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Party Cars : Lonesome Whistle Seldom Blows on Excursions Aboard Privately Owned Classics of Railroading's Glamorous Past

February 18, 1988|STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writer

The 572 to San Diego lumbered into the Fullerton Amtrak station, and the weekend vacationers climbed in to begin the search for seats.

All except R.N. Basich of Laguna Beach. He strolled to the rear of the train and stepped aboard something very different. Compared to the sleek, airline-style cars to the front, this car was beefy and solid and looked cast-iron heavy. Carefully lettered on its silver sides was "The City of Cleveland."

Inside, it was an entirely different scene than in the Amtrak cars up front. Here a party was well under way. The galley stove had been glowing and the liquor flowing since the train had left Los Angeles. A waiter in traditional white coat and black trousers brought Bloody Marys to the 20 or so people who sat and chatted in the lounge. There was a view unobstructed by seats to the sides and to the rear and from any of the five first-class bedrooms up front.

Nobody asked for Basich's ticket, because he and a friend from Pasadena own the car. Selling building materials is Basich's living, but this artifact from the streamliner era is his passion. He speaks of it in terms of the "joy of restoration" and the "satisfaction in a delightful way to travel."

"The best way I can describe it is, you can be lying in bed or maybe sitting up with some pillows behind you, and out the window the United States is passing in parade. And if you want, you can have a cocktail in hand. It's almost like you're at home and your home is going touring."

Basich's railroad car would be the biggest recreational vehicle in Orange County if it weren't for the seven other zealots who keep equally big private railroad cars on Orange County sidings. They have at least two things in common with Basich: a love for the old-style, first-class grace of the streamliners and a willingness to spend, spend, spend.

"It started out as a hobby," said Dave Rohr of Fullerton, who owns a dome/lounge/observation car. "The car was only $12,000, but I've got 10 to 20 times that invested now. It's a black hole."

Because of this economic pressure, Rohr, like the others, has converted his beloved black hole into a business. Consequently, anyone with a fat check can have his own private railroad car for a day or week or whatever he can afford. He and a goodly group of his friends can be pampered by porters and waiters and chefs who look and act like the real railroad porters and waiters and chefs of 40 or 50 years ago.

They will serve drinks, cook sumptuous meals, fluff the pillows in the berths and turn down the bunks in the bedrooms. Leave out your shoes and they will shine them while you sleep in a self-contained world separate even from the train that's pulling you.

According to Amtrak, which attaches private cars to its regular trains for a fee, the private car business has been growing by leaps and bounds. Art Lloyd, Amtrak's spokesman in San Francisco who had charge of private car traffic in Amtrak's early days, said the traffic has doubled since 1980 and quadrupled since Amtrak was formed in 1971. "California probably has more private cars than anywhere else," he said. "There's a private car on almost every train that leaves San Francisco for Chicago, and there are private cars on a lot of the San Diego trains." Basich, board chairman and a founder of the American Assn. of Private Railroad Car Owners, said that when the group formed about 10 years ago, there were only about 20 private cars in use. "There are over 200 active cars in the U.S. now," he said.

The boom came from Amtrak's replacement of old railroad cars with newer ones in the 1970s. The best of the old cars were bought up, some at prices cheaper than an economy automobile. Although prices have risen, the old cars will still be bought when available until the supply runs out, Basich said. "No one is making these cars anymore." Anyone along the Orange County mainline last Super Bowl Sunday would have seen a string of such cars headed to and from San Diego loaded with partying football fans. Inside they were re-creating the Great Gatsby era with decorations and music.

The previous day there had been another private car to San Diego, this one filled with family and friends throwing a surprise birthday party for a train buff. "They just went down and turned around and came back," said Wayne Penn of Newport Beach, owner of the dome club car they chartered. "All they were interested in was the train ride."

"San Diego's our most frequent destination," said Randy Schlotthauer of Fullerton, who arranges private-car trips through his Slotzy Tours and Travel business. "They party down and party back." Likewise, San Francisco is popular. Both trips can be made without having to spend the night on the train.

But spending the night is part of the romance for some, and they insist on it. "The Orient Express comes to mind," Schlotthauer said. "People think, 'What was it like to ride those great trains?' "

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