Product review: Pullman Rail Journeys

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pullman tagsLast November, short line operator Iowa Pacific Holdings began an unusual passenger service (one can almost call it unique), Pullman Rail Journeys. In short, it strives to recreate first class rail travel as it existed half a century or more ago. Its one scheduled service thus far is on the rear of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans between Chicago and the namesake city, two round trips per week, Tuesday and Friday southbound and Thursday and Sunday northbound. When Pullman put on a buy one room-get one free sale recently, my friend John and I could not resist.

Let’s start at the beginning: What to expect? IPH founder and president Ed Ellis, in his prospectus for Pullman, defined the first class experience this train would deliver as “excellent service from well-trained attendants, good food that is well prepared and serve in style, ample public space on the train for conversation and sightseeing and (on overnight trips) well-appointed sleeping cars.” Absent from this description are the trappings of luxury available to the 1 percent. No mahogany-veneered walls or over-the-top meals prepared by two-star Swiss chefs, in other words; American Orient Express and its successor tried that and ultimately failed. Ellis’s goal is really to recreate the experiences you had (or missed) on such trains as the Panama Limited, Silver Meteor, or Chief, to cite a few classic name trains of the 1960s.

I won’t keep you in suspense. On our trip, Pullman Rail Journeys fulfilled the ambitions of its creator. We had a first-class experience, without caveat.

In fact, as you will see, it was more like a private car experience. When John and I showed up at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, the Pullman section of the City of New Orleans that greeted us consisted of only only two cars, 8 roomette-6 bedroom sleeper Chebanse and sleeper-diner-lounge-observation Adirondack Club, both gleaming in Illinois Central colors.

Inside, Adirondack Club looked brand new, as if it had just been delivered from the factory floor of Pullman Manufacturing Company. In fact, it had recently undergone a total rebuilding at a contract shop in Whiteland, Ind. (go here to see the work in progress). The car was part of a order for almost 300 cars that Chesapeake & Ohio placed with Pullman in 1946. As rebuilt, it is simply beautiful, altered in its room arrangements during the rebuilding but otherwise faithful to its Pullman pedigree. From front to back, you pass a toilet-shower, three two-person bedrooms, a master room with a pull-down full-size bed for two, the galley, a dining section that comfortably seats 11, a 12-chair lounge, and flat-end observation windows. John and I had two of the bedrooms on this car. Had I not wanted to see the interior of Chebanse (named for a community we pass south of Chicago the next morning), I could have settled into Adirondack Club and never left it the entire trip. As I said, a private car experience, buttressed by the fact that only nine other people (four adults, five kids below the age of 8) were making the trip.

The on-board crew of five, including two trainees, was attentive the entire trip without being obsequious. For instance, I ordered a before-dinner martini, and as it was being consumed, the attendant came back to top it off. Nice touch!

Three meals are served going north, starting with a late lunch (the train leaves at 1:45 p.m.). On the menu are a chilled stuffed tomato, grilled cheese sandwich, Caesar salad, “Mid America” burger, club sandwich, and angel hair pasta in tomato cream sauce. I had the sandwich, with cheddar and swiss on Texas toast; two thumbs up.

The dinner choices, after the relish tray and salad, are somewhat traditional: beef tenderloin, roasted chicken breast, filet of salmon, and grilled vegetables. I ordered my beef medium rare and got it medium well (not a trace of pink), but it remained moist and I ate every bite, so I guess I won’t complain. My side dish of potatoes Romanoff (twice-baked potatoes, cheddar cheese, onions, sour cream) was strangely tasteless. The centerpiece of the breakfast menu is French toast with a cornflake and pecan crust and cream cheese. I opted not to consume a day’s worth of calories at 7 a.m. and had eggs, bacon, and toast, all nicely prepared. All in all, I’d give the meals a B+ for food and A for service. I’m a wine snob, so greet my opinion that the wine list needs upgrading with a sneer, if you wish.

I’m used to hearing people complain about the rough track this train traverses over Canadian National Railway. I grant that there are some turnouts and road crossings that cause classic bounces, one of which sent my after-dinner coffee airborne. But by and large Adirondack Club rode well at the 79-mph speed common on this route, and I didn’t get thrown out of bed. In fact, I was rocked to sleep rather than rocked and rolled.

What could have made this experience better? This route is an Ed Ellis favorite, he having worked for Illinois Central while in college and grown up beside its trains in Paducah, Ky. But, frankly, it’s not a Fred or John favorite. I wish Amtrak would have found a place for Pullman Rail Journeys on its Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited; I would have remortgaged my home to finance weekly trips. When patronage justifies, a full dome diner and lounge of Santa Fe Railway heritage is positioned ahead of the tail car. Yes, it would have been nice to enjoy that car, but I so enjoyed the private car ambiance of Adirondack Club that I didn’t miss the dome car for even a moment.

John brought up an interesting point: Hasn’t our definition of “first class” been ratcheted upward since the Pullman era? In other words, we got what we would have expected 50 years ago, but maybe not quite what we expect today. For example, Pullman Rail Journeys goes to great lengths to reproduce all the Pullman paraphernalia, from uniforms to soap wrappers. But my idea these days of first class bedding is a comforter rather than a thin Pullman-labeled blanket. John and I agreed that a few bows to 2013 customer expectations would be appreciated by the customers of 2013.

I recommend this trip and do so with enthusiasm. I came understanding what Ellis meant to deliver, and got exactly that. But I warn you it’s not cheap. One way, an upper berth is $500, lower berth $800, roomette $900, bedroom for one $1,275, bedroom $1,950, and master room $2,850. Thanks to the sale, I paid half price for a lower berth and John half the going rate for a roomette. Because we were few in number (and also because Chebanse has no open sections), all 11 of us were accommodated in bedrooms, so I got a $1,275 trip for $400 and consider it what it was: a real steal.

But I also recommend this experience because you never know. You never know whether Pullman Rail Journeys will become popular and financially self-sustaining. You never know whether Iowa Pacific Holdings has the willpower and financial wherewithal to wait out the coming of popularity. You never know whether Amtrak will remain a cooperative host. There’s just a lot we don’t know. So my advice would be not to wait for “some day” but to enjoy the blast from the past soon, very soon. — Fred W. Frailey

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