Sunday, December 16, 2018

A look at how some wealthy people travel the country in renovated railcars

When John Webb takes his family to California, Washington and Oregon for vacation from his home in Dutchess County, N.Y., they don’t fly or drive. They travel hooked to the back of an Amtrak train in a 1950s-era private railcar that Mr. Webb spent three years and nearly $1 million restoring.

Traveling across the country by private rail takes a lot of planning, requiring connections to various trains and layovers. But Mr. Webb, 35, says he and his 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter prefer it to their family’s second home in the Adirondacks because every day they wake up somewhere different.

“It touches places you can’t get to by road,” says Mr. Webb, head of an insurance brokerage in Fishkill, N.Y.

There currently are about 150 private railcars (also called “varnish”) in good enough shape to be certified to run attached to Amtrak trains in the U.S., according to the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners. Cost of the cars ranges from $25,000 to more than $800,000, depending on the condition.

Renovating and restoring cars at the highest end can cost more than $1 million. To travel, owners pay Amtrak $2.90 per mile, plus additional fees for services. Add the expenses of crew and connection transportation, and a cross-country trip can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Storing the cars costs about $600 to $1,000 a month.

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