Private Rail

This started out as a joke. We visit Miami twice a year to see in laws who can’t travel. We’d had our second kid, and the thought of 11 hours in a plane with an infant spawned a constant low grad dread about four weeks before the trip. I hate being a bother. I thought about driving, but 3–5 days splitting attention between the road and kids didn’t seem great either. On the train I wouldn’t have to drive, but I’d still be subjecting others to infant racket for multiple days. And then the joke started. We’ll just get a private train car.

My wife laughed it off and said sure, you look into that. So I did. And it turns out, it can be done.

Private Varnish

In rail-land, privately owned cars are called “private varnish”. There’s a club. Most of what I learned is from their “so you want to buy a car” brochure here But here’s the basics laid out if you don’t want to wade through the whole thing.

With private varnish you get a full size train car, with electricity that Amtrak will take on any of the routes it serves. Many of the cars are extremely well fitted. Older cars that were used by rail executives have an office or two, sleeping for 10+ people, an extensive lounge, kitchen, and multiple bathrooms. Trips to Tahoe from the bay area seem extremely reasonable. A weatherproof trip up I-80, with room for all your gear, cocktails all the way. Trips to Portland/Seattle are also day long affairs. It’s not going to be faster than air, but it’s going to be far more comfortable.

Step 1: Get a Rail Car

There isn’t what I’d call a thriving market, but you can find various cars for sale here. Prices aren’t listed these days, but when I was looking a very nicely appointed car, in what I’d term “late robber baron” style was ~$400k. Which is by no means cheap, but compared to private air travel not totally insane.

Step 2: Figure Out Where to Keep It

There are private car parks for trains, and various freight yards will store it for you. Rates look to be $500-$1k/mo. There’s numbers to call on the AAPRCO site.

Step 3: Certifications

While Amtrak will haul cars on their trains, they won’t haul just any car. You’ll have to get it checked out (annually), have liability insurance, and for any trip you’ll need a “knowledgeable representative” on the car. This is somebody who knows how to operate the car’s systems (electrical, plumbing, brakes, etc) in conjunction with the rest of the train.

Step 4: Take a Trip

Let Amtrak know you want to take a trip. Work with a car moving service to get your car moved from storage to the Amtrak train. Hook up power, plumbing, etc. Go wherever Amtrak goes. Rates are actually pretty reasonable (~$2.50/mile, with a minimum $1k charge per trip). There are some limitations. They’ll only uncouple you at “major” stops (e.g. not Truckee, but you can uncouple at Reno). You can park your car at major stops, paying a daily fee. You used to be able to do the same on VIA in Canada, but apparently they’re limiting excursions there now.

Adding it All Up

This started out as one of my many “what if…” ridiculous thought experiments (see also: self driving deck, uniwheel, dirigible). Of all of those, I think this is the most plausible. For something like $600k to start and ~$1,500/trip you have a transport system that fits 10–15 people very comfortably, travels in as much style as you want to invest, and will get you to a pretty interesting array of places. There’s no way I’d use a car enough to justify buying one myself, but if anybody wants to do a share I’d maybe think about it. Maybe.

Like what you read? Give Mark McBride a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.