For $1 Million, You Can Buy Your Own Private Train Car—and Attach It to Any Amtrak Route You Want

The private railroad carriage was once the epitome of luxury transportation in the U.S. “The Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, they all had their private railcar,” says David Hoffman, a director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). “They would call the railroad and say, ‘Hey, can you pull me from here to there?’ ”

A similar, if less well-known, system operates today: You can buy a disused railcar starting from about $200,000, restore it, and have Amtrak tow you on any of the major American rail routes. “It’s kind of a hidden business,” says Hoffman, who operates Northern Sky Rail Charters from Milwaukee, Wisc. “You won’t believe how many times people say to me, ‘I didn’t know you could do this.’ ”

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Amtrak is the only locomotive service you can use, and typically it will attach a car or two to a regular commercial service. “The basic fee is about a little over $4 a mile,” says Tony Marchiando, AAPRCO’s president. Storage is additional; Amtrak charges $2,000 to $3,000 a month.

Modern-day Vanderbilts should expect a trainload of paperwork. Amtrak typically requires 30 days’ notice per trip, and cars must meet stringent safety requirements, says Marchiando, including annual inspections, insurance, and specific wiring to comply with Amtrak’s power system.

The biggest brokerage is Ozark Mountain Railcar, which sells cars ranging from 40 to 100 years old. A “deluxe” renovation, Marchiando says, will cost “close to a million dollars, [for] new air-conditioning, new plumbing, new electrical systems,” and other structural considerations. And that’s before you start “redoing the interior totally to modern tastes.”

But for some, paying what Hoffman calls “the cost of a really nice house” is worth the experience. His most popular route runs from Chicago to the West Coast through the Rockies, where riders “see sights that you don’t see from a car or a plane.”

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