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Occident Express

Private railroad charters offer more than mere transport. Even J.P. Morgan and Jay Gould didn’t have fax machines on their Zephyrs.

When J.P. Morgan, E.F. Hutton and other business tycoons had their private railroad cars built, they spared no expense. The cars were elaborately designed with marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers. The early American financiers and business leaders conducted business as they traveled across the country.

Today’s CEO is reliving that experience through the charter of a restored private railroad car or PV (short for “private varnish”), as it is known in the rail business. The name is derived from the highly varnished interiors of these mansions on wheels.

The cars are fully equipped with a galley (kitchen), formal dining room, lounge, staff quarters and an open platform for viewing the sunset or just catching a breath of fresh air.

The cars have been refurbished in a variety of motifs. For instance, the American Zephyr, built in the 1940s, has been authentically restored in period Art Deco opulence, while the Lehigh Valley 353, built in 1916, and the oldest business car in operation, is turn-of-the-century elegant, with polished brass chandeliers and stained glass interior windows.

Traveling details (from menu listings to trip itinerary) can be worked out to the CEO’s requirements. The itinerary, however, must coincide with Amtrak schedules, since PVs are hauled by Amtrak trains.

Besides offering elegance, the owners of PVs provide their service with a great deal of discretion, keeping charter relationship confidential. “A number of our charters are by Fortune 500 companies whose CEOs prefer anonymity, even though the rentals are for legitimate business purposes,” said Brett Eisele, public relations director for the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO). Judging by the attention given Lee Iacocca’s salary and bonus, a CEO’s desire for low profile is understandable. Business meetings can be held with privacy during the trip, as there are no intruding phone calls or disappearing staff members who need to be tracked down. In addition to conferences, CEOs can charter PVs for pampering special clients.

The CEO of an import/export company chartered the Chapel Hill, previously known as the Hussar, and built for E.F. Hutton in 1922 to transport select clients and friends from Ohio to New York to attend the birthday celebration of the Statue of Liberty. ” Our clients were fascinated by the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the trip,” he said.

The menu is one of the railroad’s outstanding features and can be tailored to even the most discriminating tastes. No need to suffer with airline food here.

Menu choices can run from duck scaloppine to brochette of beef. On a recent trip from Toledo to New York, on the Lehigh Valley 533, The Black Diamond, Chef Robert Williams served, among other delicacies, caviar, smoked Norwegian salmon, broiled fresh swordfish, julienne of carrots and zucchini, cherries jubilee, apple tart Manchester, and Yorkshire pudding. The formal dining room of the Lehigh Valley 533 still maintains its traditional Cornell red, and the dining room table sports fine linen, silverware and crystal.

What better way to have an important business meeting, entertain top clients, or travel to your business destination in comfort and class. Besides the elegant furnishings and exquisite food, the CEO and his guests can experience some of the most beautiful scenery in the country from the comfort of a PV.

Although the charter rate varies among select car owners, the average cost is approximately $1,000 each day, plus expenses, per car rented. This varies depending on the car, the number of people traveling, and the number of miles scheduled. In addition, Amtrak charges a relatively small fee for hauling and switching services. “It certainly isn’t the least expensive mode of business travel,” said one CEO, “but it is one of the most impressive.”

The American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners publishes a listing of Private Varnishes by region. The listing provides a brief history of the car and some of the major features offered. Telephone numbers and contact persons are provided in the charter referral directory.

The free directory can be obtained by writing to Mr. Larry Haines, Eastern Coordinator, 224 Orr Drive, Somerville, NJ, 08876, or Mr. Gordon Crosthwait, 969 Santa Ysabel Avenue, Baywood Park, CA, 93402. To obtain a free nationwide Amtrak timetable, including route map, call 1-800USA-RAIL.

There are over 150 Private Varnishes for charter across the country and many of them provide customized trips. Expensive, yes, but certainly worth it.

CE has chosen four outstanding private varnishes (see sidebar) we believe are exemplary of the best in cars and services.



Built by American Car & Foundry as the Japauldon for the F.W. Woolworth family in 1926, The Survivor is owned by Dante Stephensen of Dante’s Down The Hatch fame. The car was used by three U.S. Presidents when it was known as B & 0 NO. 902. According to Hollywood legend, Cary Grant carried on a transcontinental courtship with Barbara Hutton in this elegant car. Features include rare goldenheart-oak paneling, full bar, TV, stereo, and air conditioning. For more information, write or call: Dante Stephensen, 3380 Peachtree Road, N.E., Atlanta, GA; 404-266-1600.


Built in 1916 by Pullman for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, this car is the oldest active Private Varnish. Chief Steward, Jesse Mitchell is a legend himself with over forty years on the rails and the reputation of providing the best of the best in Private Varnish service. The car offers four staterooms which can accomodate six for sleeping. Contact Richard Horstmann, P.O. Box 533, Syracuse, NY, 13201; 315-472-4293.


Built in 1940 by the Budd Company, the dining and observation/tavern/lounge cars have a sleek stainless steel exterior and Art Deco interior, and are available for business or pleasure. American Zephyr also runs special excursions such as Easter Weekend at the Homestead and June trips from New York to Colonial Williamsburg. Contact 1 West 37th Street, New York, NY, 10018; 212-764-6266 or 2100 M. Street N.W., Suite 612, Washington, D.C., 20037; 202-737-0818).


Built as the Hussar by American Car & Foundry in 1922 for E.F. Hutton’s honeymoon with Marjorie Merriweather Post, Chapel Hill features business accomodations and sleeping quarters for six, as well as an observation platform. An experienced chef and serving attendants are available as required. Write or call: De Witt Chapple, Jr., P.O. Box 464 Middletown, OH, 45042; 513-422-8877.


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