Travel Tips

Riding the Style Train: Private Railcar Travel in America

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA San Diego, CA

Train wheelsSick of dealing with crowded airports and cramped planes? Michelle Castillo investigates the seemingly lost art of rail travel, and discovers a group of enthusiasts who make it possible to travel in style—and for some people it’s the only way to travel.

Before the days of airport security checks or rush-hour traffic on the highways, there was railroad travel.

While the days of great train ride may have passed, there is a growing community of rail enthusiasts who are working to bring back that golden area.

And these days, unlike other methods of transportation, taking the train can mean much more than getting from point A to point B … it’s about the experience of arriving to your destination in style.

“I consider train travel to be part of my vacation,” said James Loomis, train enthusiast and author of who has logged more than 200,000 miles on public train and private car over the last 25 years.

“It’s absolutely the best way to see the country; you do it in comfort and convenience,” Loomis added.

We’ve got an entire section devoted to Train Travel here.

Railroad crossingUnlike the golden age of travel when trains were the highest echelon of transportation, today’s trains often have inconvenient routes and are bombarded by delays. However, private railcar companies are attempting to bring back the style and class of traveling by rail.

“Owners either buy one and ride themselves for a posh excursion, but with the cost of maintaining vintage cars, most people lease them for public use,” Loomis said. “You feel a bit snobbish sitting in the window of beautiful old vintage railcars. You know that Amtrak passengers are thinking, ‘Boy that must be really nice to ride in one of those.’”

Called PVs (for private varnish—a reference to the old style of wooden varnish that lined the interior) by rail aficionados, private railcars are fully furnished for long-distance travel. Passengers can opt to rent out these railcars in order to personalize their experience.

“The car is all yours, no one comes through: it’s completely private,” said Rod Fishburn, owner of Los Angeles’ Colonial Crafts Private Railcar. “It’s more a vacation in itself than a method to get from here to there.”

Colonial Crafts rail car“It brings back the nostalgia of what rail travel used to be like when our customers were younger,” said De Witt Chapple, one of the owners of the Chapel Hill Railcar. “Today’s experience on Amtrak is nothing like when the railroad companies were running things.”

Trips can range from weekenders to three months—all in deluxe accommodations. For Chapel Hill Railcar patrons, the spacious quarters includes a kitchen, lounge and a dining room, not to mention four bedrooms. Fitting six people comfortably, the Chapel Hill Railcar comes staffed with a private chef who serves up gourmet meals paired with wine or any other liquor to suit your tastes.

“A fear of flying causes a lot of people to choose to ride with us,” said Chapple. “But, there are various reasons. Some people just enjoy looking at scenery. Railcars are a place to get away from television and get away and relax.”

Since railcars don’t have their own engines, they are often limited to the same routes of established train companies, such as Amtrak. However, the network of tracks is extensive; railcars simply hitch themselves onto the main train and are pulled along for the ride.
However, this means that not only are you limited to domestic travel, but you’re subject to the chronic delays that plague Amtrak. Bring along a book and some games because you might be looking at the same scenery for some time.

Get more info on avoiding delays with Amtrak’s Best, and Worst, On-Time Train Routes.

The trips don’t have to be long: One of Colonial Crafts’ most popular routes is the Los Angeles to Del Mar route during horse-race season. The company also offers private tours in which they join the train with other cars that house members of railway societies, including coming up this September that will hitch onto a steam train from the National Railway Historical Society and travel from Los Angeles to San Diego.

Chapel Hill Rail car“We did a steam locomotive trip from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon and back on Santa Fe #3751,” Fishburn said. It was one of the best – especially since we did it with the National Railway Historical Society’s special train. We did nothing else but train. It was lots of people; we had a great time.”

The biggest drawback? Due to heavy maintenance fees and the ability to personalize your journey, the cost of chartering a private railcar for yourself can be pricy.

Colonial Crafts Railcar charges an average of $5,000 to $7,000 per day, while Chapel Hill Railcar starts at $6,000 a day.

“There’s not a rail enthusiast alive who would give their right arm to travel on private railcar,” Chapple said. “Unfortunately, it’s strictly for people with deep pockets. One of our customers chose us because they ‘wanted to one-up’ their friends who were traveling to their destination by private jet.”

Loomis also points out that being in a private railcar pulled by an Amtrak train means that you are paying more for the same views that the other passengers are getting from their less expensive seats.

“Unless you are a guest of a private railcar owner, it’s invariably a good deal much more expensive,” Loomis said.

Check out some Great North American Train Trips.

Considering that part of the train culture is meeting the other passengers, riding in a private railcar gives a more isolationist experience. Loomis points out that Amtrak passengers are not allowed into your car (and often the doors of the private railcar don’t line up with the Amtrak cars) preventing two groups from mingling.

“Part of what I enjoy about riding in the train is communal dining arrangements,” Loomis explained. “You meet all kinds of interesting people; you don’t have that opportunity when you ride in the private car and are confined to one or two cars.”

But ask any train enthusiast and they’ll maintain that the sights, sounds and comfort given during a private railcar train ride is worth the hefty price tag, whether you’re a veteran rider or a first-timer.

“You get scenery, luxury, no hassle, no security, and gourmet meals,” Chapple said. “If you want a different experience, this is it.”

By Michelle Castillo for

Get Peter’s take on the state of train travel in his Travel Detective® blog post: Planes, Trains and Peter.

And visit our Train Travel section for even more info on trains.