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When Bob Lowe wants to take a cross-country trip, the first stop for him is 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where his own private railroad awaits. Sort of.
Lowe owns a pair of railroad cars, artifacts of the pre-Amtrak era, when the country’s passenger-rail network was a glorious patchwork of private operators. One is a Salisbury Beach sleeper car, so named after the shore in Massachusetts, that was originally put into commission by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1954 and holds 26 people. The other: an old Colonial Crafts, just one of a series of Colonial railcars that entered service on the Pennsylvania Railroad out of Chicago in 1949. It’s got three bedrooms, a drawing room, a buffet kitchen, and a large lounge. So when Lowe wants to take a train from, say, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., he doesn’t buy tickets for a seat in one of Amtrak’s coach cars. Instead, he asks Amtrak for a tow, essentially hitching a ride in his own cars with family and friends, usually 25 people at a time between both cars.
“There’s people who want to do that and watch the U.S. go by, and that’s why I do it,” Lowe says. “It’s almost like riding in a time capsule.”
Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.
Others buy surplus cars straight from Amtrak, like the prospective buyers who showed up in December at an auction in Indiana to inspect a number of used railcars that were for sale. “Some do this as a hobby,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says of the bidders who turn out for train auctions. “Some do this as a venture. Some rent their cars out for corporate events.”
Wick Moorman, who stepped down as co-CEO of Amtrak in December 2017, is one of these Extreme Railfans. He owns his own 1948 Sandy Creek observation car, designed to run on the end of trains. He refurbished it, adding some bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and an observation lounge. As of yet, Moorman hasn’t taken his car out on an extended trip, although he and his wife are looking forward to, one day, welcoming their grandchildren aboard for a journey.
“It’s like having that sports car out in the garage,” he says. “You like to look at it and say, ‘I’m really happy I have that.’ And your wife is saying, ‘When are you going to get that damn thing out of the garage?’”
This article first appeared on www.citylab.com
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