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.
Private rail travel evokes images of the Vanderbilts and Woolworths sipping tea as they recline in plush leather armchairs, trundling through the countryside down to Palm Beach. Most cars come with a history of famous riders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Clark Gable.
It's a tradition that harks back to the late 1800s in the U.S., until it was diminished by the Great Depression and replaced by air travel, virtually disappearing for a while after the 1950s. It wasn't until the creation of Amtrak in 1971 and a selloff of old cars by railroad companies that private rail started up again.
The restored private railcars that travel today tend to be luxuriously decorated mini-mansions, with multiple bedrooms, private chefs, domed glass ceilings and observation decks. Many are owned by ordinary train enthusiasts, who run charter trips to help defray costs.
Borden Black does the cooking on trips on her 1925 Pullman, named the Dearing, with an observation lounge, dining room and three bedrooms. She charges $6,600 a bedroom for a 10-day round trip from Washington to New Orleans.
“It's like a super vacation house. It's one of the coolest things in the world,” says billionaire John Paul DeJoria, founder of Patrón Spirits Co., whose private 1927 vintage railcar, the Patrón Tequila Express, carries him and his guests, who have included actor Dan Aykroyd and several presidential candidates, around the country on Amtrak's 21,000 miles of routes.
Mr. DeJoria spent $2 million renovating his 85-foot car—with a dining room, modern kitchen, observation room, master suite and two bedrooms—in what he describes as a maharajah's palace style, with green velvet sofas, gold-frame paintings and brocade drapes. It costs him about $10,000 a month for maintenance, insurance, storage and crew.
Jack Heard, 69, a funeral director who lives in Fernandina Beach, Fla., bought his private car, called the Georgia 300, in 1986 for about $42,000. The 1930 Pullman was in good shape, so Mr. Heard estimates he spent only about $50,000 and a lot of “blood and sweat” to get it ready to run on the Amtrak rails. “It's like someone buying an antique car or house,” he says. “They want to enjoy a way of life that's not there anymore.”
The freedom to roam the rails is threatened. Some private railcar owners worry Amtrak will stop letting them hitch rides, deciding that the pressure on its on-time arrivals and the costs and hassles of keeping private owners in line isn't worth the roughly $4 million it says it earns in annual revenue from the service.
In November, Amtrak's office of inspector general initiated an audit of its private railcar services. Last month, Amtrak halted all private rail travel between Los Angeles and San Diego until the passenger service's on-time performance improves, and is considering other changes to ensure these operations don't interfere with its core business and service to its passengers.
Reports of bad behavior—loud parties and disorderly conduct—by some private railcar owners and their guests in Amtrak yards are exacerbating these fears.
“It's up to the private car owners to make sure they conform to Amtrak standards,” says Wick Moorman, former Amtrak president and CEO, who now serves in an advisory capacity. (A spokeswoman for the owners association says it has zero tolerance for disorderly conduct.)
Mr. Moorman, who owns his own private railcar called the Sandy Creek, bought for “about the price of a nice fishing boat,” says he isn't particularly worried Amtrak will stop allowing private rail travel. “If it does, it does,” he says, adding that the historical significance can be appreciated by seeing these old cars in museums.
Private railcar owners also worry many of Amtrak's longer routes might disappear because of the congressional mandate requiring that Amtrak trains only ride on tracks with a safety technology called Positive Train Control by the end of 2018. Some of the tracks are owned by freight companies that won't have complied by then.
“Things are very grim,” says Bennett Levin, who owns the Pennsylvania 120, which carried Robert Kennedy's body to Washington, D.C., for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 1968 and which Mr. Levin spent about $1 million to restore, following original engineering drawings. He has hosted Pennsylvania transportation- committee representatives aboard his cars to show them the importance of supporting statefunded Amtrak routes. At the very least, if states are on board, private railcar owners could still travel within their own states.
Meanwhile, private railcars continue to change hands, albeit slowly. About five a year are sold, says David Thebado of Rail Merchants International, who doesn't list prices of the cars he sells online. The kind of people who buy these cars are “big dreamers,” he says.
Mark McBride, 42, a software professional in Palo Alto, Calif., who has been researching a purchase for the past couple of years, came close to buying a private railcar for $500,000. He reasons it would set him back about same price as buying a vacation house in Tahoe, “only you can go more places.”
He says that in Silicon Valley, where ostentation is shunned, a private railcar is more interesting than buying a Lamborghini. While at this point he says he'd probably charter a railcar instead of buying one, Mr. McBride hasn't given up on the idea. His wife has gone from “a solid no to a maybe.” Mr. Webb says owning private railcars can become an obsession.
He attributes his divorce in part to the time and money he spent buying and renovating his cars. The three-year restoration of the Babbling Brook into what he calls a retro-modern 1950s diner look was “comparable to watching paint dry.” That didn't stop him from buying two more cars in 2016 that are now being restored—bringing his private railcar ownership total to six cars. His current girlfriend is “very supportive,” he says.
RAIL PALACE John Paul DeJoria, founder of Patrón Spirits Co., has completed a $2 million renovation on his vintage 1927 railcar, the Patrón Tequila Express, done in what he describes as a maharajah's palace style. The train costs the billionaire about $10,000 a month for maintenance, insurance, storage and crew.
EAST COAST TO WEST COAST John Webb and his children, Caitlin and John, in the family's 1949 Budd Sleeper/Observation car named the Babbling Brook, at the Albany, N.Y., Amtrak station. The Webbs use the train, decorated in 1950s style, for cross-country vacations.
WASHINGTON TO NEW ORLEANS Borden Black, does the cooking for dinners served in her restored 1925 railcar, the Dearing, above. She runs chartered trips from Union Station in Washington, to defray the costs, charging $6,600 for a 10-day, round-trip to New Orleans.
BY NANCY KEATES