A Golden Opportunity

I received an email today about travel by private rail car from the nice people at The Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.  It was completely out of the blue but is precisely what I hoping to find.  They have been offering private rail charters for a while  but recently added a new service.  At first, these were common styled trips that cost quite a bit per person but were all inclusive and totally worth the expense.  The trouble with this kind of travel is convincing people to take the plunge and spend the money.  What these folks are tying is low cost day trips for segments of their longer trips.  For example, if a car was going from Los Angeles, CA to Portland, OR on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight you could book a bedroom for the entire trip of two days with one night.  This is a great getaway that includes a private bedroom, all meals, liquor, and snacks.  However, if you are finding such a cost not affordable, or unsure if it’s worth it, space has been made available on a lounge car for shorter day time segments.  Instead of a multi-day commitment you can, for example, take a ride from Los Angeles, CA to Oakland, CA and have lunch and dinner on the train for a couple of hundred dollars per person.

I spoke with Tim Tennant, the President and CEO of the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, that is sponsoring the excursion.  He explained that they were trying to attract new guests that hadn’t tried this kind of travel before and were hesitant to make such a large purchase without some kind of first hand account.  I personally think this is brilliant and is exactly what anyone should do if they have any doubts about private rail car travel.  Tim said that the single most used word to describe these trips is, “Wow.”

On this excursion in particular, travel will be on the former Milwaukee Road business car Montana and the former Santa Fe coach Acoma (pronounced Ack-i-ma).  Bedroom accommodations will be on the Montana and the day trippers will be on the Acoma.  The cars are actually making a large circle around the country starting and ending in Los Angeles but are going through Portland, OR, Chicago IL, and back to Los Angeles.

There are lots of opportunities to ride and at the time of writing this there is still space available for the September trip for the day time segments.  If you are interested all the details can be found here (The link is a PDF),

The proceeds of this excursion go to the Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad for the support of their museum and operations.

The Santa Fe Palm Leaf, Acoma, and MILW Montana.
From leading car to back:  Former Santa Fe Palm Leaf and Acoma, trailed by the Milwaukee Road Montana.    Robert Morris Photo.
Interior of the Santa Fe Acoma
Interior of the former Santa Fe Acoma.
Interior of the former Santa Fe Acoma with passengers Tim & Judy Tennant.
Interior of the former Santa Fe Acoma with passengers Tim & Judy Tennant.
Interior of the former Milwaukee Road Montana.
Interior of the former Milwaukee Road Montana.

 

When things don’t go as planned.

If you have been around railroads for any length of time, then you know that things don’t always go as planned. One thing leads to another and before you know it, plan B has led to Plan C to Plan D and so on. So it can be at times aboard a private railcar.

What follows below is the tale of just one such adventure. Pull up a comfy seat and learn how making the best of the situation can be worth the trip!

The Mount Vernon on the rear, west of Cleveland on a late Lake Shore Limited. Photo by Craig Sanders.
The Mount Vernon on the rear, west of Cleveland on a late Lake Shore Limited. Photo by Craig Sanders.

New York to Toledo and Chicago:
41.5 Hours Aboard MOUNT VERNON on The Water Level Route

by Ellen Thompson and Jack Deasy

It’s Saturday afternoon July 19th and a group of seasoned private car travelers are looking forward to the first segment of a 10 days trip from New York to Chicago, Minneapolis – Saint Paul and Washington onboard MOUNT VERNON.  We are scheduled to move from New York to Chicago on the rear of train 49, The Lake Shore Limited.  The timetable indicates it is a journey of 959 miles, scheduled for 18 hours and 5 minutes.  Tom and Meg Coughlin, Mike Martin and Bill Hakkarinen board the car at New York, while John and Ellen Thompson will board the car at Albany-Rensselaer, 141 miles and almost three hours to the north.  Amtrak boards their coach and sleeper passengers at Penn Station, the train is quite full, and ready to head north by northwest from New York to Chicago on the Water Level Route.  However, our scheduled departure time of 3:40 PM passes without a highball from the Conductor to the Engineer.

New York Penn Station, as the Mount Vernon waits to depart. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
New York Penn Station, as the Mount Vernon waits to depart. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Eventually our radio reveals there is problem on Metro North Railroad’s Hudson Line between Peekskill and Garrison in the Hudson Highlands. A retaining wall has given way and rocks are strewn on the tracks, blocking the movement of Metro North and Amtrak trains.  Whoops!  Train 49 will be held at Penn Station until the tracks are cleared and inspected by Metro North Railroad.  Unfortunately, no one seems to know how long that will take. So, we wait, and we wait, and then we wait some more.  Train 49’s Conductor allows his passengers out on the station platform, with a warning not to stray too far, because departure might be imminent.  Some go upstairs in search of snacks and drinks.  On the MOUNT VERNON, we enjoy hors d’oeuvres and drinks in cool relaxed comfort.

The lounge aboard the Mount Vernon as the wait at Penn Station ensues. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
The lounge aboard the Mount Vernon as the wait at Penn Station ensues. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Finally, about six hours after our scheduled departure time, train 49 receives clearance to depart Penn Station.  A quick “All Aboard” and off we go.  Did they leave anyone behind at Penn Station?  The George Washington Bridge across the Hudson River and the New Jersey shoreline is nicely illuminated at night.  In about half an hour, we make an unscheduled stop at Tarrytown.  Unfortunately, our operating crew has run afoul of the federal Hours of Service law, so a new operating crew meets us at Tarrytown to take us north to Albany-Rensselaer.   Minutes later, we are again on the move.

The bed awaits the traveler. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
The bed awaits the traveler. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Our first scheduled stop is at Croton-Harmon.  In the early years of Amtrak, locomotives were changed here, with P2-B box cab electric motors giving way to E-8 / E-9 diesel locomotives.  In our current era, with Amtrak using dual mode P32AC-DM locomotives, there is no need to change locomotives, so this stop is usually brief, just enough time to board passengers.  Unfortunately, one of the passengers who left the train at Penn Station is the mother of a five year old boy.  He was sound asleep in his coach seat while his mother ran her errand in Penn Station. When she returned to the platform, she found the train had departed, to her horror. Now the Amtrak crew plays nursemaid to the young boy, while we wait for the taxicab from Penn Station that will reunite mother and son.

The George Washington Bridge as seen at night. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
The George Washington Bridge as seen at night. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Meanwhile, up the line in Albany-Rensselaer, John and Ellen, who expected to board around 6:45 PM, hang out in the spacious modern station watching trains that are going nowhere and chatting with Amtrak employees who don’t know when the situation will be resolved.  Train 48 (Lake Shore Limited), train 64 (Maple Leaf) and train 292 (Ethan Allen) are being held at Albany-Rensselaer waiting for clearance to head south to New York.  Train 449 (Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited) is waiting to be joined to train 49.  Most of the passengers from those four trains chose to get off, stretch their legs, make phone calls, and do the Thompson thing: hang out in the station and wait for an announcement.  The passengers on the Boston section were very fortunate, as they re-boarded their coaches and sleeper about 10 PM and hopefully settled in to a good night’s sleep.  Throughout the long evening and night hours Amtrak station staff exhibited an inordinate amount of patience, while regularly announcing that they had no new information about train 49’s expected arrival!

The kitchen of the Mount Vernon. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
The kitchen of the Mount Vernon. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Shortly after it was announced that train 49 had finally left New York’s Penn Station, which was confirmed by a phone call from Tom, John and Ellen headed back to their auto in the station’s parking deck to gather up their luggage and transfer some provisions into a tote bag with ice.  That ice is not a problem when you expect the train will arrive in less than three hours, but it does become a problem when the clock continues to tick away the hours, and no one knows when your train will actually arrive. By 2 AM a minor flood from melting ice had occurred, but not to fret, mopping the floor was a novelty to (almost) be enjoyed at that point of the night.

Train 49 finally arrives at Albany-Rensselaer and we get to board at 4:15 AM on Sunday morning, rather than the anticipated 6:30 PM on Saturday night.  Bedroom suite C and D was such a welcome sight!  The Boston section is combined with the New York section, but there is no departure highball, as there is another problem. It seems that in addition to the mother who had been temporarily separated from her son, there were several other passengers who didn’t make it back on board before the train left Penn Station. They arrive aboard a delayed Empire Service train a few minutes later, transfer to train 49, and The Lake Shore Limited finally departs Albany-Rensselaer, nine and one-half hours late.

Morning in Utica. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
Morning in Utica. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Its time for a late breakfast on Sunday morning and we are in northwest Pennsylvania, rather than northwest Indiana or the Chicago suburbs. Like most PV travellers, we have found lemonade rather than lemons on this trip, as we get to enjoy “rare scenery”, since both the westbound and eastbound Lake Shore Limited usually pass through this area at night.  We note our share of railway enthusiasts who are trackside at various locations, taking photos or videos of our rare daylight passage through this area.

It’s mid-day and Billie Ernest from Amtrak’s Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) calls MOUNT VERNON co-owner and General Manager Jack Deasy to inform him that Amtrak will terminate our train at Toledo, so that it can be serviced, turned and head back east as the next train 48/448.  Passengers on our train will be bussed to their destinations between Toledo and Chicago.  Billie offers Jack three options for handling MOUNT VERNON.  After a discussion with all of us, Jack accepts Billie’s offer of spending the night parked in Central Union Terminal at Toledo, without ground power, where we will await rescue by the next westbound train 29 or 49, to bring us into Chicago.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Sandusky, where a stretch of one of the two mainline tracks is out of service for maintenance, the Norfolk Southern dispatcher holds us and one of its own westbound freight trains at an interlocking, allowing a fleet of eastbound freights to traverse and clear the single track ahead of us. We count them: one, two, three, four, five and six.  Finally, after the sixth freight train passed, we get the signal to proceed west on the single track.

Norfolk Southern 5630 up close and personal as it passes the Mount Vernon. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
Norfolk Southern 5630 up close and personal as it passes the Mount Vernon. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Train 49 finally arrives at Toledo at 6 PM Sunday evening, rather than the scheduled 5:55 AM Sunday morning.  Twelve hours late!  Amtrak’s tired passengers board busses that will take them west to Chicago, and we raise a toast to them and to the even more tired onboard service crew who have just put in over 26 hours on the train.

By water if you can! Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
By water if you can! Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

Amtrak sends a crew to Toledo to clean, resupply and inspect their train for its return to New York and Boston on Monday.  The train’s consist is turned on a wye and MOUNT VERNON is setout on another station track.  After the train heads back east, we are all alone at Toledo.  At times like this you appreciate having a friend named Mister Stadco, who can provide you with electricity, lighting and HVAC, when Amtrak is unable to provide that for you.  Unfortunately, Mister Stadco is not happy tonight, for we notice white exhaust smoke.  It appears we have a fuel problem that has clogged our fuel filters.  All is quiet after the diesel generator quits around 3 AM.  We will attend to Mister Stadco’s problem at a more convenient time and location.  After handling the passengers detraining and boarding at Toledo, train 29, The Capitol Limited, backs down against us at dawn on Monday morning, couples, and takes us the remaining 234 miles westward into Chicago Union Station.  We arrive at 9:30 AM, close to an hour late, but after 41.5 hours out on the railroad, who’s counting?  We are just happy to be in the Windy City, and even happier that Amtrak’s CNOC and their Chicago Yardmaster expedite switching and servicing the car, coupling us to that afternoon’s Empire Builder for the next segment of our trip to Minneapolis – Saint Paul.

Arrival into Toledo. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen
Arrival into Toledo. Photo by Dr. Bill Hakkarinen

When we look back on this experience, we recognize that almost all of the delays were the result of events beyond Amtrak’s control.  We particularly appreciate the efforts of Amtrak’s Billie Ernest and those other Amtrak employees who did their best to take care of MOUNT VERNON and her passengers under difficult circumstances.

Postscript: The car was added to the Capitol Limited and went on to be part of very successful trip. But that’s a tale for another day…

Seeing what private railcar travel is all about

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There is an old story of a grand society dame arriving in New York City. A member of the press inquired how she enjoyed her trip aboard her private rail car. She replied “that it was something to which one could become easily accustomed to.”

I can think of no better way to see for yourself than any of the trips listed on the Travel Opportunities page of the AAPRCO web site. Joining a group traveling to an interesting destination is a wonderful way to experience it firsthand. Make new friends along the way as you take in all the sights to be found.

For example, imagine yourself aboard the Virginia City, shown above, rolling the miles by. The passing panorama as revealed from the observation lounge is something you just will not experience flying along at 35,000 feet. And the 2014 Pine Tree Limited offers passengers some rare miles as it travels from Chicago to Portland.

Why not plan to share those miles and that experience with folks who share the same interest? Travel by rail in a style and elegance only found on a private railcar.

 

Events of All Types – Aboard Private Railcars

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One of the great things about travel by private railcar is that you can host virtually any event aboard. Any event you can plan, can be held while the train travels along it’s route.

Take the above view as a good example. A couple was looking for a unique venue to hold their wedding and reception. They had looked about at some interesting places. The various assortment of halls, restaurants, golf courses, wineries and more. With a small guest list of less than 40 people for the ceremony and reception, they just were not able to find something they liked in the Los Angeles area. I suggested a private railcar, traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego. The Pony Express was the perfect choice for them, with space for both the ceremony and reception afterward. And by choosing the right schedule, they were able to have the ceremony along the shores of the Pacific Ocean near San Juan Capistrano near sunset for just the right romantic touch. It was a great time aboard, complete with a tiki theme.

Over my years aboard PV’s, clients have chartered cars for event of all shapes and sizes. Everything from an intimate 50th birthday party with a small group of 5 guests to an 80th birthday with family and friends to a corporate Christmas party for 125 which took 4 cars from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reno for an overnight. I had one client who used a private railcar for an annual sales conference. He loved the fact that he had his sales force aboard – all in one place – during the trip. Usually, he held the event at a hotel, and he noted people passing in and out of the ballroom during the meetings. Instead, he had them all together. And they enjoyed a good golf outing the next day before they returned home on the last of 3 days.

So, you name it, the private railcar can be a great place for any event. Maybe that 50th class reunion or even a milestone wedding anniversary? Why not look a bit beyond the usual venues and enjoy the trip of a lifetime for your next event!

Late Trains

Platform

Out on the road with private railcars, there is a saying that often comes into play.

Late trains become only one thing.

Later.

Let’s face it. Trains do get delayed. You name it, we all have seen or experienced it. Everything from weather to mechanical issues to encounters with tumbleweeds. Yes, tumbleweeds! In the case seen above, a westbound freight train east of  Wendover, Utah stalled due to tumbleweeds on the rails. The train could not get traction because of the green mess. And of course, everything behind it ran into delays because of that. By the time train number 5, the westbound California Zephyr arrived into Sparks, Nevada, to pick up the former Santa Fe Car number 33 that day, it was a good 9 hours late.  Which meant that instead of a late afternoon arrival into Martinez, CA, it was now a very late night arrival. And an early morning arrival into the Oakland coach yard for the crew.

But making the best of things, what else can you do? We knew well enough ahead of time to let the passengers know what was in store. Storing baggage for them on the car, they had extra time in Reno. And they made good use of it, adding to their enjoyment of a fun trip so far. Everything from an afternoon movie to late brunch and some Nevada style diversions passed the time. What was originally intended as a light mid-day meal, became a festive supper. And the Sierra crossing at night with stars to illuminate the way, and light wind was the stuff memories are indeed made from.

Now some folks can get stressed out over delays. Understandable, but why worry? Sit back and enjoy instead.

Another case in point, a wedding and reception aboard the Pony Express was enjoyed one Saturday afternoon between Los Angeles and San Diego. A beautiful and romantic ceremony along the shore of the Pacific Ocean near San Juan Capistrano at sunset, promised a great party on the way home. Now this was in August, with racing in season at Del Mar. Joining us for the ride home were also the Silver Solarium and the Scottish Thistle. And one packed train of low level Horizon coaches. For a variety of reasons, we departed  late from San Diego. But aboard the Pony Express, you would never have known it! Even with other delays along the way – like the standing room only crowd boarding at Solana Beach from the race track; or the emergency stop at 90 miles per hour (likely caused by a passenger pulling an emergency brake in the dark) – those folks had a wonderful event. Even with an arrival back into Los Angeles almost 3 hours later than that advertised. One guest called it the party of a lifetime.

The moral of the stories? Don’t worry! Just enjoy the ride aboard the private railcar.

The Winter Wonderland

Now one draw for many PV trips out west is wintertime.

DSC_0008Train #5, the California Zephyr headed for Sacramento, CA along the Truckee River. Photo by Alex Ramos

Because for most folks, the whole concept of snow is something unfamiliar at best. In most of California, a bit of cold and some rain and that is winter. But crossing the Sierra Nevada anytime between November and April? You might be treated to a covering of white. And not just the light powder, but the wet heavy stuff known as Sierra Cement. High in water content.

HPIM0072Photo by Roger Colton

In some years, a light dusting comes and goes through fall into spring. Others can bring record amounts with drifts as high as the train. Never the same twice, it seems that the snow gods can be fickle at best.

DSCN2315Photo by Roger Colton

Normally, PV’s will travel from Emeryville to Sparks, making the trip up on a Saturday and back on Sunday. One night in the Biggest Little City in America seems the norm as folks make the trek around Reno. I’ve had groups of as many as 125 aboard 4 PV’s or as small as 5 on one car – all to enjoy the scenery and of course, snow.

PV Trip2 079The Reno Fun Train heads west bound as the CZ heads east across the Sierra. Photo by Alex Ramos.

The Reno Fun Train has offered folks a bit longer stay with two nights in town over the years, traditionally during February and March during the prime snow season. PV’s have not been unknown in consists from time to time.

DSC_0497Photo by Roger Colton

And even the Union Pacific, corporate descendant of this former Southern Pacific route gets into the party now and then with special trains of their own such as this steam move in April of 2009.

snowygwPhoto by Roger Colton

Meanwhile, folks back east, for whom snow is a part of each year can chuckle in amusement at the Californians as they ride the trains off to see the snow from the warmth and comfort of the chartered PV!

Where Shall We Go? An Eastern View

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Photo by Rich Simons – Private Car: “Mount Vernon” behind Amtrak #69 at
Poughkeepsie, New York – 11/8/2013

Far be it from the short list of destinations I mentioned out west, Amtrak does have a great variety of other destinations from which your private railcar adventure might enjoy.

Jack Deasy, of the sleeper-lounge Mount Vernon, offered some suggestions for trips. Here are six excellent private car destinations in the Northeast:

mtv0802Photo by Jack Deasy

Montreal QC: A scenic daytime trip along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River; a wonderful city to visit. Occupied PV parking available in Central Station only from Friday evening arrival through Sunday morning departure. At other times, a PV can be parked in Via’s maintenance facility while guests stay in hotels or bed & breakfast inns.

nfalls_DSC_0026Photo by Jack Deasy The American Falls viewed from Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada.

Niagara Falls NY: A scenic daytime trip from New York City. Occupied PV parking in the Amtrak station, located a few miles from the world-famous Niagara Falls. A good place to park a PV for those who wish to continue onward to Toronto ON by rental car, GO Transit bus, or as a passenger on a Via Rail Canada train. Unfortunately, no PV parking provided at Toronto by Via Rail Canada.

Boston MA: Occupied PV parking in South Station. Lots of historic sites in this city. Can be accessed with a scenic trip over the Berkshires from Albany-Rensselaer NY, or an overnight trip from Washington DC.

Pittsburgh PA: Occupied PV parking in the station. A scenic daytime trip from New York on the Pennsylvanian.

Washington DC: Occupied PV parking in the station. Much to see and do in our nation’s capitol.

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Photo by Jack Deasy. The Bear Mountain Bridge across the Hudson River, a few miles south of the US Military Academy at West Point NY, as seen from the rear of a northbound private car.
New York NY: The Big Apple, the city that never sleeps. There are an endless number of things to do and see. Unfortunately, Amtrak does not provide passenger occupied parking at either Penn Station or Sunnyside Yard, so PV guests must obtain lodging in local hotels or inns.

Tempted? All sound like great places to enjoy as destinations aboard a private railroad car!

Where shall we go?

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One of the great pleasures of travel by private railcar is the variety of destinations that await passengers. Not to mention the scenery to be viewed along the way!

Start with a simple fact. In most cases, private cars can travel on any route serviced by Amtrak. And you can choose from a day trip or an overnight one. For example, out of the San Francisco Bay Area, we are lucky enough to have a good variety of choices. Long distance trains such as the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles or the California Zephyr to Reno both offer a great ride with some of Amtrak’s best scenery. On the Starlight, it is the classic 113 miles along the shore of the Pacific Ocean – some of which can only be viewed from the train. On the Zephyr, crossing the Sierra Nevada along the route of the original transcontinental railroad passes through some mighty pretty mountains – especially when covered in the winter snows. The Starlight takes roughly 12 hours from Oakland to LA and the Zephyr travels from Emeryville to Reno in a little more than 6 hours. Both offer great choices in what to do or see once you arrive at a destination.

On shorter day trips? The Bay Area has the Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Auburn or the San Joaquin route between Oakland and Bakersfield. Both have their own attractions including a connection to the Yosemite National Park or Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum. The latter features a great display of vintage travel including a private railcar, the “Gold Coast”. Once the traveling home of bon vivant Lucius Beebe and partner Charles Clegg, today it offers museum visitors a peek into travel by private railroad car in the mid-20th Century.

Overnight! Something magical about sleeping overnight aboard a train, awakening to find the new sights of another day. Again, out here, it is the Starlight to Portland or Seattle; or the Zephyr to Salt Lake City, Denver or Chicago. Both continuing the spectacles of scenic vistas along the way. Yes, sir! Nothing like the nice hot breakfast, enjoyed after a restful night aboard the private railcar of your charter.

But don’t let the West be your only choice. Amtrak routes cross the country. From north to south, east to west, trains travel offering a wonderful way to see the miles as they roll by. Be it backyards, small towns or big cities, the choice of destinations and the private cars to enjoy them from is only the beginning of your own adventure. Check out the list of cars available for charter on the AAPRCO web pages. Or join a trip already planned and see what lies ahead. Again, AAPRCO offers trip opportunities on it’s pages.

Still curious? Don’t stop yet! Again, read on here and find out more about what you can enjoy  aboard.

Travel by private railroad car – something for everyone!

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Often when I first describe the concept of travel by private railcar, I am met with two comments. The first being, “Passenger trains? I thought those were long gone!” The second usually follows. “I did not know such a thing was possible.”

As the photo above illustrates (taken in late September in Seattle as cars gathered for the Napa Valley Limited), both comments are indeed well taken. For many people, travel by train is something their grandparents or parents may have done, a long time ago. Trains like the 20th Century Limited or the Coast Daylight are fondly recalled. Travel in an elegant way, long before the Interstate highway or jet planes whisked us away to what ever destination called. And as to the visibility of travel aboard a private railcar? Not much of a surprise either.

With so many distractions today, be it just the hustle and bustle of work, family and life in general, competition for the disposable income (from everything starting at the local fast food emporium to the theme park industry to destination resorts), the pace of entertainment in the home and out… You can get to the conclusion rather quickly that travel by private railcar is the domain of an exclusive few.

Farther from the truth one could not be. For any event you can name, from the most static possible, can also be enjoyed while traveling aboard a private railcar. Working with the staff of the car (or cars as the case may be), even a simple birthday party becomes the most memorable celebration. Everything from a class reunion to a wedding and reception to that annual sales conference can and is held aboard a private railroad passenger car.

And that’s a great part of what this blog – The Step Box – is going to share in the posts yet to come. With the imagination and experience available among those cars for charter, it is not difficult to add your next event to those private railcar experiences so well remembered by those who traveled aboard.

Here’s hoping you can be joining in the fun soon!