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Get on an Amtrak train anywhere in the U.S. and there's a chance that while you're chugging along in coach, others might be riding in luxury behind you. These are private vintage railroad cars which pull riders paying top dollar across the country. They might not be around for long. New Amtrak guidelines now restrict where private cars can be added or removed from Amtrak trains. Before that change, independent producer Jordan Salama took a trip on a private rail car, and he brings us the story of these so-called yachts on rails.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fifty-80 on 13.
JORDAN SALAMA, BYLINE: The last car on an Amtrak long-distance train is usually reserved for baggage. But today behind that baggage car is the Dearing, a privately owned rail car that rides caboose.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, everybody...
SALAMA: While the train will soon depart Chicago on a 500-mile overnight journey to Huntington, W.Va.
NELSON MCGAHEE: The run we're going to do today is from Chicago Union Station. And we will arrive in Huntington 7 or so in the morning.
SALAMA: That's Nelson McGahee, who co-owns this train car with his wife Borden Black.
BORDEN BLACK: It's pretty spacious. It's - certainly we can live in it comfortably for several weeks at a time, which we do.
SALAMA: The Dearing is a 1920s-era Pullman sleeper car and has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a full kitchen, dining room and lounge. Though it's the same length and width as every other train car running in the United States, the inside makes you feel like you're staying in a rustic wooden lodge.
BLACK: You know, we try to do elegant meals and - not stuffy. People don't have to wear coats and ties. But it should be an experience. That's what this is all about, is an experience.
SALAMA: The costs for these trips can run in the thousands of dollars. For this 13-hour ride, the couple will pay Amtrak a fee of nearly $1,500 just to move.
BLACK: They are charging $2.95 a mile.
SALAMA: To help cover those costs, they'll usually charter out the car to paying guests, basically running a bed-and-breakfast on the train. We've just passed our first stop, Dyer, Ind., and it's time to eat.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
SALAMA: Out comes a three-course steak dinner complete with champagne and dessert, all made fresh from Black's bumpy 7-by-12-foot kitchen. By the time dinner's over, night's fallen, and we're about three hours south of Chicago, rolling through Indiana farm country. In the hallway, there's a map of the country with pins on all the cities they've been to on the rail car.
BLACK: Well, and we've been from Maine to Seattle, Seattle to...
SALAMA: The couple has visited 46 states on the Dearing.
BLACK: We've done the entire outside of the country. But we've also done a lot of things in between.
SALAMA: Black says that part of what she loves most about train travel is it's a chance to see things that aren't possible with other modes of transportation.
BLACK: I mean, there's no power lines. There are no cars. There's no roads. And you get to see things there's no other way to see. It is to me breathtakingly beautiful. And it makes me think often of how huge this country is.
SALAMA: Around midnight, I step out onto the platform on the back of the train.
Thirty-five degrees on the back platform of the Dearing.
It's pitch black out, and I watch as a single pickup truck races alongside the train tracks. You stand out back, and it's fitting that everything's just rushing away from you so quickly, from this historic car which the couple says is meant to be an escape into the past. After a few minutes, I go back into the warmth of my small bedroom, where I fall asleep to the rocking lull of the train.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HISSING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey. Good morning.
SALAMA: I wake up as the train arrives in Huntington.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Fifty, that will do.
SALAMA: In recent weeks, Amtrak has begun denying requests for private rail car trips like this altogether. Black and McGahee worry that an entire way of life may soon be gone. By no means are private rail cars the fastest or cheapest way to get around, but that's not the point. As the couple always says, the airplane flies over you, the interstate passes by you, but the train doesn't forget you. For NPR News, I'm Jordan Salama.
(SOUNDBITE OF DISNEY STUDIO CHORUS' "CASEY JUNIOR/SONG OF THE ROUSTABOUTS")
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