A half-mile of vintage private railroad cars rolled through southern Maine on Sunday carrying 210 rail fans, some of whom traveled from as far away as California to attend a national convention of private rail car owners in Portland this week.
The Pine Tree Limited – a convoy of three Amtrak locomotives and 26 antique rail cars – may be the most luxurious and historic train ever to enter Maine.
The oldest car is the Federal, a 1911 Pullman that carried presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Taking up the honorary rear position is the Georgia 300, a 1930 heavyweight observation car that carried presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama rode on it to Washington just before his inauguration in 2009.
As the Pine Tree Limited traveled Sunday from East Deerfield, Massachusetts, to Portland, people gathered at almost every rail crossing to take photographs or gape at it. Many of them waved as it passed by.
“It’s old equipment – heavy business cars from a bygone era,” said Richard Boucher, 74, a rail fan who photographed the train as it traveled through Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Railroad executives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used ornate business cars to travel on their railroads. The cars usually have an observation platform, kitchen, dining room, state rooms, secretary’s room and servant’s quarters.
The Pine Tree Limited also has sleeper cars from the 1930s to 1950s and two-story dome cars, including one called the Observatory that boasts a master bedroom with queen-size bed, two deluxe bedrooms, a porter’s room, kitchen, and a washer and dryer.
Individual cars cost several hundred thousand dollars to buy.
“They are luxury yachts on rails,” said Roger Schmorr, the train’s operations director and volunteer with the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, which is holding its annual convention this week at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.
The rail car association holds its convention in a different city every year. Recent hosts include Napa Valley in California, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri. This is the first time it has held its convention in Portland.
“It’s a marvelous way to see the countryside – a very civilized way,” said Jerry Angier while riding in the Georgia 300 with his wife, Nancy Angier. The couple, who live in Cape Elizabeth, had worked to bring the convention to Portland and organize group outings for members during the three-day convention, including a tour of Casco Bay and a trip to Rockland on the Maine Eastern Railroad. They don’t own a car themselves but pay to ride in them.
The Pine Tree Limited began its journey in Chicago after the owners of the private cars transported them there from around the country by attaching them to regularly scheduled Amtrak trains.
Tom Pearson, 73, a retired telephone company executive, was riding in his car, a sleeper called the Salisbury Beach, which had traveled to Maine from Los Angeles.
The stainless steel car began its service in 1954 on the Boston & Maine Railroad and was part of the State of Maine Express, an overnight train between New York City and Portland.
Pearson, who has owned the car for 25 years, said this was the first time he had traveled in it on its original route.
“We are almost there,” he said with anticipation as the Salisbury Beach crossed from Massachusetts into New Hampshire.
Owners like Pearson sometimes ride in their rail cars, but they often finance their hobby by taking passengers for all or part of a trip or renting out the cars entirely. Some passengers on the train said they paid $6,700 for a round trip between California and Portland. The price includes all meals and beverages.
Amtrak charges each car $2.10 per mile, but the cars cost a lot to refurbish so they can meet Amtrak standards. Fred Gullette of Portland, Oregon, and his daughter Katy Gullette have spent $600,000 to $700,000 on their 1950 Bud sleeper since they bought it four years ago. Katy Gullette said it costs $1,100 a month just to store and insure the car.
But not everyone on the train is wealthy. Doug Peterson, 74, from Southern California, is working on the train as a bartender and waiter. He seemed to enjoy the ride through New England more than anyone.
“I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he said. “There’s greenery and bubbling water wherever I look. It’s gorgeous.”
The train is parked in Yard 8 on West Commercial Street. The cars are not open to the public, and there is heavy security around the train to protect it from vandals.
The train is scheduled to leave Portland at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Ten of the cars will travel to Boston and the rest will return to Chicago and then to their home cities.