Questions and Answers.

Q:  I was dropping a friend off at the station in our town a week or so ago and the Lake Shore Limited went through with a classic passenger rail car on the rear. How does one get to ride in one of those beauties?

A: There are a couple of companies that can arrange a ride in what those folks refer to as “private varnish” . . . old restored rail cars. The arrangements are made with Amtrak for one or more of these vintage cars to be attached to the rear of whatever Amtrak train is going where you want to go on the day you want to go there. Of course, it’s not that simple. Amtrak charges the organizer of such an excursion anywhere from $4 to $10 a mile depending on where you’re going and the time of year. There are extra charges for any switching that may be required.

Some years back, I rode from Washington to Chicago in a private rail car attached to the Capitol Limited.  At every stop, people on the station platform would stop and stare, wondering who that was riding in the fancy rail car. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist giving them the “royal wave” as the train started to move and roll out of the station.

This is not “my” F-40 locomotive but, as far as I can tell, it’s almost identical.

Q: How does someone arrange for a ride in the locomotive cab with the engineer on one of Amtrak’s  long-distance trains.  

A. The short answer is: You can’t. A cab ride has always been a rare privilege, but since 9/11 it has really become impossible for a “civilian” to arrange.

But twenty-plus years ago, I was working on the first edition of my All Aboard book and there’s a chapter in there about the on board Amtrak crew members—car attendant, conductor, dining car staff and engineer.  I was writing about each of those jobs and requested a “cab ride” and explained why I was asking. I fully expected Amtrak to refuse my request . . . 

. . .  but they didn’t. And some weeks later,  I rode with the engineer and a road foreman in the cab of an F-40 Amtrak locomotive pulling the Empire Builder from Milwaukee to Winona, Minnesota . . . a five-hour ride.  

I remember being struck by the fact that the F-40’s cab was bare bones with neither heat nor air conditioning. Too hot? Open the windows. Too cold?  Put on a jacket.  Too loud? Put in ear plugs. (With the windows open, the whistle on the roof of the locomotive’s cab–actually it’s a horn–was blowing constantly.)

For five hours it was cold and it was loud. But it was wonderful!