DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, Washington Post Magazine, Popular Science, Outside, Men's Health, and many other publications.
If you dream of roaming the U.S. in a your own personal train car, you still can. But Amtrak cuts have railcar owners wondering if their days are numbered.
When Bob Lowe wants to take a cross-country trip, the first stop for him is 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where his own private railroad awaits. Sort of.
Lowe owns a pair of railroad cars, artifacts of the pre-Amtrak era, when the country’s passenger-rail network was a glorious patchwork of private operators. One is a Salisbury Beach sleeper car, so named after the shore in Massachusetts, that was originally put into commission by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1954 and holds 26 people. The other: an old Colonial Crafts, just one of a series of Colonial railcars that entered service on the Pennsylvania Railroad out of Chicago in 1949. It’s got three bedrooms, a drawing room, a buffet kitchen, and a large lounge. So when Lowe wants to take a train from, say, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., he doesn’t buy tickets for a seat in one of Amtrak’s coach cars. Instead, he asks Amtrak for a tow, essentially hitching a ride in his own cars with family and friends, usually 25 people at a time between both cars.
“There’s people who want to do that and watch the U.S. go by, and that’s why I do it,” Lowe says. “It’s almost like riding in a time capsule.”
Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.
Others buy surplus cars straight from Amtrak, like the prospective buyers who showed up in December at an auction in Indiana to inspect a number of used railcars that were for sale. “Some do this as a hobby,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says of the bidders who turn out for train auctions. “Some do this as a venture. Some rent their cars out for corporate events.”
Wick Moorman, who stepped down as co-CEO of Amtrak in December 2017, is one of these Extreme Railfans. He owns his own 1948 Sandy Creek observation car, designed to run on the end of trains. He refurbished it, adding some bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and an observation lounge. As of yet, Moorman hasn’t taken his car out on an extended trip, although he and his wife are looking forward to, one day, welcoming their grandchildren aboard for a journey.
“It’s like having that sports car out in the garage,” he says. “You like to look at it and say, ‘I’m really happy I have that.’ And your wife is saying, ‘When are you going to get that damn thing out of the garage?’”
Unless you’re a fictional Old West secret agent or a modern dictator who likes to travel in bulletproof style, being a private railcar owner never made a lot of practical sense. They’re huge, heavy, and ruinously expensive to buy, maintain, and store, especially if you want to actually give it some exercise on the tracks. But recently, being a private railcar owner has become even harder. One year ago, Amtrak issued a policy notice saying it would make drastic cuts in operating charter services run by private owners. “These operations caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins, and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains,” read the notice from March 2018. “There may be a few narrow exceptions to this policy. ... Otherwise, one-time trips and charters are immediately discontinued.”
In practical terms, that means that unless railcars belonging to a group or private owner are in some easily accessible rail terminal, like 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Amtrak is no longer going to great lengths to get private cars hooked up to its passenger service lines traversing the country.
“Amtrak’s recent changes have been devastating. Our membership has dropped by a third from 2018,” says Tony Marchiando, owner of a 1948 Pullman sleeper car and president of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), a trade association that represents owners, assists in chartering trips. It now has about 330 members. For the group’s annual convention, members string their equipment together to make a special train of private cars—the 2012 train, which ran from D.C. to Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasted 29 private cars.
Private railcars are still on the tracks, but their owners, already an endangered species, are now wondering whether the end of the line is approaching for this pricey pursuit. “Where the industry is right now, it’s a little bit dicey, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Radovich, a longtime railcar collector based in Dallas.
Radovich is the proprietor of what he likes to call a “hobby gone bad.” In 1979, he purchased his first piece of equipment: a car with a lounge at one end, diner counter at the other, and a small kitchen in the middle. It was from Northern Pacific, the predecessor to the Burlington Northern company (since merged into the BNSF Railway Company, North America’s largest freight railroad). Since then, Radovich has bought 13 more railcars, including five Sante Fe hi-level cars—predecessor to Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner passenger cars—at an Amtrak auction about 10 years ago.
In the past, Radovich has run weekend trips for groups of about 15 to 20 people. They’ll take a car of his up from Dallas to Oklahoma City by way of Fort Worth. To hitch a ride on Amtrak, a private railcar owner first finds an Amtrak route headed in the direction they’d like to go, and then couples onto the train behind the cars carrying ticketed passengers. To take a train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Lowe provides 30 days’ notice for his request to have his cars also hooked up behind Amtrak locomotives. On his runs to Oklahoma City, Radovich hooked a car of his to Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle trains, which provided all the necessary connections to and from Dallas.
For this, they pay Amtrak $3.67 per mile (an increase from the $3.26 per mile as of last year, Lowe says). Any trailing cars after the first one run an additional $2.81 a mile. That doesn’t include the other expenses that go along with private car ownership. Each one of Lowe’s cars, for example, cost him about $150,000. His Colonial car was turnkey, but he put $50,000 into the Salisbury Beach car for maintenance and upgrades, including new brakes and electric heat, to make it Amtrak certified. If you’re a DIY collector on a tighter budget, a beater unrestored car, without electric power, can start at around $25,000. A fully restored one can be upwards of $500,000.
Don’t forget the storage costs. Lowe keeps his rolling stock in Amtrak’s yard in Philly for $1,800 a month. A trip Lowe organized during 2017’s solar eclipse to take nine people from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, North Carolina, cost about $12,000 to organize. That year, Lowe spent about $125,000 on his hobby.
“The one thing everyone can tell you about private car ownership: It is very expensive,” says Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. “Now that Amtrak has restricted its movement of private cars, it is also of limited usefulness.”
O’Toole is a well-known critic of public transportation in general and federal Amtrak subsidies in particular. But his opposition to modern U.S. passenger rail is laced with fierce affection for its past: He’s a former private railcar owner and a member of a nonprofit group that restored the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle 700 steam locomotive, which is owned by the City of Portland. Members of the group, wanting a fleet of coaches to run behind their oil-burning 1938 engine, purchased former Great Northern coaches once used as commuter cars by New Jersey Transit. O’Toole was so enthusiastic, he bought four of them, plus an old Amtrak dome car.
The cars themselves were stored by the group on a large yard owned by the Southern Pacific railroad, which charged them just $1 a year thanks to the group’s nonprofit status. Shortly after, however, Southern Pacific was bought out; O’Toole lost his storage space and sold all of his cars. “In retrospect, I was foolishly naive,” he says. “Instead of spending a bunch of money on buying five cars, I should have bought one car and saved the rest of the money for restoration work.”
All of the private railcar owners CityLab spoke with aren’t living lavish lifestyles; they’re just extremely committed, maybe unwisely so, to their hobby. And they have to be, given the costs.
“I’m not in this business to make money off of it,” says Lowe, a 33-year veteran of the airline industry. Some trips he has taken, he says, have cost him more money than the dollars spent on tickets by passengers in the Amtrak trains his cars are hitched to at the end.
This is where Amtrak’s policy change last year makes things dicey. It’s not that Amtrak sends locomotives to tow private cars onto existing routes. In the case of Lowe, his cars are already easily accessible at 30th Street Station. Radovich must add an extra step: A local shortline train hauls his cars to the nearest station where Amtrak is making a scheduled stop. (Shortlines are to railways what interconnecting flights are to airlines.) He stores his fleet of cars on his own right-of-way, which is where the shortlines pick him up.
But sometimesAmtrak must delay ticketed passenger service at stations in order to connect private cars onto an already-scheduled route. And that’s starting to conflict with Amtrak’s plans—and making private railcar owners wonder whether the costs of ownership are still worth it.
“There are fewer opportunities to get on and off the train in terms of switching a privately owned car on and off,” Radovich says. (For the curious, here’s a list of the locations where “special car moves” are permissible.) “Buying a train car or right-of-way is likely the cheapest part. From there, it never ends.”
You can blame this, like many things, on Richard Nixon, whose administration oversaw the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Before, private railroad companies operated both freight and long-distance passenger and commuter rail service on their lines around the country. As cars and airliners stole long-distance riders, most companies found they lost more money than it was worth to keep their passenger service. The Rail Passenger Service Act, signed by Nixon in 1970, allowed companies to sell their money-losing passenger routes to the federal government, creating a consolidated national carrier.
But the law failed to guarantee long-term funding, forcing Amtrak to regularly scramble for fresh subsidies to make ends meet. Amtrak is consistently under pressure to cover its costs, and its subsidies are often a point of criticism. (As O’Toole is wont to point out, there’s a salient difference between his car ownership and Amtrak’s subsidies: “I love passenger trains, but I don’t believe other people should have to support my hobby with their tax dollars.”)
Amtrak leases track space from freight railroads in order to run most of its passenger lines, which move more than 31 million people each year. Its quasi-governmental status makes it a perennial punching-bag for conservative lawmakers who expect it to turn a profit. In recent years, Amtrak has made some progress on this quest to break even; for the 2020 fiscal year, Amtrak has requested $141 million less than what Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2019. But while it’s reduced its operating deficit lately, its long-haul routes still generate huge losses. Part of the plan might involve abandoning these routes in favor of adding service along the dense (and profitable) Northeast corridor, where Amtrak “has proven competitive with both flying and driving,” as the Wall Street Journal reported recently.
One little-discussed casualty of this effort by Amtrak to improve its bottom line has been service cuts that affect private railcar owners.
“We’re not stopping at every station along the line because it would be an inconvenience to a larger number of paying customers,” Magliari says. “And there’s a reduced number of places where we’re going to attach or detach private cars because we don’t want it to affect our primary business.”
There’s no real villain in this tale, other than the increasingly ruthless economics of American passenger rail. As a slice of Amtrak’s annual revenues of more than $3 billion, the storage and the transport of private railroad cars represents just under $4 million. It’s just not worth delaying trains to handle private railcars.
For now, AAPRCO members are in something of a holding pattern, according to Marchiando. Some are still planning to take trips. Marchiando says his car, which stays in St. Louis, will probably log about 10,000 miles this year. But other owners, he says, have just parked their cars, unable to move them to destinations they once visited. Others have sold them to tourist railroads.
Die-hard collectors like Radovich, however, keep the faith. These days, he rents out his Santa Fe cars every Christmas season to a local shortline railroad that runs a Polar Express for kids and their parents.
“They load up 300 people at a time and take them down the track to the North Pole,” he says, with an audible chuckle over the phone. “You read the book, get served hot chocolate, and everyone gets a little bell. And, for a short period of time, things are wonderful in the world.”