Railroads & Locomotives History Behind the scenes of private cars

Behind the scenes of private cars

By Bryson Sleppy | January 9, 2024

| Last updated on February 2, 2024

An insider's look at luxurious vintage passenger cars (part one)

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Private cars

An orange passenger car with a dome sits in front of Denver’s Union Station.
I was able to get off the Super Dome and snap this shot while the car was in front of Denver Union Station’s iconic facade. Bryson Sleppy

Private cars also called private varnish is a side of railroading that is a mystery to many. Imagine being trackside one day and seeing a historic passenger car attached to an Amtrak train. Who’s in that car? Where are they going? How are they able to do that? What does it cost? These are questions that I have pondered time and time again.

Luckily, I was given an opportunity to ride in the Milwaukee Road Super Dome on a charter between Emeryville, Calif., and Chicago, Ill. This trip was chartered by Lowell Smith of Railsmith Models for the 2023 National N Scale convention held in Reno in June. I was finally on the “inside” in the world of private varnish.

>> WATCH EXCLUSIVE VIDEO highlights of Bryson’s private train trip, hosted by Lowell Smith, along the route of Amtrak’s California Zephyr <<

Through this trip I was able to meet some incredible people. One was a stewardess named Mariah Bush. She works with the Friends of the 261 — which operates the Super Dome however, her official role is for a company called Northern Sky Rail Charters. She’s the onboard manager for the company’s two cars, one dome and one sleeper. Wanting to know more about this secluded world, I sat down with her to discuss the inner workings.

Train of mismatched passenger cars on track surrounded by construction
The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) special makes its way through Michigan City, Ind., where South Shore double track work continues, on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022. Northern Sky is the second car from the left. Bruce Stahl

Northern Sky Rail Charters

Q: Can you tell me about the history behind your cars?

A: The Northern Sky is our dome car. It’s the former Union Pacific No. 9003, built in 1955 by American Car & Foundry. It spent its years on the Union Pacific in the consist of the City of Los Angeles. In 1973 the Auto-Train Corp. purchased the car, rebuilt it into a “Maxi-Dome” and used it on trains between Virginia and Florida. Eventually, in 1992, the car was purchased by David Hoffman and rebuilt at Northern Rail Car. The car was essentially a shell when he purchased it, so the interior is new. It was built with five bedrooms, one that is a crew dorm, and sleeps eight people comfortably.

Vintage passenger cars cross a bridge over a creek.
Northern Sky Rail Charters’ Northern Sky and Northern Dreams, along with other private cars, cross a creek during a charter. Kevin Moore

Northern Dreams was built by Pullman-Standard in 1955 for Union Pacific as a five double bedroom-buffet-Redwood Lounge car named North Platte. UP rebuilt it in 1956 making it an 11-bedroom car and renaming it Star Scene.

It was sold to Amtrak in 1971 and also worked the Virginia to Florida route on Amtrak’s Auto Train. Mr. Hoffman decided that he wanted to buy a sleeper since he couldn’t take the Northern Sky into New York’s Penn Station, so this sleeper was sold to Northern Sky Rail Charters in 1999 and renamed Northern Dreams. The car was upgraded and refurbished in 2003. It was made into a sleeper-lounge with six bedrooms (one for the crew), sleeping 12.

Chairs and sofas inside railroad car.
The lounge section of the Northern Dreams. Bob Johnston

Q: Where do these cars run? Do they take Amtrak trips? Are they chartered on private trains?

A: We can and have taken all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes. We also go on whatever American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO) trips that my boss chooses to take, which is usually all of them. He’s a big supporter of AAPRCO.

The trips are booked through Northern Sky Rail Charters and correlate with existing Amtrak routes. Speaking of Amtrak: due to Amtrak regulations, they inspect our cars before they go out and whenever they get to a destination.

Two private cars behind an Amtrak train in the mountains.
Northern Sky and another private car are seen on the back of an Amtrak train. This is where private cars rack up the most miles. Jake Miille

Q: What do the day-to-day operations look like for you while these cars are in service?

A: I wake up before the first guest wakes up, set the coffee, and prepare anything that needs to be prepared in the kitchen. I feather dust and clean until the guests start to wake up. I’ll get them beverages and serve breakfast.

After breakfast I clean it up, clear tables, and prepare for lunch. The passengers are usually in the dome between breakfast and lunch. I take this time to clean rooms, do linens, clean restrooms, clean fingerprints off of windows, and other general cleaning. Then it’s the same thing again for lunch.

After lunch I do all the dishes and more cleaning, all the while getting them any beverages they may want.

A slice of cheesecake and two scoops of vanilla ice cream on a plate.
If you ask really nicely, the stewardess and chef may let you have two desserts for lunch on your last day of the trip. Bryson Sleppy

Before dinner it’s time for cocktails. I mix beverages while the chef is preparing the appetizers. Since they’re a little louder during cocktail hour, I’ll vacuum during this time. Then I help the chef with whatever they need help with for dinner.

Dinner is a fine-dining experience with full linens. I serve wine, start with bread, then soup or salad, and then the entrée. Between each course I clear plates and do dishes. I then set beds while they’re eating the entrée.

Shrimp pesto pasta on a plate with fork and knife.
One thing is for sure when you ride on a private car, you won’t go hungry or thirsty. This pesto shrimp pasta that I had on the Super Dome was absolutely delicious. Bryson Sleppy

After dinner I clean it up which takes some time, while continuing to refresh cocktails all night. After the last guest goes to bed, I refresh everything for breakfast, and then I might go to sleep. That’s unless there’s a water stop. Any time there’s a water stop I get off the cars and ensure we get the water and supplies that we need. I also get off the car during smoke stops if guests want to stretch their legs.

Throughout the day I update the guests about any delays. I’m generally in communication with Amtrak and try to get the number of the new conductor during crew changes.

Two private cars get serviced in Denver Union Station.
It’s water and trash time in Denver Union Station on the back of Amtrak’s California Zephyr. This gave the passengers time to rest our legs, while Mariah and the rest of the crew ensured we were topped off with water. Bryson Sleppy

Q: What does maintenance for the car look like? Does most of it take place during the off season?

A: We have wonderful mechanics that do the big maintenance things, like replacing a generator, during the offseason. We just replaced all the toilets, installed new carpet, and rebuilt a large mechanical piece. Things like upholstery work and big paint jobs also take place during the offseason.

We have a qualified mechanical person (QMP) named Rob who is one of our mechanics but also inspects our private cars and others for certifications. If something goes wrong while we’re on a charter, I have Rob on speed dial to walk me through it. If it’s above what I can do myself, Rob is flown out and fixes the issue.

If it’s something minuscule, I can usually take care of it. But I don’t touch electricity. Another mechanic, Henry, takes care of most of the electrical work.

Q: What are some things that could go wrong on a charter?

A: The air conditioner, compressor, or generator could break. We only had to fly Rob out once this season. The car hit something overnight and the air conditioner broke.

A sleeper car in front of Denver Union Station
Multiple issues with the Salisbury Beach’s HVAC system made the car very warm at night during this charter I was on. Some passengers even had to go into the Super Dome to cool off or go to the bathroom due to the heat. Bryson Sleppy

Q: What does managing cars like this entail?

A: My job never ends, and I get no sleep on the road. A good trip gives me 4 hours a night. If it’s a one-car trip with the Northern Sky, the chef can oversee the guests while I rest my eyes and vice versa.

Our longest trip was supposed to be 30 days, but the Crescent wasn’t running so the client decided to terminate the trip in New Orleans. It was still a 28-day trip. During our summer season I spend as much time as possible sleeping when I’m not on a trip.

The cars don’t run during the winter unless the Green Bay Packers make it to the Super Bowl, or the Wisconsin Badgers make it to the Rose Bowl. Their home is in Minneapolis and there’s still snow up there in April. So our season starts in April or May and the cars go back into storage on November 1st. On a good year, we run the whole season with only a week between trips.

Between trips I have two big bags of linens that I wash in industrial machines.

Q: Do you have staff or volunteers that work with you and the cars?

A: We have an executive chef onboard who does all the shopping for food and preparation. They like to get meats from one place, produce from another, and liquor from somewhere else. Every city they go to they have their favorite stores. We’ll usually take Uber in away cities. If there are two cars, I have a partner steward who comes on the trip to accommodate all the guests. We have a staff, no volunteers.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face as a private varnish manager?

A: Being that we’re traveling on the rails, anything can happen. Period. I have to communicate to clients that the mechanical issues that Amtrak may be having aren’t our fault. Since some aren’t knowledgeable about the railroad, they don’t necessarily understand. They come on not knowing what to expect. Our trip coordinator gives clients a warning to expect the unexpected.

For instance, when we take the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland and they come back the same day, it’s a same-day turnaround. If the train is late, that time they have in Portland is cut. I have to convey to them that trains aren’t always on time. But I do my best to accommodate them. One time we even put an elliptical machine onboard that a client requested.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of managing these cars?

A: I love providing a nice time for our clients. We get to give them a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I love making it the best for them. I also love meeting new people every trip. Everyone has a different story and I love hearing each and every story.

Two men stand in the dome of a Super Dome.
While you will usually meet new people on charters, sometimes you run into old friends. I met Mike while on the California Zephyr in 2022 during my big trip around the system. It turns out, he was on this train too. We got to ride the same route together two years in a row. Will I see him next year? Bryson Sleppy

Have you traveled in a private car before? Let us know in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “Behind the scenes of private cars

  1. We rode in the “Virginia City” (Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg’s former private car) around1986 hitched to the back of Amtrak trains on a excursion from Oakland CA across the Sierra’s to an overnight stay in Reno, NV and then back to Oakland again. I spent most of the trip on a bench bundled up on the rear observation platform watching the spectacular winter scenery roll by. Our car got lots of attention at station stops. And we did have an exciting moment when one of the two locomotives stalled out on the grade toward Donner Summit. Had to back the entire train down to a level stretch and then make a second (successful) run at the grade! Hope the new owner of this gem of a car puts it back on the excursion circuit.

  2. I traveled in a two-car private car consist behind the Empire Builder from Seattle to Whitefish and it was a magnificent experience. Everything was premium class and it is definitely worth the tariff.

  3. A friend of mine owns, or owned (it’s for sale) the “Virginia City” which was Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg’s former private car.

  4. While I’ve never ridden in one, I’ve had the opportunity to help restore a few, and they are amazing. I mainly helped restore the New York Central America, and it was an amazing car (until the people leasing it trashed it). My life goal is to hopefully buy and restore one of these cars when I retire.

  5. I travelled for many years as a tour manager/escort with Trains and Travel International on Bert Hermey and Al Bishop’s Silver Solarium, Silver Lariat, and Silver Rapids (California Zephyr Railcar Charters) cars now owned by a tour operator in Ohio. Best years of my ‘retired’ life.

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