The short answer is ... passenger cars not owned by Amtrak ... but meeting all of Amtrak's operating criteria so that the cars might be pulled within their operating trains. In other words, Debbie and I own the Overland Trail and store it at Union Station, LA ... and say we want to run it behind Amtrak's Pacific Surfliners operating between Los Angeles and San Diego. We send over a movement request to Amtrak, pay the fee, and away we go to San Diego and back! (There is a little more to it than that, but I did say this was the short answer!)

A little more history in the long answer --

In the vernacular of today, rail passenger cars not owned by Amtrak, yet having received an "Amtrak approved" rebuild, are considered "private cars" ("private varnish" is an older term alluding to the wooden era when the cars were varnished to a high sheen). Several freight railroads still maintain small fleets of private cars (usually referred to as business cars') that may or may not have had the Amtrak approved rebuild and upgrades. If they have not had the upgrade, they are "captive" on the freight railroad's own system. Amtrak, almost from their beginning, has published a tariff for pulling private cars. If you meet their equipment standards, and pay their tariff, they are happy to hook up your private car and pull you along with their regularly scheduled trains.


Private railway cars have been around almost to the beginning of railway systems. The most common form of private cars would be a particular railroad company's own business car. Used by railroad presidents and various officials, the cars were often opulent, sometimes utilitarian, but always special as the car "wore the markers" bringing up the rear of the train and ... always sporting an open platform (the "back porch" that you see in the movies)! Many "captains of industry" (non-railroaders) from the late 1800s through the 1930s owned a private business car, the "Lear jet" of the age. Typically, the private car (starting from the back) was arranged with a small lounge just inside the rear of the car with large windows in the back wall so one could "inspect" the railroad. Walking forward through a narrow hall, you would pass a couple state rooms, maybe a secretaries room, and then the hall would open into the dining room. Continuing forward through another hall, you would pass the crew's quarters and the galley before reaching the end of the car. Business cars were built to handle small entourages of people and generally slept between 6 and 8.

When Amtrak was formed in the early 70's, they bought the very best equipment from the participating railroads (just a fraction of what was operating on the railway system throughout the country) ... the rest, for the most part, ending up in the scrap heap. But this is the era when the modern private car movement began, as the cars rejected by Amtrak went to the scrap heap, some missed the scrapers torch and ended up continuing their railroad careers as private cars. The movement gained momentum when Amtrak started buying brand new equipment in the late 70s - mid 80s and started retiring and selling many more cars through a string of public auctions. But these cars were not your traditional private car as mentioned above.


The cars coming on line now were "regular" passenger cars (from the "lightweight" streamliner era) of every configuration: baggage, coach/chair cars, lounges, diners, sleepers, and extra special cars like dome and observation cars And it doesn't necessarily take a fellow with "big bucks" to own one. The common man, if he is so inclined (usually a railroad enthusiast) can own a car. Cars that were built new for $250,000 dollars (remember, these were 1940s/'50s dollars) were selling for $25,000 - $35,000 (sometimes less, sometimes much more). These passenger cars, unlike "business cars" are well suited for the movement of large groups of people, after all, that's what they were built for! The Overland Trail and the Amber Trail are two classic examples from the post war streamliner passenger train era. The Overland Trail is a former Southern Pacific "first class" club-lounge car that features a stunning 39 seat main salon with a streamline moderne motif, a most gracious quarter-circle bar, and ... the sole operating railroad barbershop in the world. The Amber Trail is an attractive, former Union Pacific 44 seat, long distance chair car with large men's and women's restroom/lounge/dressing rooms.


copyright Overland Rail Travel Company, 2008

Last updated April 20, 2008