THE PERFECT ESCAPE: RIDING THE RAILS ON THE BELLA VISTA
On a glorious spring afternoon in late April, the Capitol Limited, a regularly scheduled Amtrak train, pulled slowly out of Washington DC’s Union Station, bound for Chicago. Attached to the end of the train was an anomaly, a shiny blue dome railcar named Bella Vista. Built in 1955, the old car had been splendidly refurbished to the tune of $2 million in 2001. Now it was a private luxury palace on wheels for no more than eight passengers. But on this particular trip, there was just one passenger — yours truly — sitting in the domed observation lounge of the car, sipping a glass of Chardonnay as we left the nation’s capital.
The wine had been delivered by a perennially smiling steward named Elton Anderson. Anderson would later serve me dinner prepared by the Bella Vista’s private chef, Mark Roumiguiere, as I rolled through the verdant hills of West Virginia. And he’d prepare my private cabin for sleep as the train rumbled through the hills of Pennsylvania. Hours later, he’d still be smiling as he served me breakfast the next morning, somewhere in Indiana. All while we traveled on this 85-foot land yacht through small towns, rolling hills and sleeping cities.
Dome cars are the ultimate in sightseeing railcars, bi-level cars with the top level covered with a glass dome that affords views in every direction. But this one was outfitted like it was a rolling Ritz Carlton, with swiveling, thickly padded club chairs and Honduran mahogany trim. For the next 18 hours, I would be the sole pampered passenger in the car, riding the historic rail lines of the Baltimore and Ohio and the Chesapeake and Ohio like an early 20th century captain of industry.
"Riding the Bella Vista it isn’t an acquired taste," states Tom Thomas. "One takes to it immediately."
It’s impossible to disagree with Thomas, the CEO of Thomas Pharmaceuticals. He’s chartered the Bella Vista for both business and pleasure, taking the car from San Francisco to Denver and from Chicago to the Greenbrier in West Virginia.
In fact, the mere existence of private rail cars must be one of the greatest secrets in America. To those in thrall, they are known as "Private Varnish," for the high gloss sheen on many of their exteriors.
"You’ve had a taste of a private car if you’ve been on a private yacht or a or private jet," Thomas says. "But a private rail car is all of that and then some."
The heyday of private rail travel was from the 1870s to about the 1930s, when the likes of J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt crisscrossed the country in opulent private cars. After World War II, the jet age spelled the demise of such travel. But there is a hard core group of rail buffs who own, restore and sometimes charter these cars. Many owners are members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners while devotees of charters include Hugh Hefner and Tom Clancy.
But frankly, none of these cars come close to the Bella Vista, one of four private cars owned by Rail Ventures, Inc. What makes the Bella Vista unique? Well, this car wasn’t restored to its original condition. It was re-imagined. Originally called "Native Son," it was built by Union Pacific as a sightseeing dome car with passenger seats.
When Rail Ventures bought it in 2001, they gutted the interior, which was originally configured with a bar and 34 passenger seats. They installed two master bedrooms in the former rear lounge space, each with private bath and showers done with Italian stone tile. And they built two smaller bedrooms, which share a bathroom, as well as a crew room, and a large kitchen in the forward end of the car. You lounge and dine under that great dome, whose great slabs of glass cover most of the ceiling, letting in vast amounts of daylight and starlight. There’s also an open rear observation deck, the kind that 1930’s politicians loved to wave from during campaign tours across the country.
But it’s the details that elevate the Bella Vista to another plane. The car is paneled in Honduran mahogany, with oriental carpeting and banquettes in silk blends and leather. The sheets are Egyptian cotton with a 400-thread count and the duvets are goose down. Halogen lighting, a sophisticated heated and air-conditioning system and ceiling fans make sure that you travel in comfort.
"It is the most elegant railroad car I’ve ever seen" Thomas says. There’s enormous attention to detail."
My cabin had a plushy furnished banquette that folded down to a double bed. There was a large closet and several drawers. A picture window afforded a wide view. A matching window looked out onto the corridor, itself lined with large windows. Every seam and joint had the look of painstaking craftsmanship.
"It’s a chance to travel in a self-contained hotel," says Richard M. Johnston of Camden Partners Holdings LLC, a leading health care private equity fund. "And railroads go where autos don’t."
Johnston has not only traveled on the Bella Vista but he’s owned and restored a number of railroad cars, including the Puget Sound and the Sierra Hotel.
"The joy of private rail cars is that you can arrange to park them in places like Santa Fe, Savannah, or even Whitefish, Montana and go off and go touring," he says."And you can use a car like Bella Vista for a board meeting. But I’ll tell you, the last time we did that, everyone was sitting in the dome, saying ‘Look at that out there!’"
As we wound alongside the Potomac, past Harper’s Ferry, and occasionally stopping to let a coal train pass, I reflected on how train travel, especially in a private car, is an ideal way to return to a glorified 19th century version of travel. The pace is slow, you’re free to get up and stroll about, and you can stand on the observation deck and get a breath of fresh air.
Private rail cars pay Amtrak a fee to hitch along for the ride. But that, of course, comes with a downside. It means that you’re subject to the vagaries of Amtrak and indeed, we were two hours late getting to Chicago. But no one takes a private car if they’re in a hurry. You take it because you want to travel in a luxurious, self-contained world that passes by scenes worthy of paintings by Edward Hopper and Grant Wood.
Around 6:30 PM, Chef Mark Roumiguiere produced smoked salmon and cheeses for hors d’oeuvres, a good accompaniment for the West Virginia hills. A salad of romaine lettuce followed, and then tenderloin of lamb in a rosemary garlic balsamic demiglace, with mashed Yukon gold potatoes and fresh asparagus. Berry sorbet pie finished me off as we pulled into Connellsville, Pennsylvania. And after nursing a final glass of the 2001 Walla Walla Vinters Cabernet in the starlit dome, I headed for bed.
Who takes the Bella Vista? Chief executives, of course. Companies also charter it for an incentive. Celebrities love it, especially those who don’t like to fly. Politicians and European royalty enjoy it. Their names are kept quiet.
Rail Ventures does family trips, multi generational trips, and special trips such as 50th wedding anniversaries, the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby. Three or four days is a typical amount of time to spend on the train, but people have booked it for as long as three weeks.
I awoke a few times in the night as we hurtled through Ohio, track beds being what they are. I finally got up around 7:00 and took a hot shower, a feature that not even the Venice Simplon Orient Express is able to offer. Twenty minutes later in the dome, Elton greeted me with a smile and a breakfast of croissant, orange juice, fruit and scrambled eggs. Two hours later, I saw the tall towers of the Windy City and a glimmer of Lake Michigan.
It is about this point on such a trip that you ponder how you could do this yourself. I’d advise a short talk with Ken Keeler, Senior V.P. of RailQuest America, Inc, to bring you to your senses. Keeler estimates that "several hundred pre 1960s cars" are still out there and a number of private dealers, such as monadrailway.com, that offer them for sale. Old car prices generally range between $100,000 and $300,000, though Keeler adds that "you can buy a Long Island Rail Road coach for as little as $9,000 to $10,000. Then the fun begins."
The "fun" means bringing the car up to current Amtrak standards. That usually means replacing the electrical panels and the trucks, the assemblage which hold the wheels. Fabrics must be replaced with fire retardant fabrics approved by the Federal Railroad Administration and glass must replaced with safety glass. For a single car, these improvements alone can run upwards of $500,000. That’s before a dime has been spent on aesthetic improvements.
And where do you keep a train car? Most owners keep theirs on rented rail spurs or in Amtrak depots. Then there are fees for hooking it up to Amtrak, not to mention maintenance.
On the other hand, chartering the Bella Vista runs around $7,000 per day for the car. That’s for up to eight people and includes all meals and beverages and the services of a private chef and steward. But given the cost of other executive perks, such as private jets, it seems like a veritable bargain.
"It beats air travel," says Johnston. "I fly to California 20 times a year and I never look out the window."
RAIL VENTURES, INC. has a fleet of four luxury cars: the Bella Vista, Glacier Park, Gallatin River and the Yerba Buena.
AAPRCO is the best source to find rail cars for charter, with more than 60 private cars that are Amtrak-compliant. You decide on the itineraries but advance planning is mandatory. Costs vary widely, depending on how luxurious the cars are and the route traveled. And note that some companies own multiple vintage cars that can be put together to accommodate larger groups.