Why a private railroad car? Part 2

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If you are of a certain age, the image seen above is one that you may recall as the private railroad car of an age gone by. The Wanderer, as the railway home of US Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, was the center piece of each episode of “The Wild Wild West” on CBS television between 1965 and 1969. That’s the fantasy, the romance of it all.

The reality is, well… interesting. Most people I know who own a private rail car started at some point by riding someone else’s car. Paying passenger or as part of a working crew. That leads to some point where there comes an opportunity to get more involved in the day to day life of a rail car. Maybe a chance to learn about the systems needed to keep a car roadworthy. Learn what it takes to make that excursion tick from first passenger aboard to the last minute when the car is safely parked away, awaiting the next outing. Perhaps the owner needs an extra hand for service during a charter and you’re just the right person? Either way, you’ve seen the elephant along the way.

If you’re not discouraged at this point, maybe you have caught the bug. A friend knows someone looking to sell off a rail car and you give it the once over. Just like buying any vintage automobile, it can be caveat emptor. Learning what the real condition of a car is can be an education. And just like taking that auto to a garage for a once over be good mechanic can tell tales, so it is with a the private rail car world. There are folks who will give you an honest assessment of what lies ahead. As I said in the first part of this tale, paint hides a multitude of sins. All that helps when negotiations on the price come into play. Just like that boat, plane or vintage automobile.

In the case of a railroad car, age is a factor. Most cars on the road today were built after World War II. It was a time when the railroads looked to re-equip aging trains to attract post-war travelers. Trains such as the Zephyr’s, the Chief’s, the Daylight’s all gleamed as they passed through towns to grab the eyes and the wallets of potential passengers. And in most cases, these were the cars that made the transition to Amtrak when the railroads exited the passenger business in 1971. Pullman built it’s last intercity passenger cars in 1965, an order of 10 coaches for the Kansas City Southern. So at this point, even those newest of cars are now approaching 50 years old. The post-war fleet is almost 70 years old.

But that does not mean older cars are not out there. Some of the Pullman pre-war fleet found life in ownership by the railroads and private individuals. One of the cars that will be making the 2013 convention trip dates to 1911. A classic private railroad business car, the Federal can call up a bit of Presidential history, having been used by US Presidents Taft and Wilson from 1911 to 1916. But even so, it has to meet the current Amtrak standards. With extensive restoration and upgrades, it returned to service in 2002.

The choice of what kind of rail car is much like the choice of a vintage automobile or aircraft. Personal. It reflects what the new owner will do with the car. Railroads used passenger cars as the mobile offices of their day. Often various officials used them to tour the railroad, keeping an eye on conditions along the way; meeting shippers or discussing business with local community leaders. Such cars tended to have sleeping space aboard for the official assigned the car, his secretary (male) and perhaps space for a guest or two. Add a dining room, space for a kitchen and it’s chef and waiter. And on the rear, a lounge with an open platform to view the railroad as it traveled. All very effective for the day. And now, very desirable by many who own them.

But the railroads used all kinds of cars. Baggage cars that carried more than just the luggage of train passengers. Coaches for the short and long distances. Dining and lounge cars to keep the passengers full of food and drink. And finally, sleeping cars for passengers traveling overnight. These were often operated by the Pullman Company, with the crew of conductors, porters and maids to attend to all the needs of travelers aboard.

Some cars offered a combination of these types. For example, a popular choice for conversion to the private car is a sleeper-lounge. With both space to relax and sleep aboard, they were the favorite of many travelers then and continue to be now. The Two Rivers is a good example of a conversion by an owner. Originally, as built for the New York Central, it was a Pullman Sleeping Car. With 10 single private bedrooms (known as roomettes) and 6 private double bedrooms, this was a very common accommodation. When converted to a private rail car, 9 of the 10 roomettes were removed and an open lounge and galley replace them. Now it sleeps 13 passengers and crew (down from the original 22 passengers).

Another type of car that was popular on many railroads was the Dome car. The first of these cars was developed by the Burlington Route. It offered passengers a 360-degree view of passing scenery. Pullman, Budd and Amercian Car & Foundry all built versions of it. With the dome glass, it has become a specialized part of the private car world. The curved glass can be pricey to replace, just ask any one who has one! But you can’t beat the view along the way.

Now you have a bit more of an understanding of the kinds of cars out there. Saturday, the Two Rivers and Burrard head off to Seattle. And if time allows, I will share some tales of how I got involved in traveling this delightful way.

Posted in Ruminations, Travel | Leave a comment

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