Inside the house of dreams

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, May 10, 2014

Table carThe last stop in my travels across the prairies with Tom Hoback was Alamosa, Colo., at the passenger car shop of Iowa Pacific Holdings. IPH operates nine U.S. short lines (unless I've lost count) and the Chicago-New Orleans Pullman Rail Journeys service on the rear of Amtrak's City of New Orleans. Most of the short lines have passenger operations, plus IPH is seeking to replace Amtrak as operator of the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State and has expressed interest in running passenger trains between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. So for a lot of reasons Tom and I expected to see quite a variety of passenger cars in all states of working order or disrepair, and we were not disappointed.

Skytop obsIf you like passenger trains, step into the house of dreams.

lounge-obsThe priority now is to prepare 18 cars for a June 21 celebration on IPH's Rio Grande Scenic Railroad called Rails & Ales, in which hundreds of beer makers will show their wares to more than 800 passengers at a mountain park east of Alamosa. One car being readied was Paducah, formerly Illinois Central observation-lounge 3320. It was jacked up awaiting trucks being borrowed from another former IC obs, Audibon Park.

On the next track sat yet another IC alumnus, a heavyweight coach that's being altered by shop foreman Dave Lippencott into a table car (that's the top photo). Dave said the interior would be finished in two weeks. Later (post Rails & Ales) the plan is to add a galley.

The next car we visited can easily be called the company's crown jewel: former Milwaukee Road Skytop sleeper-lounge Coffee Creek. It once rode at the end of the Chicago-Tacoma Olympian Hiawatha. Two of the car's eight bedrooms had been removed at some point in time to create a galley. The car's interior is a shambles (see the middle photo), and Ken Bitten, general manager of the shop, says getting Coffee Creek into service by early 2015 for Pullman Rail Journeys will cost at least $300,000. I would be amazed if the task is completed for so little. And doggone, I forgot to ask Ken whether Coffee Creek will wear Milwaukee or IC colors. Iowa Pacific president and founder Ed Ellis grew up in Paducah, Ky., an IC town, and everything seems to come out of Alamosa looking like it belongs on the Panama Limited.

Then we walked outside to visit two of IPH's newer acquisitions, from the Memphis Transportation Museum. One is Regal City, built by Pullman in 1947-48 for Santa Fe's Super Chief. The interior is a mess. This will be $400,000 job, Bitten said. Coupled to it was former Santa Fe bar lounge-dormitory 1372, built by Budd in 1937 and used on the Chicago-Los Angeles Chief until the mid 1950s and on the Chicago-Houston Texas Chief thereafter.

On the next track stood one of Southern Pacific's homemade dome lounges. I believe Bitten said it is currently operable. And last of all we stepped inside a observation lounge that ran into the late 1960s on the Chicago-St. Louis Banner Blue streamliner of Wabash and Norfolk & Western. Outside, it doesn't look so hot. But once I stepped inside I stopped short. What a cool car, I thought. Lay eyes on the bottom photo, and I think you'll agree.

Nine people are employed in the shop at the moment. This facility and a contract shop in Indiana pretty much maintain Iowa Pacific's passenger car fleet, which is closing in on 200 cars. For a roster as matters stood in early 2013, see pages 54-55 of the June 2013 issue of Trains. Says Bitten: "We've assembled a team that's really enthusiastic about what we do." Judging by the quality rehabilitative work the guys perform, I would agree completely. --Fred W. Frailey

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