Traveling in Style

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, April 1, 2019

It won’t be easy to see, but there is an individual in silhouette visible in the rearmost window in this “PV” (Private Varnish) bringing up the markers of Amtrak’s northbound Silver Meteor as it crosses Neabsco Creek in northern Virginia on CSX’s former RF&P (Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac) line “linking north and south” between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia.  (Clicking on the picture will enlarge it, enabling a better view.)

This person is facing to the rear (the only proper way to ride in an observation car) and taking in the glorious immediate post-dawn lighting on the morning of March 21, 2014.  While it’s likely that there are other people riding the car, the solitude displayed here is congruent with the car’s position in the train: at the end, and isolated from the rest of the passenger cars, since it’s behind train 98’s baggage car.

In the late 1950s, the bon vivant and railroad writer Lucius Beebe bemoaned the fact that the truly private car (as opposed to railroad office cars, often of similar basic configuration, although generally with more utilitarian interiors) had all but disappeared by the time of the appearance of his book Mansions on Rails, in 1959.  Beebe, of course, was doing his part to maintain the tradition, via his continuing use of the PV “Virginia City”, but he had few fellow car-owners to commiserate with.

The coming of Amtrak a little over a decade later, while “saving” a number of U.S. intercity rail passenger routes and services, also was responsible, at its inception, for the greatest incident of mass discontinuance for the rest, as of May 1, 1971.  As a result, even after Amtrak selected what it needed to carry on with the remaining operations (and improving the quality of equipment used, in a number of cases), there were serviceable postwar streamlined cars that were no longer gainfully employed in the U.S. railroad business.

Eventually, some of them, along with others from Amtrak’s initial acquisitions, , became part of what can be described as a rolling “cottage industry” that preserved and cared for a significant number of the cast-off cars, particularly once Superliners and Viewliners arrived on the scene.  Their new owners were typically not rich (although I’ve heard it said that more were financially well-off before they had a private railroad car than after), but were concerned with preserving the heritage and experience of the equipment for posterity.

Over time, and with the development of the American Association of Private Railroad Private Car Owners (AARPCO) group, they began to show up with fair frequency on Amtrak trains, and some have been made available for charter by private groups and individuals.  The Association has also sponsored annual trips with the cars of multiple members, which has offered another opportunity to those inclined to participate in the “PV” experience.

While many of the cars rostered currently in this fashion are either adapted from streamliner-era equipment, or restored in-kind to recreate the experience of that time, some are former railroad office cars, and a few also have an actual private car pedigree. This dual distinction fits the car shown here, resplendent in postwar Chesapeake & Ohio passenger colors, now the “Chapel Hill”.   

According to the AARPCO’s website, it was built as a true private car in 1922 for E. F Hutton and his wife Marjorie Merriweather Post, people of substantial means, indeed.  It became a C&O office car in 1937, and was acquired by its current owner, DeWitt Chapel, in 1973. 

It certainly looks like a wonderful way to experience railroad travel; let’s hope that this experience can continue to be available for those interested in being able to enjoy truly traveling in style.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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