The rail thing

Ample legroom, nonstop scenery, chilled martinis instead of traffic jams: Welcome to the new era of private train travel in the West.

Chris Colin

It awaits largely because of people like Chris Skow, a mop-haired former conductor from Portola, California, with a mischievous grin. He worked 26 years for Western Pacific and then another 11 for Union Pacific. On certain winter runs, the northern lights would pull down all around him in swirls of bluish green. In the 1980s, Skow began leading trips, here and abroad, centered on the great old railroads. This weekend he’s partnered with train owners Burt Hermey and Al Bishop to showcase three former Zephyr cars from the golden age of rail travel: the Silver Lariat, Silver Solarium, and Silver Rapids. For the next seven hours, we’ll catch a ride with Amtrak, stopping when it stops, arriving in Reno when it arrives. Once in Nevada, we’ll burrow even deeper into the odd cosmos of resuscitated trains.

Private train travel is an uncentralized and therefore haphazard affair. Often it’s arranged by charter—you gather a group and essentially rent one of these old cars for the duration of your trip. It takes some Googling to find them, but Skow guesses that 75 private rail excursions of one kind or another originate each year in the West alone.

Outside my window, the damp Bay Area is giving way to the parched Sacramento Valley—but I’m consumed by the internal scenery. My fellow travelers are a diverse group: Some are older white men with short white beards; others are older white men with slightly longer white beards. There are cowboy boots and hearing aids, a lone bolo tie. Radio scanners are the accessory of choice for the stalwart: Why focus on one train when you can listen to the chatter of many? One man wears a stopwatch around his neck, backstopping the conductor’s timetable; his wife backstops him with a GPS unit. Most everyone I meet is delighted to help a newbie get his bearings.

The original Zephyr was officially retired in 1970, I learn. Amtrak used some of the cars until the arrival of Superliners in 1980. When Hermey and Bishop—just a couple of ordinary citizens—bought the trains from Amtrak, one of them had mushrooms and trees growing inside. A million dollars or more can go into restoring one of these cars.

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