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Classic tracks

Vintage cars revive the genteel spirit of train trips across California.

August 24, 2008|Jay Jones | Special to The Times

Carol Voss will never forget her first cross-country train trip, in the front seat of the Vista Dome on the new California Zephyr.

That was in the summer of 1949, when automobiles and airplanes had yet to lure many transcontinental travelers off trains. A young girl at the time, Voss and her family were among the first to ride the shiny Zephyr, which had been launched just four months earlier.

"Everyone was dressed up," Voss says. "The men were wearing suits and hats." She wore a hat, too, and a new dress.

Voss reminisces as she and her husband, Carl, ride the rails across the Central Valley. Once again, she's in the Vista Dome, although this time someone else is sitting up front. It's a Saturday in April, and the old rail car is attached to Amtrak's San Joaquins train for an all-day excursion from Oakland to Bakersfield and back.

Thanks to the hard work of some die-hard train buffs, modern-day travelers are once again able to enjoy elegant rail journeys in vintage cars.

About once a month, passengers climb aboard the classic rail cars for a trip back in time. The cars are coupled to Amtrak trains on scheduled runs, such as the ones between Los Angeles and Oakland and between Emeryville and Reno. The trips aren't cheap; a ticket for the round-trip between Oakland and Bakersfield costs $225, more than double the fare in an Amtrak coach. Still, many of the excursions sell out weeks in advance.

Today, the Vosses and I are aboard the Silver Lariat, one in a fleet of distinctive, stainless-steel passenger cars built in 1948 for the launch of the California Zephyr. After being retired from the Amtrak fleet in 1980, the car was left to rust in a Seattle railyard, providing accommodations only to vagrants, until Burt Hermey came to the rescue. At an auction in 1985, the Costa Mesa man bid $11,427 for the car -- and won. Later, he bought a second old Zephyr car, the Silver Solarium.

In the next several years, he and his partner, Alvin Bishop, spent more than $400,000 restoring the Lariat to its original grandeur. The bulk of the money went for parts; the two men did most of the work themselves. It was a labor of love.

Hermey's passion for trains -- just like Carol Voss' -- dates to childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles, Hermey got his first Lionel train set when he was 4. In 1956, he too made the 2,400-mile journey from California to Illinois aboard the Zephyr.

"I guess the hook was set," he says with a chuckle.

Coincidentally, Hermey's boyhood home in West L.A. was just a few blocks from that of Rod Fishburn, another baby boomer with a taste for trains. At a young age, Fishburn became a regular at the Allied Model Trains store on Pico Boulevard. Later, he got a job selling and repairing toy trains. As an adult, he and his wife, Ellen, took out a second mortgage on their Tujunga home to buy a worn-out old Pennsylvania Railroad car, which they lovingly restored for use on excursions.

"Instead of being train operators, we were plumbers, painters and mechanics," he says, sitting inside his lounge car behind Union Station in downtown L.A. The Fishburns spent "somewhere over $200,000" on restoration. On many of the excursions, depending on demand, his car Colonial Crafts accompanies Hermey's Silver Lariat and Silver Solarium.

Back aboard the Silver Lariat, it's just after 7:30 a.m. The buildings of downtown Oakland are still in sight as car attendants begin serving breakfast, which includes fresh fruit plus pumpkin-spiced coffee cake, freshly baked in the galley. Several of my fellow passengers begin the journey with Bloody Marys, because drinks are included in the ticket price.

Leaving the Bay Area, the Amtrak train -- with Hermey's two cars in tow -- heads inland for the six-hour journey through farm fields and orchards. The scenery isn't nearly as awe-inspiring as that of some of the other excursions, such as those over Donner Pass or along the Pacific Coast. Still, the time flies as we swap stories while the attentive servers freshen our drinks. No one's nose is buried in a book.

"When this car was running back and forth between Chicago and California, you never got this kind of service," says Joe Harper, a rail buff from Centralia, Wash., who's aboard the Lariat on the way to Bakersfield. "This is a first-class train. There's no Amtrak train that's going to give you this kind of service."

South of Fresno, lunch is served. We're treated to a crab, mango and avocado salad, with crumbly, warm corn bread on the side. It's served on custom china bearing the original Zephyr logo.

Two hours in Bakersfield gives us plenty of time to stretch our legs before the return trip north.

Because there's little to see within walking distance of the station, most of us spend a few minutes snapping photos before getting back on board to inquire about what's cooking for dinner.

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