Private rail car owners enjoy ‘yachts on tracks’

September 1, 2011

Most of the passengers scurrying to board Amtrak’s Silver Star No. 91 at New York’s Penn Station one recent morning had no idea that Chuck Jensen had already snagged the best seat: a plush leather armchair with a panoramic view out the back.

Jensen had more than a reserved seat waiting for him. He had his own rail car, an antique painted a deep Tuscan red, hitched to the end of the train.

“You just don’t get to see this” on other train rides, Jensen said minutes later, gazing through his car’s large back windows as the Hudson River tunnel receded into the distance on the way to Union Station in Washington. “Isn’t that cool?”

Riding in your own rail car might be cool, but it doesn’t come cheap. Jensen estimates that he’s sunk about $450,000 into refurbishing his 1923 Pullman sleeper. Even so, Jensen, the chief mechanical officer for the Morristown & Erie Railway in New Jersey, isn’t among the super rich. Like most of the 80 or so private rail car owners who operate on Amtrak tracks nationwide, he’s a lifelong train buff who depends on renting out his car for charter trips to cover the $10,000 in annual storage, insurance and maintenance costs. Jensen rides most often as a member of the crew, sometimes bringing along his wife, Ginny, and two teenage sons to help carry passengers’ luggage and serve meals.

At a time when the Obama administration and Amtrak are pushing to build a high-speed rail network that could run trains akin to Japan’s bullet trains, Jensen and his fellow rail car owners are paying big money to hearken back to the charms of passenger rail’s pre-World War II heyday.

As Northeast Corridor trains such as the Metroliner and Acela have picked up speed over the past 15 years, some private rail car owners have sought additional routes. Federal law prohibits private cars from traveling more than 110 mph — too slow for the Metroliner and Acela, let alone the 220 mph speeds that Amtrak officials are eyeing for the “next generation” high-speed trains between Washington, New York and Boston.

But those who pay $250,000 and more for cars certified to run on Amtrak tracks say they can always attach their cars to slower, long-distance trains, including those that link up to the Northeast Corridor.

They compare their private rail cars to yachts.

“It’s not for the faint of heart in terms of money,” said Jim Lilly, a federal employee and president of the Washington chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, which owns a 1923 Pullman sleeper and a 1949 coach car retired by the MARC system. “But it’s an incredible amount of fun.”

‘Always under pressure’

If they are an expensive hobby for train buffs, private rail cars are good business for Amtrak, which pulls an average of 35 private cars monthly.

Amtrak charges $2.10 a mile to pull a private car — each additional car on the same train is another $1.60 a mile — plus about $100 for overnight parking at most stations. A one-way trip between New York and Washington adds up to about $470 in Amtrak fees, and Washington to Chicago costs about $1,600. That doesn’t include crew costs or the $500 to $1,800 that car owners typically pay each way for railroads to pull their car from a storage yard to an Amtrak facility.

Amtrak collected about $2.5 million in revenue from private rail cars in fiscal 2010, and the service operates at a profit, said Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm. Revenue exceeded costs by about $660,000 in fiscal 2010, he said.

“We’re always under pressure to operate as a business,” Kulm said, “and this is a source of revenue for us.”

Although the income from pulling private cars made up a tiny fraction of Amtrak’s overall $2.5 billion in revenue, Amtrak also moves them to support America’s long history of railroading, Kulm said.

‘Like a rolling home’

Riding on Jensen’s car, named the Kitchi Gammi Club, feels like sitting in a well-appointed living room, albeit a narrow one that rocks gently as it moves at up to110 mph. The wood venetian blinds, maroon carpeting and table lamps seem out of place on a modern train. No pull-down plastic tray tables here.

Most striking is the feeling of privacy. Although the car is hitched to a train carrying hundreds of passengers, it feels as if no one knows that Jensen’s car is tagging along. It is noticeably quiet, with none of the frequent station announcements or calls for tickets by conductors. There is a sense of casual luxury as a private chef grills Philly cheesesteak sandwiches in the tiny kitchen.

Groups that pay $2,500 to $5,000 a day to charter the Kitchi Gammi Club — the price depends on the distance they travel — are typically a mix of businesses entertaining clients and train aficionados celebrating a special event, such as a family reunion or wedding anniversary. The Kitchi Gammi Club has two bathrooms, a shower, a private bedroom and 10 beds that pull out from the wall.

The destination is secondary to the trip, passengers say.

A Roanoke software company called Meridium recently chartered the Kitchi Gammi Club as part of a six-car private train that carried 250 employees and clients on an evening excursion to Lynchburg during its annual conference.

“It’s completely unlike regular rail travel,” said Jane Bailey, Meridium’s marketing director, who helped organize the trip. “It feels like a rolling home.”

‘You’re transported away’

Jensen, 51, of Stroudsburg, Pa., typically takes the Kitchi Gammi Club out for a private ride once a year, often to Washington with his family. They sleep on the car, usually parked on Union Station’s Track 30. But he enjoys his investment most when “deadheading” the car, or riding between the storage yard in Whippany, N.J., and the start and end points of a charter trip. That’s when he can grab the plush leather chair with the best view.

Jensen also owns a 1954 sleeper from the Union Pacific Railroad that he bought two years ago and is restoring. He said he paid $1,000 for the Kitchi Gammi Club in 1989. It was cheap, he said, because it was so trashed that it was headed for the scrap yard.

“That was many hundreds of thousands of dollars ago,” Jensen said with a laugh.

Ginny Jensen, his wife of 19 years, said she knew what she was getting into when she married a man who had worked as a locomotive mechanic on freight railroads since he was 16 and grew up the son of a freight railroad executive. He and Ginny spent their honeymoon riding the Orient Express between Paris and Vienna.

“On one of our first dates, he took me on this car to show me,” Ginny Jensen recalled as she rocked along on the Kitchi Gammi Club. “There was next to nothing on the car — it was completely sandblasted, no windows. . . . I thought: ‘What a wacko. This guy is either crazy, or he’s an incredible visionary.’ ”

Their oldest son took his first trip on the Kitchi Gammi Club at 5 weeks old, and both sons, 13 and 16, have grown up waiting tables and carrying luggage for charter trips.

“It’s just so much fun,” Ginny Jensen said. “The private part of it is really key. It becomes your home. You don’t have that same feeling on any other Amtrak car. It’s like you’re transported away. It’s so relaxing, truly just a vacation when you’re here.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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