A train of your own

True titans take to the tracks with swanky private railcars.

When business titans and blond heiresses with pet chihuahuas need to get from A to B, there is no more sumptuous and speedy a medium than the private jet. But it's not so long ago that even those with ample means had no choice but to take a luxe mode of transport far slower than the speed of flight. When the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt (in the mid-1800s) and Rudolph Valentino (six or seven decades later) made their way across the landscape, it was often in the carriage of a private train.

Today, you can follow in their tracks, as it were–and discover along the way the joys not only of being pampered silly, but of being pampered silly at a nice, slow chug. “I'm a Type A personality; I can't sit still for more than five minutes,” says Warren Barhorst, president of Barhorst Insurance Group, in Houston. So last year, when his wife, Lisa, suggested the couple hire a private two-car train for an eight-day round trip between Los Angeles and Seattle to celebrate his 40th birthday, Barhorst was sweet but firm. “I said, 'Honey, I can't go on a train for that long.' I said, 'Honey, I'll go crazy.' “

Before their trip was up, in fact, Barhorst was crazy for the pleasures of life on the rails–so much so that on the way back to L.A., he phoned Patrick Henry, who runs Creative Charters Inc., to ask if they could continue on his train to hometown Houston. (Sadly, Henry's cars were already booked.) “It's just very, very relaxing,” says Barhorst, whose getaway included a winery tour, on-board gourmet meals, visits with friends and family who bedded down each night in the six-bedroom sleeper car, and a lot of scenery-filled leisure. “There aren't many vacations where you end up truly rested these days,” Barhorst adds. “I'm telling you, this is one of them.”

In an age where everybody just wants to get there, riding a private train is all about getting there. And getting spoiled rotten en route. Along with your own executive chef, many of the 100 or so private railcars that criss-cross North America come stocked with one or two stewards, full room service, private call buttons located in domed observation lounges, complimentary bars, and open-air platforms for watching the world roll by. The cost: generally between about US$5,000 and US$7,000 a day, depending on the train–although that does cover the needs and appetites of up to a dozen or so guests.

All the trains are owned by members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, and are inspected and certified annually by Amtrak. To operate, they are usually attached to the tail end of Amtrak trains and–decreasingly, thanks to new restrictions introduced in the past couple of years–to those of Via Rail. Nearly everywhere Amtrak goes, and within Via's Windsor-Montreal corridor, you can fashion a trip of your own, and trundle on into the horizon.

Such is the world of “private varnish,” a term that derives from two characteristics shared by pretty much all privately owned railcars: a fastidiously buffed external cladding, and a hand-rubbed interior heavy on stainless steel, brass and exotic woods. On Henry's two cars, on which I stayed overnight during a recent visit to Chicago (they were berthed, between trips, at the city's Union Station) that interior also included a 12-seat dining room, its built-in glass cabinets gleaming with silver and crystal; a clubby bar sporting wraparound sofas and a big-screen TV; an upper-level observation dome that seats 16 in banquettes and swivel tub chairs; and, of course, that sleeper car.

Also on board was Dave Kugler, the executive chef of another pair of cars, the Northern Sky and Northern Dreams, hooked up to Henry's for their stay in Chicago. Built for the Union Pacific Railway in the 1950s, both were purchased and refurbished by Wisconsin businessman and lifetime train buff David Hoffman, in the 1990s.

Sitting in the Northern Sky's deco-inspired living room one evening, Kugler described his method of tailoring his talents to the tastes of Hoffman's clients. “I send menus,” he said, “of 20 soups, 20 salads, and 20 entrees each of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and seafood.” Hosts can then e-mail back what they'd like served, at which point Kugler begins mapping out where he'll buy provisions, from Grade A beef, say, at his favourite Milwaukee butcher, to fresh seafood from Seattle's Pike Place Market. He also preplans breakfasts (grilled grapefruit with brown sugar and rum is among his personal faves), appetizers and lunches, all with an eye to clients' tastes and local, seasonal strengths.

Amid all that eating, of course, a prime lure of life on the rails is watching the countryside go by, often along otherwise inaccessible routes. For the novice trainer, Henry recommends Chicago to San Francisco, a trip that takes you through the Rockies, past Lake Tahoe and along San Francisco Bay, all in three days. He also has a soft spot for Vancouver to Seattle to Chicago, a three-day journey that traverses Montana's Glacier National Park. More hard-headed travellers can do New York to Chicago in a day.

Spectacular scenery can be the perfect backdrop not just for a personal holiday, but for corporate affairs, too: about 60% of Henry's clients book his cars for business-related functions. Coors Brewing Company, for one, chartered a trip to this year's Super Bowl, in Detroit. Last year, one Denver-based company held its annual board-of-directors' meeting in Henry's dining room and dome car, taking to the sleeper as each night rolled around, and arriving in San Francisco after two days on the rails.

If you are considering shining up your corporate image (or brightening up an otherwise dull confab) with such private varnish, bear in mind that no matter how fastidiously blocked out the details, the rails can deliver the unexpected, too. On their trip along the American West Coast last year, the Barhorsts report they were able to see the moon in the bright light of day–several moons, in fact, as a high-school soccer team in Northern California greeted the train with their own rear platforms bared for all on board to see. “We really laughed,” says the newly converted train buff. “I have to say, they formed a very straight line.”