Matthew Alice: Always did want to have my own railroad car. An old sucker with red velvet upholstery, Tiffany lamps, etc. I see where I can buy a caboose for around $4000. Does Amtrak allow private cars, and what would it cost? — Mike Gleeson, Ocean Beach
Allow private cars? Why, Amtrak execs will be standing out on the track, all eager and grinny, mitts extended in welcome the minute your opulent caboose appears on the horizon. You, unfortunately, may be laid up with complications from writer’s cramp, what with all the checks you’ll have been firing off to the multitudes involved in launching your little-dream machine. Not the least of whom are the Amtrak people themselves. To get the full picture, I checked with the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners and talked to Dave Rohr, an Orange County man living the Mike Gleeson fantasy. He leases his car for excursions and parties, but the economics are basically the same, whether you travel solo or rent it out. (If you just want to sound like an insider without investing a cent, start referring to your fantasy ride as “private varnish.” In railroadese, “varnish” is a passenger car, from the days when they were made of well-varnished, colorfully painted wood.)
About the smallest investment you’ll make is in the old car itself. But then all electrical and coupling components must match current Amtrak specs. And since a train is only as safe as its weakest link, Amtrak also has a raft of other safety specifications to be met. So your rehab will cost anywhere from $100,000 to a quarter of a million (minimum), according to Dave Rohr. Amtrak will send someone out to inspect your car once a year (you’ll be given a brief inspection before each trip, too). The annual checkup costs a couple of hundred dollars. By the way, once your car celebrates its 40th birthday, Amtrak requires you to tear down the trucks and rebuild them every six years.
You may be able to store your behemoth RV in the driveway, but that caboose is going to have to sit on a siding when you’re not using it. Depending on whom you rent it from, you can probably arrange a lease costing anywhere from $100 to $600 a month. Each time you want to take your car out for a spin around the block, if you can get yourself to an Amtrak yard, they won’t charge you a switching fee to hook you to their train. But if you’re on a freight siding and need to be hauled to Amtrak, the freight company will probably charge you anywhere from $600 or so (in the West) to $1200 (back East) to get you there.
Once you’re hooked up, Amtrak will haul you for $1.60 a mile. If they have to add an extra locomotive to pull your weight, it will cost you an additional $2.50 a mile, so a cross-country trip can run more than $10,000. For any sightseeing stops you want to make en route, storage on Amtrak rails costs $100 to $150 a day. Premiums on $1 million worth of insurance on a car leased commercially will run you $1700 for every four trips. If yours is to be a Gleeson’s-only caboose, you may be able to cut that a bit. And that’s a group rate, through the private rail car owners’ association. No estimates available on what you’ll spend a year on things like Cheez-Its and tequila and Brasso. That’s pretty much up to you.
No dream comes without a price tag. Don’t let your wallet come between you and that caboose. Just keep repeating those magical words, “I think I can, I think I can....”