The private car I’d buy, if only . . .

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, June 28, 2019

Sleeper-observation car Wingate Brook brings up the rear of the last westbound 20th Century Limited at Buffalo on December 4, 1967. The stainless steel Budd car was subbing for the regularly assigned Pullman-Standard smooth-side Creek-series car. Edward J. Joscelyn
For most of us, the idea of owning a private railroad car is just a fantasy. That’s doubly true in the current historical moment, as Amtrak ruthlessly pushes the private-car community to the fringes. 

Fantasy or not, it never hurts to window shop. That’s what I was thinking earlier this week when I scrolled through the astounding lineup of observation cars now being offered for sale by Missouri-based Ozark Mountain Railcar, one of the leading railroad equipment brokers. If you have an endless supply of money, a fair amount of technical know-how, and the patience to deal with Amtrak, this could be your big chance.

The variety of stuff for sale is impressive, fairly evenly mixed between standard-heavyweight and streamliner eras. Some cars look to be in excellent shape. Others appear to be basket cases. 

Several stand out as real gems. There’s Erie 400, a heavyweight business car built by Pullman in 1925 for   J. P. Morgan Jr. Yes, the son of that J. P. Morgan. Or Royal Street, a gleaming 5 double-bedroom observation lounge built in 1950 by Pullman for Louisville & Nashville for L&N’s share of New York–New Orleans Crescent service. Looking for a legend? Take a look at Mountain Park, one of the 18 celebrated Park-series dome-observations built by Budd for Canadian Pacific’s Canadian of 1954. 

This retiree won’t be bidding on anything, but I can tell you which car I’d move heaven and earth to buy if it were remotely possible. It’s a car I’ve admired ever since I saw it in the March 1968 Trains’ Railroad News Photos section, photographed doing the melancholy job of bringing up the markers on the last westbound edition of New York Central’s 20th Century Limited, December 3, 1967.

The car would be the Wingate Brook. One of three identical Budd cars — the others were Singing Brook and Sunrise Brook — the 5 double-bedroom buffet lounge observation Wingate Brook was ordered for the 1949 edition of the Southwestern Limited, NYC’s premier New York–St. Louis train. Evidence of the esteem Central held for trains 11 and 12 is the fact that these Brook cars were nearly identical to their far more famous Century cousins, Hickory Creek and Sandy Creek, the two-tone gray Pullmans featured in so many NYC promotional movies and Ed Nowak publicity photos. 

Wingate Brook and its two sister Brook cars had the same floor plan as the Century's celebrated Creek cars, including an observation lounge that was two steps above the main floor level. 
The Budd cars shared the same floor plan, as well as those deep rear windows of what was known as the “Lookout Lounge,” features that gave the cars a singular elan. I can only imagine how satisfying it must have been to watch NYC’s four-track Hudson Division main line unspool behind those windows at dusk on a summer evening.

One of my favorite go-to Central experts is Geoff Doughty, author of New York Central’s Great Steel Fleet: 1948-1967 (TLC Publishing, 1999), among other NYC books. I asked Geoff to put the Wingate Brook in perspective. 

“The Brook cars were used at a time when rail travel was sophisticated and the people who rode trains were used to being treated well by rail carriers,” Geoff told me. “Porters and waiters didn’t call their passengers ‘guys.’ They were polite, and generally, so were the passengers. The cars were bought with the idea that they would make the passage on a train a comfortable and luxuriant experience, one that would make the passengers want to come back for another trip.”

The passengers aboard the Southwestern probably felt that way, but not enough to keep NYC from downgrading the train after a handful of years, and Wingate Brook lost its plum assignment. It was taken out of St. Louis service by 1955 and subsequently based in Chicago for service on other trains. By 1967, when the Road to the Future decided to kill the Century,Wingate Brook was just a fill-in for whatever Creek car was temporarily out of service.

The Brook cars had one huge thing going for them, at least in comparison to Sandy Creek and Hickory Creek: like all Budd equipment, they were constructed of stainless steel. I’m not a passenger-car mechanic, but it always struck me that a stainless car would always be superior to anything else, hands down. The glint of Budd fluting is the sign of quality.

That durability of stainless is one reason why Wingate Brook looks to be in such good condition. It’s gone through countless hands over the years, from early Amtrak service to a succession of private owners, but apparently it has held up rather well. “The car is very complete and would make a stunning private car,” says Ozark Mountain Railcar.

As I said, no bids will be coming from me. But in my dreams I’ll enjoy that one chance to be aboard the Wingate Brook, stepping up into the Lookout Lounge, fresh Old Fashioned in one hand and the Chicago Daily News in the other, waiting to depart eastbound out of Englewood. Minutes later, I’ll be staring out those expansive rear windows at the adjacent track as No. 26 beats the pants off the Broadway

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