Traveling in Grand Style … Behind Amtrak in Some ‘Private Varnish’.

Every so often, if you travel around the country by rail, you’ll see an Amtrak train with one or more classic rail cars coupled at the rear.  And when you do – Admit it! – you would give anything to get a look inside one of those beauties, let alone have the opportunity to actually travel in one.

Well, here’s the thing: you can!

Yes, there are companies that operate rail excursions in classic rail cars, some on a fairly regular schedule. One, for example, is Pullman Rail Journeys. They have a number of restored sleeping cars and a dining car which are attached to Amtrak’s City of New Orleans consist four or five times a month. You can travel from Chicago to New Orleans, or go the other direction. Or you can make it a round-trip. I can’t give you a first-hand review because I haven’t yet made this particular trip. But it’s definitely on my “to do” list.

There are other, less formal and much more affordable opportunities, too. Several hundred private individuals around the country own these classic rail cars, which are referred to as “private varnish”. That’s a reference to the beautiful polished wood paneling and trim originally featured in most of those old cars. However, as you can imagine, it’s an expensive hobby and, to defray expenses, many of those folks lease their private varnish to companies that organize rail tours and then sell the space to people like us!

I tried it a few years ago – an overnight ride from Washington DC to Chicago, hooked to the rear of Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.  The company organizing that particular trip was Altiplano Rail, owned by a young man named Adam Auxier. (I met Adam through the NationalAssociation of Railroad Passengers Like me, he is a member.) Some of his trips are for just two or three nights, while others run as long as two weeks, with stops along the way. All, it seems to me, are really quite affordable. 
A few years ago, I joined one of Adam’s trips for just the final segment: Washington, DC, overnight to Chicago. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were very comfortably ensconced in two vintage rail cars from the 1950s: a sleeper configured with roomettes and bedrooms, and a classic bullet-ended lounge car. We had lunch aboard and spent the afternoon relaxing in the lounge area. Then came an informal, but very tasty dinner, followed by drinks and then, for me, an almost serene moment – slipping under the covers in my berth, turning out the light, and waiting for Pittsburgh to appear outside my window.

But – and this is a confession of sorts – during daylight hours, a wicked little pleasure kept occurring while we were stopped in railway stations along the way: people on the platform staring up at us and we looking down and, seeming to notice them, very grandly acknowledging their presence with a polite, almost imperceptible wave.

Yes, yes how nice now let them eat cake.