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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
| By Warren Kalbacker | From Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

"One of my sons and some of his friends took the car to New York the other night." * Like many fathers, Bennett Levin occasionally hands the car keys to his sons. In the Levins' case, though, the family car happens to be Pennsylvania 120, an 85-foot, 93-ton rail passenger car. A trip to Manhattan from its Philadelphia home base involves calling for a switch engine to couple 120 to an Amtrak train for a high-speed run up the Northeast Corridor main line. * Recalling a son's recent outing has solved the riddle of the rearranged stowage of cocktail snacks in the Pullman kitchen. Levin proceeds through the dining room with its etched-glass panels depicting

famous Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives and down the aisle past the car's four staterooms. He relaxes in a parlor room chair, which sports an antimacassar embroidered with a speeding Pennsylvania electric locomotive.

"That headrest is from the Congressional Limited," he notes.

The walnut-paneled room's large rear windows look out onto an open observation platform. A clock, a speedometer and an air brake pressure gauge are located just above one window. Levin recounts his car's history.

Pennsylvania 120 was built as a "business car," a rolling hotel/office, for Pennsylvania Railroad officials in 1928. The line later refurbished 120 for its president and also made it available for charter to VIPs. Every U.S. president from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson was welcomed aboard. Pennsylvania 120 carried John Kennedy to Army-Navy football games and his brother Robert's coffin from New York to burial in Washington, D.C. Levin particularly enjoys passing along the information that Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Peter Lawford once chartered the car for a New York to Chicago jaunt. He glances toward the bedrooms and wonders what hijinks the Rat Pack might have perpetrated on that overnight trip.

"It had such important historic value, we decided to do a complete rebuild," Levin says, adding, "I bought this car because I had an affinity for the Pennsy. I would not have bought a New York Central or Texas & Pacific car."

As a child, Levin became entranced with the Pennsy freights passing his grandmother's house in New Jersey. While a student at Penn State, he borrowed fraternity brothers' cars for trips to watch trains at Altoona along the railroad's busy main line. Levin remains fanatically loyal to the mighty "P Company," which disappeared in a 1968 merger with the New York Central. For him, Pennsy tradition rolls on whenever 120 turns a wheel.

Sharp-eyed commuters may occasionally glimpse a private car coupled onto a passing Amtrak train. Some are "heavyweights" that date from the early decades of this century (and usually sport the open observation platform familiar from photos of politicians' whistle-stop campaign tours). These cars are sometimes painted in the subdued schemes of railroads long vanished in mergers. Levin's 120 sports the dark "Tuscan" red that the Pennsylvania Railroad applied to its passenger equipment. Other private cars are stainless steel veterans of 1940s and '50s streamliners such as the California Zephyr and Silver Meteor.

Frederick Seibold, a car owner who serves as spokesman for the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) notes that private individuals own about 150 of these cars, equipped with running gear and power systems that adhere to Amtrak's requirements, which allow them to travel economically (admittedly, a relative term) from city to city. He estimates that another 200 cars are under restoration or operate on short lines. These cars, dubbed "private varnish" (P.V.) because of the high gloss displayed by nineteenth-century wooden passenger cars (boxcars received drab red paint), represent a long tradition of luxury rail travel. Railroad moguls and business titans such as E. F. Hutton and Henry Ford traveled in personal cars. F. W. Woolworth had one built for his daughter. Sidings (side tracks) at resorts such as Palm Beach and Newport hosted fleets of P.V.s during the vacation seasons.

For decades, passengers aboard the nation's leading trains shared much of the luxury. According to Fred Bartoli, a civil engineer who designs passenger stations for Amtrak and maintains an interest in rail history, "The nation's premier trains such as the New York Central's Twentieth Century Limited and Pennsylvania's Broadway, which were arch competitors on the New York-Chicago route, featured 'baggage smokers' immediately behind the railway post office car." Bartoli stresses that the presence of a luggage room in no way implied that these weren't first-class cars. Baggage smokers provided gentlemen travelers with a club atmosphere congenial for smoking, cocktails and late-evening drinks. The streamliners of the '30s introduced mid-train lounge cars that welcomed women, though Bartoli notes that in the 1938 edition of the Twentieth Century Limited, the famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfus retained head-end Century Club cars. Bearing names such as Century Inn and Century Lounge, these stylish Art Deco cars attracted an elite clientele.

Private car owners are fiercely dedicated to preserving the heritage of luxury. An example is the enamel Pennsy Keystone logos on the bases of the ashtray stands that grace the parlor room in Levin's 120. "A fine cigar and a glass of good wine is absolutely part of the ambience," Levin says. He's restored 120's interior with walnut from New Guinea and Madagascar to give the car the feel of an old-time men's club and outfitted the dining room and parlor with oils by Grif Teller, the artist who for years painted the Pennsylvania's calendar scenes. Original Pennsy flatware and serving pieces grace the dining room. Levin confesses he's updated 120's interior a bit, with edged-glass partitions, bookshelves, new bathrooms and dining facilities. Legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy once offered a distinctive "moderne" interior for the Pennsy president's car. The line rejected Loewy's design. Says Levin: "The Pennsy was Quaker and very modest."

Levin's guests and charter passengers won't see the concrete and lead sheets he's added under the floor to dampen noise and vibration. Railroaders insist the heavier the car, the smoother the ride. Levin has also installed new air conditioning and braking systems. He's equipped 120 with a television and VCR, cell phones and a Global Positioning System, which identifies the car's location by using radio signals from satellites. "You can set up a laptop and watch your progress along the route on a map display," says Levin. But he limits his personal use of technology when aboard. "I don't carry a beeper or cell phone," he says. "I've spent some of the best hours right here on the couch, heading up New River Gorge in West Virginia coupled to Amtrak's Cardinal or rolling across the state of Maine on the rear of a freight train. It's very nice when you're out of touch."

Levin recalls that he was on a business trip to Asia in 1985 when one of his sons called him with the news that a New Orleans entrepreneur--one of a number who've owned the car subsequent to its Pennsy service--had put the car up for sale. As head of his own engineering firm, Levin designed electrical and mechanical systems for large buildings around the country, but he insists the 120 restoration proved especially rewarding. "Three Levins and a couple of others did it," he says. "I crawled underneath and rewired the car. My sons, both now in their 30s, grew up in an affluent environment. But now they know how to weld."

Frederick Seibold manages a radio station in central Illinois, but on weekends he can be found in work clothes and a hard hat underneath his car, named Central Plateau. His current project: replacing a vintage ice cooling chest with modern air conditioning.

One day during his boyhood train-spotting days, the Baltimore & Ohio local arrived in Seibold's hometown trailing a car with an open rear platform and brass rail. Years later, passing through Chicago's Dearborn Station at breakfast time, Seibold recalled the aroma wafting from the galley of a Grand Trunk Western business car. "The brewing coffee and frying ham smelled so good and the car looked so good in its two-tone green-and-black livery, I decided that some day I was going to have one of those."

Seibold's P.V. rolled in when a Chicago-area freight line decided to sell the 1926 vintage observation car it had been using for track inspections and as a safety instruction classroom. Seibold couldn't believe his luck. He discovered that the car had been built by the Pullman Co. for service in premier New York Central trains, including the Twentieth Century Limited. Remarkably, all the furniture in the observation room was original.

Like a sailor who's as passionate about working on his yacht as cruising, Seibold has undertaken a painstaking restoration of the car. He acquired Central Plateau's original blueprints and pored over photos from the Smithsonian and pictures Pullman itself made during construction. Seibold versed himself in the complexities of the six-wheel Pullman 2610A trucks on which Central Plateau rides and he scours the country for all sorts of parts. "If you're looking for a hubcap for an Auburn auto, you can't get it at the corner parts store," he deadpans.

Seibold's restoration doesn't ignore the fact that Central Plateau was built for luxury transportation. He's created four mahogany-paneled staterooms and a dining room where the freight railroad had gutted the car for a classroom. He discovered that the German textile firm that wove upholstery fabrics for Pullman is still in business. His photo research enabled him to select a diamond mohair pattern close to the car's original design for re-covering the furniture. And when a Vanderbilt family member disposed of a railroad silver collection, Seibold acquired a serving tray that matched one a waiter held in an old photo of his car.

Central Plateau's dining room will boast place settings of the Pullman Co.'s Indian Tree china pattern, and Seibold is determined to recreate the atmosphere of 1920s first-class travel in the observation lounge, where he notes that gentlemen enjoyed their cigars. He's outfitted the room with a vintage brass ashtray stand--original Pullman Co. design, of course. Though he claims not to be operating "according to timetable," Seibold hopes in the near future to apply his PULLMAN stencil to Central Plateau's dark green "wet look" exterior paint (custom-matched by Rustoleum) and roll the car out for Amtrak inspectors. Once they certify his P.V.'s compatibility with their equipment, Seibold will be off to travel with friends and charter guests across what railroad enthusiasts sometimes call "America's iron ocean."

Seibold views P.V.s as the perfect vehicle for the "trip of a lifetime," and he takes a broad view of potential passengers. "Probably your most delightful company is friends, not necessarily foaming-at-the-mouth rail buffs," he says.

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.

Nowadays, Stillman Tidwell can be found aboard the 1922-vintage Cannon Ball, which her father, Dr. James Stillman, purchased to continue the family's New York to Texas rail journeys (he located the car through an ad in The Wall Street Journal). Stillman's acquisition coincided with a change in Amtrak's animal policy, which prohibited pets on the trains. After all, the family dogs still had to make the trip. She recalls a desire on her father's part "to turn the clock back to a wonderful era and provide for the pleasure of family and friends."

Stillman Tidwell explains that her family named their car Cannon Ball to honor the Wabash Railroad on which it once ran, as well as one of her father's favorite trains, the parlor car train known as the Cannon Ball that was the Long Island Rail Road's premier New York to Montauk express. She points with pride to the car's marquetry, and notes that the rich wood grain isn't wood at all. The deep tones result from techniques developed early in the century by the Pullman Co. to endow bare steel walls with the look of walnut, mahogany and English oak. At the time, stronger and safer steel cars were replacing older wooden rolling stock, but passengers apparently preferred the richly paneled interiors, and car builders were not about to abruptly depart from tradition. Cannon Ball is also equipped with a pair of "sections." Stillman Tidwell says that these curtained Pullman sleeping berths are identical to those that hid Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as they fled south from the clutches of the Chicago mob in Some Like It Hot.

Private-varnish travelers get a sense of America that jet-setting travelers never do. Stillman Tidwell has traveled aboard Cannon Ball across the Painted Desert, through the Colorado Rockies and to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. She points out that New Iberia, Louisiana, is redolent of truckloads of red chili peppers destined to become Tabasco sauce--not a sensation experienced by airplane passengers. A favorite trip of hers is the five-hour shoreline run from New York to Boston, with Cannon Ball coupled to the rear of Amtrak's Mayflower express. She can be found mixing Bloody Marys for her friends or charter guests as the train curves high over the Hell Gate Bridge that links Queens with the Bronx. The Manhattan skyline provides the spectacular backdrop. Before the run along the beaches of Long Island Sound, the electric locomotives are exchanged for diesels at New Haven, Connecticut, where the overhead wires come to an end.

While the engine change is taking place, the smokers come out of the Amtrak coaches, wander back along the platform and tell us how jealous they are," says Stillman Tidwell. Cannon Ball boasts the traditional ashtray stand in its parlor room. And it's used. Whenever she "ties up at the bumper" in Boston's South Station, Stillman Tidwell restocks her car at South Station Concierge. The shop hand-rolls cigars on the premises.

The ride, after all, is what it's all about, whether for rail buffs or casual passengers seeking what one car owner describes as "relaxed privacy" along with their food, wine, smokes and scenery. Fred Bartoli recalls a journey with five business colleagues from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., with the car's open platform "properly pointed" on the rear of Amtrak's Desert Wind to Chicago and the Capitol Limited beyond.

"P.V.s attract the attention of car inspectors," he observes. "They always seem to be under the impression that someone important--a rail executive or a celebrity--is aboard." The practical result, says Bartoli, is "no hard couplings."

Bartoli and his companions once enjoyed one of the country's prime scenic rail trips, the old Rio Grande "main line through the Rockies," which climbs eastward from the Salt Lake area to Soldier Summit and on through Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs before a spectacular descent into Denver. "On the tracks through the mountains, we were making 50 to 60 mph at most, so the open platform is quite comfortable," Bartoli recalls. "And since the locomotives were 17 cars ahead, it was surprisingly quiet. You could hear the rushing waters of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon and even hear the calls of the birds. And we traveled during October, when the aspen were starting to turn gold. Except for meals and cocktails, I spent the days outside on the rear platform--and the others on the car kept kidding me about it. But how close can you be to nature while experiencing such luxury? Certainly not when you're hiking."

Bartoli describes a thought that might occur to any passenger aboard a P.V. who's ever bought "Short Line" or "B&O" during a Monopoly game: "At night the track inspection lights are turned on, and you can enjoy the fantasy that it's your own railroad trailing out behind." *

Warren Kalbacker, a freelance writer living in New York City, has spent some 80 nights sleeping aboard railroad cars.

All Aboard
Those wishing to enter the world of private railroading should hook up with the following sources:

AAPRCO (The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners) holds conventions, offers services to rail car owners and welcomes members who don't own cars. For membership information contact: Burt Hermey, 1146 Charleston Street, Costa Mesa, California 92626-2707; (714) 751-2032.

The organization's magazine, Private Varnish, is published six times a year. Write AARPCO, P.O. Box 50221, Pasadena, California 91115-0221 to subscribe ($22 a year). Write AAPRCO, 106 North Carolina Avenue S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003 for single copies of the charter directory, which lists cars offered for charter to the public.

The organization's Web site (http://www.aaprco.com/) has general information about membership, subscriptions and an index with photos and specifications of rail cars.

Green Frog Productions (200 North Cobb Parkway, Suite 138, Marietta, Georgia 30062; (800) 227-1336) offers the video Steel Rails-Private Varnish ($34.95), which shows footage of the interior and exterior of many exceptional cars filmed at an AAPRCO convention.