Let’s Buy a Train

Let’s Buy a Train
Andrew Zaleski Mar 25, 2019

If you dream of roaming the U.S. in a your own personal train car, you still can. But Amtrak cuts have railcar owners wondering if their days are numbered.

When Bob Lowe wants to take a cross-country trip, the first stop for him is 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where his own private railroad awaits. Sort of.
Lowe owns a pair of railroad cars, artifacts of the pre-Amtrak era, when the country’s passenger-rail network was a glorious patchwork of private operators. One is a Salisbury Beach sleeper car, so named after the shore in Massachusetts, that was originally put into commission by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1954 and holds 26 people. The other: an old Colonial Crafts, just one of a series of Colonial railcars that entered service on the Pennsylvania Railroad out of Chicago in 1949. It’s got three bedrooms, a drawing room, a buffet kitchen, and a large lounge. So when Lowe wants to take a train from, say, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., he doesn’t buy tickets for a seat in one of Amtrak’s coach cars. Instead, he asks Amtrak for a tow, essentially hitching a ride in his own cars with family and friends, usually 25 people at a time between both cars.

“There’s people who want to do that and watch the U.S. go by, and that’s why I do it,” Lowe says. “It’s almost like riding in a time capsule.”
Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.
Others buy surplus cars straight from Amtrak, like the prospective buyers who showed up in December at an auction in Indiana to inspect a number of used railcars that were for sale. “Some do this as a hobby,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says of the bidders who turn out for train auctions. “Some do this as a venture. Some rent their cars out for corporate events.”
Wick Moorman, who stepped down as co-CEO of Amtrak in December 2017, is one of these Extreme Railfans. He owns his own 1948 Sandy Creek observation car, designed to run on the end of trains. He refurbished it, adding some bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and an observation lounge. As of yet, Moorman hasn’t taken his car out on an extended trip, although he and his wife are looking forward to, one day, welcoming their grandchildren aboard for a journey.

“It’s like having that sports car out in the garage,” he says. “You like to look at it and say, ‘I’m really happy I have that.’ And your wife is saying, ‘When are you going to get that damn thing out of the garage?’”

Unless you’re a fictional Old West secret agent or a modern dictator who likes to travel in bulletproof style, being a private railcar owner never made a lot of practical sense. They’re huge, heavy, and ruinously expensive to buy, maintain, and store, especially if you want to actually give it some exercise on the tracks. But recently, being a private railcar owner has become even harder. One year ago, Amtrak issued a policy notice saying it would make drastic cuts in operating charter services run by private owners. “These operations caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins, and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains,” read the notice from March 2018. “There may be a few narrow exceptions to this policy. … Otherwise, one-time trips and charters are immediately discontinued.”

In practical terms, that means that unless railcars belonging to a group or private owner are in some easily accessible rail terminal, like 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Amtrak is no longer going to great lengths to get private cars hooked up to its passenger service lines traversing the country.
“Amtrak’s recent changes have been devastating. Our membership has dropped by a third from 2018,” says Tony Marchiando, owner of a 1948 Pullman sleeper car and president of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), a trade association that represents owners, assists in chartering trips. It now has about 330 members. For the group’s annual convention, members string their equipment together to make a special train of private cars—the 2012 train, which ran from D.C. to Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasted 29 private cars.

Private railcars are still on the tracks, but their owners, already an endangered species, are now wondering whether the end of the line is approaching for this pricey pursuit. “Where the industry is right now, it’s a little bit dicey, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Radovich, a longtime railcar collector based in Dallas.
Radovich is the proprietor of what he likes to call a “hobby gone bad.” In 1979, he purchased his first piece of equipment: a car with a lounge at one end, diner counter at the other, and a small kitchen in the middle. It was from Northern Pacific, the predecessor to the Burlington Northern company (since merged into the BNSF Railway Company, North America’s largest freight railroad). Since then, Radovich has bought 13 more railcars, including five Sante Fe hi-level cars—predecessor to Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner passenger cars—at an Amtrak auction about 10 years ago.

In the past, Radovich has run weekend trips for groups of about 15 to 20 people. They’ll take a car of his up from Dallas to Oklahoma City by way of Fort Worth. To hitch a ride on Amtrak, a private railcar owner first finds an Amtrak route headed in the direction they’d like to go, and then couples onto the train behind the cars carrying ticketed passengers. To take a train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Lowe provides 30 days’ notice for his request to have his cars also hooked up behind Amtrak locomotives. On his runs to Oklahoma City, Radovich hooked a car of his to Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle trains, which provided all the necessary connections to and from Dallas.
For this, they pay Amtrak $3.67 per mile (an increase from the $3.26 per mile as of last year, Lowe says). Any trailing cars after the first one run an additional $2.81 a mile. That doesn’t include the other expenses that go along with private car ownership. Each one of Lowe’s cars, for example, cost him about $150,000. His Colonial car was turnkey, but he put $50,000 into the Salisbury Beach car for maintenance and upgrades, including new brakes and electric heat, to make it Amtrak certified. If you’re a DIY collector on a tighter budget, a beater unrestored car, without electric power, can start at around $25,000. A fully restored one can be upwards of $500,000.

Don’t forget the storage costs. Lowe keeps his rolling stock in Amtrak’s yard in Philly for $1,800 a month. A trip Lowe organized during 2017’s solar eclipse to take nine people from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, North Carolina, cost about $12,000 to organize. That year, Lowe spent about $125,000 on his hobby.

“The one thing everyone can tell you about private car ownership: It is very expensive,” says Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. “Now that Amtrak has restricted its movement of private cars, it is also of limited usefulness.”
O’Toole is a well-known critic of public transportation in general and federal Amtrak subsidies in particular. But his opposition to modern U.S. passenger rail is laced with fierce affection for its past: He’s a former private railcar owner and a member of a nonprofit group that restored the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle 700 steam locomotive, which is owned by the City of Portland. Members of the group, wanting a fleet of coaches to run behind their oil-burning 1938 engine, purchased former Great Northern coaches once used as commuter cars by New Jersey Transit. O’Toole was so enthusiastic, he bought four of them, plus an old Amtrak dome car.
The cars themselves were stored by the group on a large yard owned by the Southern Pacific railroad, which charged them just $1 a year thanks to the group’s nonprofit status. Shortly after, however, Southern Pacific was bought out; O’Toole lost his storage space and sold all of his cars. “In retrospect, I was foolishly naive,” he says. “Instead of spending a bunch of money on buying five cars, I should have bought one car and saved the rest of the money for restoration work.”
“Buying a train car is likely the cheapest part. From there, it never ends.”
All of the private railcar owners CityLab spoke with aren’t living lavish lifestyles; they’re just extremely committed, maybe unwisely so, to their hobby. And they have to be, given the costs.
“I’m not in this business to make money off of it,” says Lowe, a 33-year veteran of the airline industry. Some trips he has taken, he says, have cost him more money than the dollars spent on tickets by passengers in the Amtrak trains his cars are hitched to at the end.

This is where Amtrak’s policy change last year makes things dicey. It’s not that Amtrak sends locomotives to tow private cars onto existing routes. In the case of Lowe, his cars are already easily accessible at 30th Street Station. Radovich must add an extra step: A local shortline train hauls his cars to the nearest station where Amtrak is making a scheduled stop. (Shortlines are to railways what interconnecting flights are to airlines.) He stores his fleet of cars on his own right-of-way, which is where the shortlines pick him up.
But sometimesAmtrak must delay ticketed passenger service at stations in order to connect private cars onto an already-scheduled route. And that’s starting to conflict with Amtrak’s plans—and making private railcar owners wonder whether the costs of ownership are still worth it.
“There are fewer opportunities to get on and off the train in terms of switching a privately owned car on and off,” Radovich says. (For the curious, here’s a list of the locations where “special car moves” are permissible.) “Buying a train car or right-of-way is likely the cheapest part. From there, it never ends.”
You can blame this, like many things, on Richard Nixon, whose administration oversaw the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Before, private railroad companies operated both freight and long-distance passenger and commuter rail service on their lines around the country. As cars and airliners stole long-distance riders, most companies found they lost more money than it was worth to keep their passenger service. The Rail Passenger Service Act, signed by Nixon in 1970, allowed companies to sell their money-losing passenger routes to the federal government, creating a consolidated national carrier.

But the law failed to guarantee long-term funding, forcing Amtrak to regularly scramble for fresh subsidies to make ends meet. Amtrak is consistently under pressure to cover its costs, and its subsidies are often a point of criticism. (As O’Toole is wont to point out, there’s a salient difference between his car ownership and Amtrak’s subsidies: “I love passenger trains, but I don’t believe other people should have to support my hobby with their tax dollars.”)
Amtrak leases track space from freight railroads in order to run most of its passenger lines, which move more than 31 million people each year. Its quasi-governmental status makes it a perennial punching-bag for conservative lawmakers who expect it to turn a profit. In recent years, Amtrak has made some progress on this quest to break even; for the 2020 fiscal year, Amtrak has requested $141 million less than what Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2019. But while it’s reduced its operating deficit lately, its long-haul routes still generate huge losses. Part of the plan might involve abandoning these routes in favor of adding service along the dense (and profitable) Northeast corridor, where Amtrak “has proven competitive with both flying and driving,” as the Wall Street Journal reported recently.
One little-discussed casualty of this effort by Amtrak to improve its bottom line has been service cuts that affect private railcar owners.

“We’re not stopping at every station along the line because it would be an inconvenience to a larger number of paying customers,” Magliari says. “And there’s a reduced number of places where we’re going to attach or detach private cars because we don’t want it to affect our primary business.”
There’s no real villain in this tale, other than the increasingly ruthless economics of American passenger rail. As a slice of Amtrak’s annual revenues of more than $3 billion, the storage and the transport of private railroad cars represents just under $4 million. It’s just not worth delaying trains to handle private railcars.

About the Author
Andrew Zaleski
DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, Washington Post Magazine, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Health, and many other publications.

Route 66 Auto Parts Swap Meet and Car Corral

The WHEELS Museum Route 66 Auto Parts Swap Meet and Car Corral

Auto and motorcycle parts | Food Trucks | Raffles | Auction | Souvenirs | Merchandise

Sunday, May 5, 2019
One Day Only 9 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
$2.00 admission fee

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park
Northern Entrance (I-25 Exit 234, Roy-Tramway, South to Balloon Fiesta Parkway)
5500 Balloon Fiesta Parkway NE

Vendor set up at 6:00 a.m.
Reserved space $35.00
Day of meet space $40.00

For information call:
Jim Glover 239-4543
Reservations accepted through April 26. Mail your check to:

Wheels Museum, Inc.
PO Box 95438
Albuquerque NM 87199

Auto and motorcycle parts | Food Trucks | Raffles | Auction | Souvenirs | Merchandise

City invites artists to document Rail Yards before renewal

By Steve Knight / Journal Staff Writer
Published: Friday, September 21st, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — City officials are giving more than 50 local artists access to the Albuquerque Rail Yards this weekend with their supplies and equipment to document the historic site before redevelopment begins.
During a Friday news conference, Mayor Tim Keller spoke of the “Artists Days” project, an effort to preserve and archive the current state of the property, which began Friday and continues today. He also outlined plans on proposed improvements to the site that was once a major maintenance facility for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
The city is taking over efforts to remediate and revitalize the Rail Yards after breaking ties with Samitaur Constructs, a California-based contractor hired in 2012 to redevelop the property.
The city’s next steps include increasing security with 24-hour protection, cleaning the site and improving access, repairing roofs and installing utilities and preparing for demolition of small buildings not historically significant.
Planning Department Director David Campbell used the saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you’re going” in both English and Spanish to explain the purpose of Artists Days.
“This is the city’s opportunity to take the ‘before’ pictures,” Campbell said. “Someday very soon, we hope, we will be able to celebrate the ‘after’ pictures – the ones that tell us how this place has been transformed. We are so fortunate to have not only the Rail Yards, but to have artists and photographers to document this.”
Keller earlier in the week said the city would stick to a previously approved “master vision” for the 27.3 acre property and break that plan into phases.
The first priority after extensive environmental remediation will be to “activate” the building adjacent to the already-updated blacksmith shop, which is home to the weekly market.
A second updated building will mean additional event space and market expansion.
Keller said he plans to ask for help from the City Council, the Legislature and the governor. He estimated remediation would cost around $8 million and rehabbing the second building would be another “couple of million dollars.”
He said the city is also switching management of the facility over to SMG, the company contracted to run the Albuquerque Convention Center, in hopes of increasing its use.
The rail yards are just south of Downtown, between the Barelas and South Broadway neighborhoods. The city bought the site in 2007 for about $8.5 million, with a commitment that redevelopment would include some mixed-income housing and a permanent place for the Wheels Museum. The site consists of 18 surviving buildings erected between 1915 and 1925.

Boilers fired up in old Santa Fe 2926

Boilers fired up in old Santa Fe 2926
By Ollie Reed Jr. / Journal Staff Writer
Published: Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018 at 6:03pm
Updated: Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018 at 10:22pm

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For the first time since the 1950s, old Santa Fe 2926 is letting off some steam. About 100 people gathered in the gray, drizzling early morning on Wednesday to watch as, for the first time in decades, the boilers of the old locomotive were fired up in the Eighth Street work yard of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society.

Plumes of dark, hazy smoke climbed out of the locomotive’s smokestack at about 6:30 a.m., signaling a landmark moment in a renovation project that’s been underway for more than 15 years.

“We got a little more steam testing to do and then we’ll put the pistons on it,” an elated Michael Hartshorne, society president, said Wednesday morning. He said the organization’s goal continues to be to get 2926 up and running on the rails again, perhaps making excursions to the Grand Canyon or the old New Mexico railroad town of Las Vegas.

Santa Fe 2926, a 1944 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway steam engine, made its last run on Christmas Eve 1953. It was donated to the city of Albuquerque in 1956 and placed in Coronado Park, on Second Street just south of Interstate 40. It stayed in the park, savaged by the elements and used by the homeless as a shelter and toilet, until 2000 when the Steam Locomotive & Railroad Society, organized specifically to rescue Santa Fe 2926, bought the locomotive for $1 and moved it, first to side tracks at Second and Menaul and then, in 2002, to 1833 Eighth NW.

From 2002 up to this week, society members have put in 178,000 volunteer hours and taken in $3.1 million, almost all of it in donations, to restore the locomotive to the smoking wonder it was in the 1940s and early ’50s. It is an undertaking more immense than the locomotive, which is 18 feet tall and weighs 510,150 pounds.

An average of 25 to 35 society members have turned out for twice-weekly work sessions over the years. Parts had to be tracked down in other countries. Parts that no longer existed had to be made. Sometimes, tools, such as huge wrenches, had to be made. Several sections of the boiler, which had worn thin, had to be replaced.

But now, there’s smoke in the stack, fire in the belly of the beast and light at the end of the tunnel.

“We are a bunch of guys and gals who have dumped a lot of time and effort into this and suffered a lot of frustrations,” Hartshorne said. “It feels great when you see it actually works.”

Learn more about the New Mexico Steam Locomotive & Railroad Historical Society and its restoration project at www.nmslrhs.org.

Millions of dollars in cleanup needed before Rail Yards construction begins

KRQE News 13-Feb 26, 2018
Rebecca Atkins ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE)
Once full of life, the sprawling 27 acre Rail Yards site looks abandoned. Although it’s been featured in blockbuster films, like “The Avengers,” not much happens there other than the Rail Yards Market.
“People feel like it’s not moving fast enough,” said City Councilor Isaac Benton.
Benton was instrumental in the city’s $8.5 million purchase of the Rail Yards a decade ago. The master plans include shopping, restaurants, housing and an amphitheater. Benton said it’s time the plans come to life.
“There’s a general sense of disappointment,” said Benton.
The LA-based developer Samitaur Constructs has been criticized in the past for its lack of progress. The previous mayor put the developer on notice last year after concerns over delays on the project. They are now required to provide quarterly updates.
Now, comes a huge obstacle in the way. At the last Albuquerque Development Commission meeting, Samitaur revealed the cost for the environmental cleanup at the site.
“The first phase being just under $2 million, and you’re looking at the second phase being $3 million,” said a representative for the developer.
In an audio recording of the meeting, Samitaur said it would cost about $5 million to get rid of asbestos on the windows, lead paint residue, and underground vapors.
“Identifying what the environment is, they’ve checked a box or something, but we’re nowhere near starting, much less coming to a hard figure,” said Benton.
The new administration said it’s a project the city won’t give up on.
“The mayor is very, very committed to making the Rail Yards a viable area for the city,” said Lawrence Rael, COO for the Mayor’s office.
However, he said they’re at a crossroads.
“The issue really is, we either need to begin to have this developer move forward or begin to take a different course with the project,” said Rael.
The city is not responsible for footing the bill, but it could help the developer pursue grants and provide its own funding as well.

New life for La Castañeda in Las Vegas, N.M.

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — For some 50 years, La Castañeda was considered the queen of Las Vegas, N.M. — an architectural diamond that welcomed locals and visitors alike during the days when train travel reigned.

The high and mighty dined alongside the hoi polloi in the hotel’s restaurant and bar, enjoying the famous Harvey House hospitality. The hotel’s 40 rooms were invariably filled with politicians, celebrities, soldiers and travelers looking to stop for the night before moving on, be it northeast out of New Mexico or south toward Albuquerque and then points west.


Presidents Message

Dear all,

Happy New Year, 

Wheels is making progress with funding now available for planning the code improvements for the building. We are working on funding to do the work, and are part of the way there.  

We are seeking people who can work on a ‘go fund me’ type of campaign and other fundraising efforts. 

The economy of New Mexico has affected us but we hope to be able to open our doors soon to showcase rail and other transportation history, present and future of the southwest. 

Huge thanks to the Wheels board and all the volunteers devoted to creating The Wheels Museum, Inc. 

Love, Leba

Dear WHEELS Volunteer

April 7, 2016

Dear WHEELS Volunteer,

I want to thank you for all of your previous volunteer efforts on behalf of The WHEELS Museum. It has been such a joy working with you. We are making steady progress toward our goal of opening to the public, and as a result you will see progress in formalizing our processes and procedures, volunteer efforts, and of course, building more displays. This will assist WHEELS in meeting state and Federal guidelines and requirements.

We are gearing up for the 2016 Railyard Market starting Sunday, May 1, and running through Sunday, October 30. It is time to start scheduling volunteers to support the Railyard Market. We need 4 volunteers for each Sunday Market.

If you can volunteer for at least one shift, please reply by return email and let us know that we can count on your support over the 6-month Railyard Market season. Be sure to let us know your preferred dates, if possible. We had a lot of fun last year and hope to have even more this year.

Laurie Cady is our new administrative volunteer and will be tracking and scheduling volunteers until we appoint a volunteer coordinator. She can be reached at lcady@q.com. If you have any questions, you can contact her by email or call and leave a message for Leba or Annie at 243-6269.

We are counting on you,


Leba Freed
WHEELS President

Belen Railroad Day

Learn about the past, present and future of railroading in Belen during Belen Railroad Day on Saturday, April 9 from Noon to 4 p.m. Enjoy several activities and events at various locations, including the Belen Harvey House Museum, Jaramillo Vineyards, the Belen Public Library, the Belen Art League and more. To reach most locations, exit the train at the Belen Station and walk south across the pedestrian overpass and continue walking two blocks south to Becker Ave. For information call (505) 861-0581.