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Rolling in class on a private rail car

Such cars, the early 20th century version of corporate jets, can be hitched to Amtrak trains.

June 25, 2010|By April Orcutt, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Train fans like to say that nobody waves at a jet. Classic private railroad cars — ones designed last century for the railroad's corporate executives and their most important clients, ones with Art Deco styling or elegant flourishes? Those are something to wave at or, better yet, travel in. You can grab your trunk and hunker down in a chartered rail car attached to almost any Amtrak train rolling through the U.S.

These rail cars were the corporate jets of the early 20th century. Although many still exist, only about 100 meet Amtrak safety regulations and also are available for charter. Upgraded and refurbished private rail cars come as lounge cars, dining cars, sleepers, dome cars, observation cars (positioned at the tail for the view behind the train) and business cars (multipurpose cars formerly used by high-level railroad executives and other train personnel).

Private rail cars: A June 20 photo accompanying an article about travel on private rail cars identified the car in which a chef was showing some of the food as the Silver Solarium. Actually, it was the Silver Lariat. —

Some "private varnish" (private rail cars) reflects the opulence of early 20th century elegance (think Agatha Christie and the Orient Express), some have observation domes for a panoramic views and others are streamlined midcentury modern. The cars are privately owned and individually chartered, and arrangements can be made for trips between nearly all passenger train stations, which include major cities, small towns and even some national parks.

Owners say they pride themselves on excellent service and cuisine, handled by the experienced staff and chefs who create gourmet meals, often prepared fresh onboard by a culinary artist who's used to the challenge of cooking in a moving environment.

For over-the-top opulence on a long-haul journey, the 1928 Virginia City sashays down the tracks. It's decked out with red carpeting, brocade couches, gilt-framed mirrors, gold-plated silverware, hand-blown Murano-glass chandeliers above the dining table and antiques worth half a million dollars. Virginia City Rail office manager Trish Gallagher calls it "the gaudiest thing you could ever see on the rails." Its Venetian Renaissance Baroque styling includes a working propane fireplace — solid marble, no less — which wintertime guests rolling east from Oakland toward Reno especially enjoy.

Domed rail cars built for California Zephyr trains traveling between San Francisco ( Oakland, actually) and Chicago "promoted the scenic wonders and mystique of the West," notes Burt Hermey, president of California Zephyr Railcar Charters. Besides reclining chairs and lounge or dining tables, the domed Silver Lariat has a rare original oil-on-canvas mural by Mary Lawser depicting the Pony Express. The Silver Solarium features an original carved-linoleum bar with whimsical Western turkeys and sage hens. It also has a dome, parlor, four bedrooms and a dining room.

The Silver Solarium also has a round-end observation lounge designed for the "boat tail," or rear of the train. Both cars have Art-Deco lighted Lucite handrails that illuminate the stairs to the dome observation lounges.

For a sleeper car, forget the curtained compartments you know from movies and throw your valise onto the streamlined, midcentury-modern Pacific Sands, built when trains raced to outclass airplanes and automobiles. It has been refurbished to reflect that traditional 1950s style. So guests have places to stretch their legs during the day, Pullman cars like the Pacific Sands — with bench seats that convert into berths in private rooms — are often chartered with rail cars that have parlors or observation lounges, like the homey Tioga Pass, which also has four bedrooms, a dining room, a full kitchen and an outdoor platform at the back.

The Scottish Thistle, built in 1959, has a salon, formal dining room, full kitchen, two double staterooms, rear observation deck and quarters for staff. Owner Dean McCormick says guests get a kick out of standing on the open observation platform. "They like to think they're running for president," he says. "They wave to the people and seem to say, 'Vote for me!'"

A less expensive way to roll in luxury rail travel is to buy a ticket on a tour or one-day excursion. The Overland Trail, a 1949 club-lounge-and-dining business car with Art Deco touches, will team with sleepers and another business car this summer on a 12-day Northwest-Midwest Great Circle Tour traveling from Los Angeles to Seattle, then to Chicago and San Francisco before returning to L.A.

"Rail-car travel is a blast to your senses," says owner Bill Hatrick. "When we cross Donner Pass in the Sierra, you can stand on the back porch and face behind the train. The scenery recedes, and you feel like you're on a magic carpet."

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