to car, reminisce about their "rare mileage" excursions over remote scenic lines or perhaps voyages south of the border on the rails of the Ferrocariles Nacionales de Mexico.

The private-car special train, in which P.V. owners hire their own locomotives to pull their cars rather than hooking up along a regular Amtrak route, is a favorite--and expensive--mode of moving their P.V.s, permitting travel where passenger trains haven't run for years. William Quattro, who served as co-chairman of AAPRCO's 1997 convention and is a co-owner of Ohio River 364, notes that he and his friend Bennett Levin have "traveled together," P.V. parlance for coupling up. Quattro and others sometimes negotiate with freight lines to travel routes far off the Amtrak system. He recalls one memorable trip: "Three of us rented engines from the Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads and traveled through the Great Smoky Mountains. Our train originated in St. Louis and tied up in Asheville, North Carolina."

When Valerie Stillman Tidwell arrives at a destination aboard the P.V. Cannon Ball, she displays the flag of its home state of Texas as well as that of the state it's visiting. "We have a flag locker on board," says Stillman Tidwell. "After all, this car is a land yacht."

Her love affair with the rails echoes the story of Eloise at the Plaza, a 1955 children's book by Kay Thompson about a girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Like the sassy Eloise, who loved to scamper about the hotel, every summer the young Valerie enjoyed having the run of the train when her family journeyed between their homes in New York and Texas.

"There was one moment on board the Twentieth Century Limited when I was a little girl of seven or eight," she recalls. "The maître d' in the dining car bowed to the waist and handed me a corsage." (On its premier train the New York Central maintained touches such as corsages, and boutonnieres for gentlemen, into the 1960s.) As the train sped along the Hudson River, she and her little brother raced back through the sleepers to one of the two specially built observation lounge cars, Hickory Creek or Sandy Creek, which brought up the rear of the Century. Stillman Tidwell recalls a love seat with a great view that she and her brother sought to make their own "before grownups could get to it."

The Century was the setting for adult romance during this era as well. Alfred Hitchcock booked Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint for a steamy New York to Chicago trip aboard the Century in North by Northwest.

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