All aboard! Pri­vate rail cars are all the retro rage,

Travel the vin­tage way, but be ready to open your wal­let

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Joel Ban­ner Baird

“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.

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