I am frequently asked what it's like and what it takes to own and operate an Amtrak approved private railcar. Owning a private railcar can be the fulfillment of a dream and a dreadful nightmare, all at the same time. Before you even think about buying a private car you owe it to yourself to take a trip on a private car. Talk to the car owner and his/her crew. Observe the routine and you will begin to understand what it takes to operate a private car.
Owning a car is expensive, especially if you want to operate on Amtrak. For married people a tolerant and understanding spouse is a must.
There are two ways to get into the private railcar business. Purchase a car that is already Amtrak approved and start to use it right away. Or, purchase a car that needs to be brought up to Amtrak standards and refurbish it. The cost difference depends on the type and quality of car you buy, what you have to do to it and how much work you do yourself. Regardless of which way you go Rule No. 1 says: hire a qualified inspector to go over the car with a fine tooth comb before you buy it. This inspection won't find every problem, but it will give you a heads up if there are any obvious problems.
Private Car Owners Associations
There are currently two Private Car owners associations - AAPRCO, American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and RPCA, Railroad Passenger Car Alliance. Both provide their members with important information and the benefits of mutual interest and assistance. Join one or both of them as part of your Private Car adventure.
Types of cars. There are three basic types of car which can be operated in Amtrak service.
Heavyweight steel cars - built by Pullman, ACF and CC&F
between 1910 and 1931. Most railroad business cars are of this
type. They are solidly built, ride well and can be structurally
refurbished using standard welding and fabrication methods.
Lightweight steel cars. - built by Pullman, ACF and CC&F
between 1935 and 1956. These cars are of carbon steel construction
with smooth sides or with fluted stainless steel siding. Smooth
side cars can be structurally refurbished using standard welding
and fabrication methods. Cars with stainless steel siding over
carbon steel frames are subject to severe electrolytic corrosion
and are generally to be avoided.
Stainless Steel cars - Two styles: all stainless steel cars
built by Budd and carbon/stainless steel cars built by Pullman
Built by Pullman and ACF between 1937 and 1956. These cars are built with carbon steel frames and structures with stainless steel sides, ends and roofs. They are very susceptible to electrolytic corrosion requiring extensive disassembly, structural refurbishment using standard welding and fabrication methods.and reapplication of carbon or stainless steel sides, ends and roofs.
Business Car - Originally intended for use by railroad officials.
Usually has an observation room with open platform, staterooms,
bathroom with shower, dining room, kitchen and crew quarters.
Sleeps 5 to 8 plus 2 crew. Interiors are frequently paneled in
Mahogany, Oak or other hardwoods and comfortably furnished. Many
heavyweight business cars do not meet dimensional clearance requirements
for operation on the Northeast Corridor.
Sleeping Car - Can be all bedrooms or bedrooms and roomettes, or a combination including open sections, Many have been modified with dining rooms and/or lounges. Some have had vestibules turned into open platforms. Sleeps 15 - 21. Interior is usually painted steel although some have had wood paneling added. Former Amtrak owned cars frequently have carpeting on the walls. Bedrooms sleep 2, Roomettes sleep 1.
Sleeper/Lounge - Usually has 5 or 6 bedrooms, small kitchen/buffet and a lounge. Sleeps 10 - 12. Interior is usually painted steel although some have had wood paneling added. Former Amtrak owned cars frequently have carpeting on the walls.
Lounge - Has a large, comfortable lounge area with full bar. Seating for 30 - 50 depending on car. Usually has a crew room and sometimes a shower. Typically used in conjunction with sleeping cars. Full lounges usually do not have vestibules.
Dining Car - A full service dining car is typically half kitchen and half dining room. Seats 36 (4 x 2 seating) or 48 (4 x 4 seating. Some have modified as combination diner/lounge cars. Typically used in conjunction with sleeping cars. Diners usually do not have vestibules.
Dome Cars - Introduced in the 1950's Dome cars provide an upper lounge/dining area with a glass dome that provides a glorious view of the countryside. The lower levels can be lounges, coaches, diner/lounges or sleeper/lounges. Designed for use in the west, they do not meet dimensional clearance requirements for operation on Amtrak between Boston and Washington DC. Dome cars originally intended as diners or lounges do not have vestibules.
Baggage/Express Cars - A few baggage/express cars have been modified as Bar/Lounge/Dance cars. They are ideal for large party groups travelling on day trips or on longer trips with sleeping or business cars. These cars usually do not have vestibules.
Purchasing an Approved Car
A recently approved car has been subjected to several inspections by Amtrak inspectors using the latest criteria and has the benefit of having operated in Amtrak service. This doesn't mean there are no problems that need correcting, it just means the car is a known entity and any problems should be relatively easy to identify and correct.
A car which has been in service for nine or ten years was probably refurbished to an earlier standard and may have hidden problems that will need immediate correction. These problems can be significant and expensive to correct.
Cost of an approved car - $150,000 - $400,000 and up, way up.
Purchasing a car for refurbishment
If you purchase a car with the intention of refurbishing it you will need to decide how and where. There are two ways to refurbish a car. Do it yourself with the assistance of skilled and qualified craftsmen; or, hire a qualified car shop to do it for you. Doing it yourself means finding a suitable place to the work, doing a lot of research and design, acquiring a good set of specialized tools and being prepared to spend a lot of time. When you start out the rules seem simple and straightforward. As refurbishment progresses you learn that the rules aren't as clear as they first seemed. In process inspections reveal that, that which was believed to be ok is not. Just as you put one appliance back on the car, it has to be removed again to correct something else. The process seems endless and takes far longer than expected. The end result is a car that you have the satisfaction of knowing what it is and how it got that way.
Having a qualified shop do the work may cost more, but if you're not equipped to do the work yourself it's the only way to go. It does require you to spend a good deal of time at the shop, usually some distance from where you reside. It's extremely important that you understand what is going to be done and what the end result is going to be. The shop can usually get the job done faster than doing the work yourself. Faster is relative, a typical refurbishment will require from one to three years, depending on circumstances.
Rule No.2: just when you think you've solved the last major problem another reveals itself.
Cost to purchase a car suitable for refurbishment - Sleeper
$25,000, Dome $85,000 plus.
A fellow car owner offers the following insight. "Car owners need good, sound project management skills in any contract work--rebuilding a railroad car is like building a house from scratch, and the people who do it successfully--with success measured as TIMELY; WITHIN BUDGET; and QUALITY WORK WHICH GETS APPROVED 1ST TIME AROUND need to manage their contractors extremely well." This applies whether you are doing the work yourself or having a shop do it for you. It is equally important to realize that any changes made in design or scope of work once the project has started will likely increase both time and cost.
He also recommends you start to develop an extensive contact directory of Amtrak personnel, railroad personnel, contractors and service providers in all parts of the country at the very beginning of the thought process. This list will grow and grow as you work on the car, then place it in operation. From my own experience I have found such a directory becomes an invaluable resource, especially when you have a problem on the road and need help fast.
Every car approved for operation by the Amtrak Mechanical Engineering Department must have a set of documentation on file with Amtrak and on board the car.
An approved car should have all of these documents in a folder on board the car. Amtrak Mechanical Engineering should be contacted to verify the status of the car prior to finalizing the purchase. If the car owner cannot or will not provide this documentation, FIND ANOTHER CAR TO BUY or treat it as a non-approved car and price accordingly.
A car you are refurbishing will have to have these documents generated and submitted to Amtrak Mechanical Engineering as part of the approval process. Any reports of prior work should be obtained and kept on file.
Amtrak Mechanical Engineering is to be provided with follow up reports anytime changes or modifications are made after initial approval has been given. PC-1, PC-3 and PC-4 reports are submitted annually.
Amtrak requires car owners to maintain an insurance policy complying with their minimum requirements and naming them as additional insured. There are currently two primary sources for these policies. One is AAPRCO affiliated other is RPCA affiliated. The choice is yours.
Now that your car is approved you are ready to put it in operation. Here again there are several issues to resolve.
How do I get my car on a train?
Amtrak can provide you with the names and numbers of personnel responsible for coordinating Private Car moves. Either of the two car owner associations will provide additional information you may require. Plan ahead. Amtrak usually requires 30 days advance request for a car move. Cars operating on the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington, DC) must have an A Clearance (the most restrictive) on file. Propane is not allowed on any car operating in and out of New York City (because of the tunnels under the Hudson River).
Amtrak inow charges an annual Activation Fee of $250.00 per
car This fee is due and payable with the first move request
following a car's PC-1 Annual Inspection.
Where are you going to park your car and what are the implications?
Most private car owners park their cars on industrial sidings located as close to their home Amtrak terminal as possible. Getting to and from the Amtrak terminal requires a switch move by a freight railroad. A few Amtrak stations have facilities for parking private cars. Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) is one.
Cost to park on a private industrial siding - $100 - $400/month.
If you plan to operate your car more than once or twice per year it may pay to keep it at the closest Amtrak terminal which offers Private Car parking. There are two factors at work here. First, the cumulative cost of off line parking and freight moves to and from Amtrak may exceed the cost of Amtrak parking. Second, freight railroads don't move a lot of passenger cars anymore and it's important that everything on the car be stowed and secured in order to minimize damage. Most freight railroads do not allow a crew member to ride on a Private Car moving in freight service, for obvious safety reasons. This makes it difficult to monitor the cars' status during the freight move. This means that the car's status must be monitored by telephone during the move. An alternative is to have some one follow the route of the car in a vehicle, if circumstances permit, checking in with yard masters at various locations along the way. This enables the RR to connect the car with a face, and establishes a presence to help the car move through terminals, etc. as well as a direct contact in the event of a problem. This person must be familiar with the car AND have a good understanding of freight RR operations and protocol. Freight moves may take several days to complete, even if traveling only a few miles.
What kind of services are available at the parking site?
Most industrial sidings don't have 480v - 3 phase power available. A few owners have added this feature to their sites, but most don't. This means you have to run the generator a lot if you're doing maintenance or service work on the car. It also means that the site should ideally be accessible to large trucks for refueling. Water is usually close by. Amtrak's Los Angeles Union Station facility provides electrical hook ups (at extra cost), water and sanitation services (at extra cost).
How many people does it take to operate a Private Car?
At least one person who is familiar with the cars' electrical and mechanical operation should accompany the car on every trip. This person may also cook, serve meals/beverages and make the beds.
Most business cars are set up for two crew members. One is the cook/chef, the other the steward. Most sleeping cars are set up for one crew member. The car owner can perform these functions themselves if qualified and they so desire, but most employ one crew member.
A car operator made the following observation: Car attendants will place on-board services second if they are required to attend to watering/trash removal while stopped at a station or if they are fixing a problem such as a non-functional toilet.
Amtrak generally provides water, ice and sanitation services at specified stations. If you need diesel fuel special arrangements must be made (at extra cost). Otherwise you are on your own. If traveling across country you need to make arrangements ahead of time for any laundry services, food deliveries or other necessities you may require. Intermediate stops may allow time for a food delivery, but not much else.
What cities can I visit and have my car taken off a train and parked for a while?
One of the benefits of traveling by Private Car is the ability to have your car set out at certain designated stations. This is especially convenient if arrival time is in the wee hours of the morning. Your guests can keep on sleeping and not worry about getting up, gathering their belongings and standing on a platform in a strange city.
I am compiling a complete list of cities where you can have a private car set out and parked while you visit the city. So far these are the cities I am sure of. I know there are many more and will update the list as I confirm them
1. Los Angeles, CA