WHITEFISH – The old saying goes “a late train only gets later” and Amtrak’s Empire Builder proved it last Wednesday morning when it arrived in Whitefish around 3 a.m., several hours behind scheduled. But for the 35 passengers aboard four private rail cars coupled to the rear of the train, it wasn’t much of a concern.
“We were six hours late, but who cares,” said Roger Verbeeren, owner of American Rail Excursions, Inc.
American Rail Excursions and a dozen other companies across the country are part of a small niche industry offering private train trips. Verbeeren, 62, organized his first train trip in 1969 and likened the experience to an ocean cruise, just on land. It’s very similar to the first-class travel of the 1940s and 1950s, with plush accommodations and fine cuisine. The private cars are usually attached to the rear of regularly scheduled Amtrak trains and Whitefish is a common destination. Last week’s trip, dubbed the “Montana and Glacier Park Special” departed St. Louis on June 16 and headed to Chicago on its way to the Flathead. It returned east three days later. Shorter trips can start at a few thousand dollars and go up to $14,000 for a private master suite aboard the train.
Verbeeren, who manages the trips, fixes toilets and even serves as conductor, said those costs are small when compared to the price of restoring one of the private rail cars his company uses. He estimated it costs more than $1.2 million to restore a passenger car built in the 1940s, much like the ones that came to Whitefish. It’s a pricey hobby and Verbeeren said owners are passionate about their private rail cars.
“Some people are so addicted to their cars, they call it their dope, their drug,” he said, sitting in the lounge area of an observation car named “Royal Street.” “It’s a love for the passenger car or railroading, or even just a love of the past and history.”
The observation car “Royal Street” was built for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1950 and ran on the Crescent Limited, one of the most famous passenger trains in the South, between New Orleans and New York City. Inside it features a lounge area at the rear of the car with massive picture windows and swivel chairs for people to sit back and take in the passing scenery. There are also five double occupancy bedrooms. When a dentist in St. Louis purchased the car in 1992, it had fallen on tough times and he spent the next decade fixing it up.
Today, it is still privately owned and is one of 16 cars Verbeeren uses for his dozen or so annual train trips around the country. He said it is easier for a tour promoter like himself to organize trips than the car’s owner.
“We do all the dirty work and then hand the owner a check,” he said.
Each passenger car and each owner has a different story. One of the cars on the trip to Whitefish, a dome car built for the Union Pacific Railroad, was being restored in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Floodwaters destroyed six years worth of work and the owner had to start restoration all over again. Instances like that, Verbeeren said, show why owning a private rail car isn’t always a money-making venture.
However, it does bring money to the local economy. The “Montana and Glacier Park Special” last week brought an estimated $20,000 to the area, Verbeeren said, not to mention what passengers spent at local gift shops and restaurants. Passengers usually stay in their private room onboard the train. The rooms are compact, but comfortable, and feature a bed, toilet, sink and closet and not much else. But Verbeeren said rail travel isn’t about staying holed up in a room, rather wandering the train and meeting people over drinks and dinner.
“At the end of each trip, there is always a new group of friends,” Verbeeren said. “It’s about enjoying time with other people.”
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