Golden Age of Passenger Rail Comes Alive Again

Golden Age of Passenger Rail Comes Alive Again

In elegant surroundings, a group of well-heeled football fans gaze intently at a television set. The team of their choosing has just gained two yards… the television screen is bigger than that. A mini-bar, buffet with all the fixin’s, comfy chairs, soft lighting and all the other trappings of a Five-Star hotel are available, but ignored in the intensity of the contest on the screen. Also ignored is the the scenery passing by outside the windows. This Five-Star hotel is on steel wheels.

Back in the “golden age” of passenger rail, the cars George Pullman built for the coach class traveler were well appointed enough, but the “first class” cars and the corporate business cars were the equal in their appointments of any luxury hotel. Passenger rail has nearly passed into history, but the passenger cars of those halcyon days are making a comeback. Railroad executives, CEOs of blue-chip businesses, and the celebrity darlings of movies, of television, and of sport are the riders of these re-imaged railcars.

“When can we start?”

The custom car folks call their creations “resto-mod”… a classic car body with completely modernized underpinnings as well as the most luxurious of creature comforts for the occupants. The restoration of passenger cars built by Pullman and others is done with the same end in mind. The degradation of 100 years of weather and wear has greatly compromised the structure of these cars, and rebuilding will be much more intense than mere dent removal and repaint. Not only are modern specifications for the construction of rail cars more stringent than those in place when these cars were new, but the materials available to the restorer of today are much superior to those chosen by the OEMs. The first order of business is to lay a foundation for the car that is structurally adequate and is in compliance with the regulations of the 21st century. Starfire Engineering has been involved in several projects of this type, providing engineering analysis and drafting support to car owners and railcar shops. This support enables the repair and upgrade of the car to ensure a safe and comfortable ride as well as to seamlessly interface with modern railroad equipment.

Guided by computer analysis and a keen understanding of railcar construction, plans are formulated and instructions are composed. Corroded metal is surgically removed and a re-engineered understructure is grafted in its place. New trucks (the wheelsets the railcar rides on are called “trucks”) are rarely available for these old cars, however in many cases trucks from a newer railcar can be placed under the redesigned framework. This can gift the resto-mod with bearings and suspension of modern design, while retro-fittment of the latest design coupling systems allows the classic car to hold hands with contemporary cars and locomotives. The eagle eyes of the engineers search the rest of the railcar for corrosion, cracks and other complications, surrendering to the upholsterers a railcar that is sound and strong.

It is at this point that Mr. Pullman’s work, for all its gilded magnificence, will pale. The cabinet work will be of the finest quality, using materials which Hyatt-Regency wouldn’t spring for… the carpet will be of a grade which would not be out of place in the Royal Penthouse Suite. This is to be expected. For the restorers of these cars, this is a labor of love. This same attention to detail courses through the entire project. Some of these builders use that same cabinet grade wood to make the backing panels for the wall coverings! A full suite of modern appointments pays homage to the classic heritage of the golden era… brass and copper light fixtures harken to a simpler time, but L.E.D. light units hide inside, giving the performance expected today. Covered by antique decorum, heavy-duty electrical circuits feed not only that big-screen television we watched earlier, but any and all devices the modern rider would need or want – we will have a place for our ‘phone-charger AND our laptop!

These projects are popular, and the supply of restorable cars is limited, so if you’re interested in having your own “Hilton-on-wheels”, now’s the time. Bring deep pockets, as a good basic railcar can run well into six figures as it sits!! For those interested in a more involved fixer-upper, this would be a very interesting project:

The Mark Twain Zephyr was built in 1935 by the Budd Company for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The name was chosen because the streamliner’s route from St. Louis to Burlington, Iowa passed through Twain’s boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. Continuing the theme, each of the cars was named for a major character from Twain’s works. The Zephyr series of streamliners set several benchmarks for construction and performance. Powered by the first Diesel engine to motivate an American train, the eight-cylinder Winton promised to deliver 125mph speed. Articulated trucks saved weight and complexity and these sported some of the first roller bearings used on the rails. Stainless Steel construction gave the trainset a sleek, shiny countenance and resulted in the appellation “Silver Streak”. For the restorer, the untainted metalwork means that even after all those years, the consist will be rust-free – although restoring Stainless Steel cars has its own set of complications. As the photos show, the trainset is in reasonably good shape; the articulated trucks are present, though they’ve wandered a few yards from their homes. The down side is, what you see is all you get. The locomotive and the cars are completely stripped, all controls, engine, generator set, driver’s and passenger’s seats, windows, horn, bells, whistles, and lights – gone… but, hey, you’re going to replace all that anyway! The consist is setting on blocks at Gateway Rail Services in Madison, Illinois. Shiny Irons does not have any information on current ownership or on current plans for the trainset. Clyde Hentz at Gateway can fill you in on those details, and, if you’d like, he might be able to give you a quote on what it will take to get back on the rails! We here at Shiny Irons and Starfire Engineering would very much like to help make that happen!

Thank you for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!


Take a Train Ride

During the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel, luxury notwithstanding, the end game was… to get from here to there. The factors which had led to the growth of the rail industry in the 19th century were, for the most part, still in play. Horses were being replaced by automobiles but the vast majority of the nation was served by roads which were little better than horse trails. Mark Twain offered a comparison of the two modes in the mid-1800s, describing the monumental increase in efficiency of the rails. In the early-mid 20th century, as competition between rails and roads and between railroads for the traveler’s dollar heated up, railroads began to paint (figuratively and literally) their routes as not just a ride, but an excursion:

during the early twentieth century … the famous and legendary named passenger trains began to appear. Some were launched prior to the streamliner age while others were transformed into legendary names after their transition. A few of these include Santa Fe’s Chief and Super Chief (1926 and 1936), the Baltimore & Ohio’s Capitol Limited (1923), the jointly operated [by the Burlingon, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific] California Zephyr (1949), the Milwaukee Road’s legendary Hiawathas (inaugurated in 1935), Great Northern’s venerable Empire Builder (1929), Southern Pacific’s Daylights (originally inaugurated in 1922), Southern’s Crescent Limited (1922), Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous Broadway Limited (1902), and the New York Central Railroad’s lauded 20th Century Limited (1902). (

Today, a train ride is much more likely to be a vacation. Literally dozens of excursion, scenic and tourist railways offer everything from a tour of Royal Gorge

to a trip across the continent. Cumbres and Toltec Senic Railroad will take you to the summit of 10,000 ft. Cumbres Pass and the 1000 foot sheer walls of Toltec Gorge. Follow Sam McCord north to the gold fields of Alaska on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Here’s a list of National Geographic Magazine’s Top Ten North American rail rides. If you’re still keening for more, head for Russia where the Trans-Siberian Railway will take you across the Eurasian continent in about 10 days. The actual trip is 8 days, but when the train stops at Irkutsk you will want to take a couple of days to see the incomparable beauty of Lake Baikal.


Play a Train Song

In a post about classic passenger rail, there can be only one song… Steve Goodman‘s wonderful “City of New Orleans”,

sung by Arlo Guthrie from his 1972 album “Hobo’s Lullaby”….


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