All aboard! Private rail cars are all the retro rage,
Travel the vintage way, but be ready to open your wallet
“To love a train is a defective gene, but it’s one that a lot of us here have.” DeWitt Chapple Jr.
The 18 private rail cars that heaved into the Burlington rail yard arrived an hour behind schedule. But the 100 or so passengers, many of them owners, swore that it mattered not a whit — certainly not measured against the cramped airline seats, harrying deadlines and missed flights of 21st-century travel.
These travelers gradually disembarked from spacious, air-conditioned accommodations, many having recently topped off a chefprepared lunch with flaky, chocolate cream pastries.
They left behind corridors of antique paneling, plush curtains, fresh-cut flowers, polished brass furnishings and private showers.
The passengers were in town for the 40th annual American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners convention held in Vermont in September.
Airlines have stripped the pleasure from travel, says Borden Black, who with her husband, Nelson McGahee, owns the Dearing ( built in 1925).
“Here, nobody’s asking you to take off your shoes; nobody’s frisking you,” Black says. “And you just don’t get this kind of scenery on a sea cruise.”
AAPRCO (pronounced “APPrih-coh”), a trade association, does more than celebrate the bygone era of rail travel, Black adds.
The group also helps coordinate charters and works closely with Amtrak to promote expanded service and safety standards throughout the national network, according to its website.
If an association member hopes to hitch a ride behind an Amtrak locomotive, the carriage must be certified to travel at 110 miles per hour.
That standard applies even to the Federal (1911), the oldest car that rolled into town Monday.
Owner Dave Luca, standing on the Pullman car’s platform with two friends, said the Federal had been favored by Presidents Taft and Wilson for private excur- sions, and to this day provides a comfortable ride.
The Georgia 300 (1930) served for decades as an opulent traveling office for railroad executives, explains passenger DeWitt Chapple.
Chapple continues: After its restoration in the 1980s — from its concrete decking to old-school light switches and push-button bells to summon a porter — the Georgia 300 conveyed Presidents Carter, Bush ( both of them), Clinton and Obama; as well as the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson.
Chapple’s long romance with rail began with early family trips between his native Ohio and the Michigan shore.
Now 85 years old, Chapple has bought and restored several cars throughout the decades. With a twinkle in his eye, he acknowledges that ownership makes little financial sense.
The Chapel Hill (1922), he bought with others “to share the pain” of financing aesthetic and safety upgrades.
“To love a train is a defective gene, but it’s one that a lot of us here have,” he jokes.
Chapple, like the others on the train, declines to disclose the cost of owning a rail carriage — but warns that the purchase price is just the tip of the iceberg.
He recommends Ozark Mountain Rail, a company that trades in vintage carriages, locomotives and their associated parts and accessories, as an excellent source for the aspiring rail-car owner, and for vets looking for a bargain.
The firm’s website lists ceiling mirror lights and replacement room-fan blades at $50 apiece. Period-perfect upholstered folding chairs run in the hundreds of dollars.
Bigger ticket items run side by side with the lighter fare. A Missouri Pacific box car (as-is) will set the buyer back $6,500; a restored Rio Grande business car will cost the hobbyist $737,000.
A California Zephyr four-carriage package deal includes not just the modernist, stainless steel cars, but also “linens, china, kitchen equipment and parts/ supplies” — all for $1,790,000 — at the Ozark site.
Several cars of this 1950s vintage, complete with riveted observation domes resembling World War II fighter cockpits, are part of the train parked in Burlington.
Black, the Dearing ’s owner, sits back in an oversize chair, taking in the panoramic view.
Yes, she says, she loves train travel; the camaraderie most of all — the friendships, the card games, the impromptu parties.
A peculiar momentum prompted her and her husband to buy another rail car this year, she adds. The new one came from the defunct Ringling Brothers Circus — a car Black says carried acrobats and fire-swallowers.
Her enthusiasm has bounds. “I have a home in Georgia,” Black sighs. “I would not want to live more than one month in a rail car.”
DeWitt Chapple Jr. owns a railway car called the Chapel Hill. He stopped in Burlington, Vt., for The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners 40th annual convention.
Eighteen railroad cars belonging to members of The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners arrive for the 40th annual convention in Burlington, Vt., last month.
A stateroom aboard The Georgia 300 is decorated in old-school elegance. The 1930 rail car served as a traveling office for railroad executives.
Clocks show different time zones aboard The Georgia 300, which has hosted five U.S. presidents.