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Railway to heaven: domed railcars offer a room with a luxurious view.

On a typically glorious late spring afternoon in Washington, D.C., the Capitol Limited, a regularly scheduled Amtrak train, pulled slowly out of Union Station bound for Chicago. To most passengers settling into their seats, this was the normal start to an otherwise mundane journey; it's likely that very few of them paid any attention to the shiny blue anomaly--a private, glass-domed railcar--attached at the end of the train.


The anomaly in question is the Bella Vista, a domed railcar for hire that remains one of the best kept travel secrets in America. To those in thrall, such private railcars are known as "Private Varnish," named for the high gloss sheen of their exterior. True, the view from outside is very classy, but dome cars are known as the best of breed for the unparalleled sight-seeing they provide from within, and the Bella Vista makes it easy to understand why.

Originally built by Union Pacific back in 1955 as a sight-seeing dome car with 34 passenger seats and a bar, the Bella Vista was "re-imagined" by Rail Ventures, its current owner, which spent $2 million to realize its full potential. Clearly, the observation lounge underneath its roof consisting of bent, tempered glass makes the Bella Vista an attraction, but that's only the beginning.

From the Honduran mahogany trim, oriental carpeting on the floors and banquettes in reproduction antique silk blends and leather to the padded swivel armchairs, benches and small tables in the observation lounge, every detail has been painstakingly considered.

Two master bedrooms are outfitted with 400-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, goose down duvets, and private bath and showers styled with Italian stone tile occupy the former rear lounge. Two smaller bedrooms share a bathroom down the hall.

Two dining booths provide elegant ambience and if the unrivaled view grows tiresome, there's a plasma TV with satellite connectivity available (it stays out of sight unless you request it) or a look into the past--and passed--from the 1930s political-style open observation deck out back.

Basically, when you punch an elite-class ticket for a ride on the Bella Vista, you receive all the privacy and comforts of home along with the classic appointments of a traditional boardroom inside a mobile solarium. That ticket will run you between $5,000 to $7,000 per day for up to eight people (meals and beverages, along with the services of a private chef and steward, are included). But what better way to travel for you and your guests (if they're lucky enough to be invited)?


According to Tom Thomas, CEO of Thomas Pharmaceuticals, you've had a taste of a private car if you've been on a private yacht or a private jet, "but a private rail car is all of that and then some." Thomas has chartered the Bella Vista for both business and pleasure trips from San Francisco to Denver and from Chicago to the Greenbrier in West Virginia, and he asserts that riding the Bella Vista isn't an acquired taste. "One takes to it immediately," he says.

"It's a chance to travel in a self-contained hotel," says Richard Johnston of Camden Partners Holdings, a leading health care private equity fund. "Railroads go where autos don't, and it beats air travel. I fly to California 20 times a year and I never look out the window." Think of it as an 85-foot terrestrial sloop slipping across the vast North American continent.

So what's the hitch? Well, you're always subject to the vagaries of Amtrak, and no one takes a private car if they're in a hurry. A flight from JFK to Chicago, for example, takes less than three hours, while traveling the same distance via rail would take about 16 hours, assuming there were no delays. But keep in mind, you're there to relax in an enclosed world that offers tableaus worthy of Edward Hopper paintings zipping by every minute.

The rules for chartering one of the many domed rail cars available are simple: The itinerary is your call, but advance planning is mandatory. Reserve it three to four months ahead, and count on spending anywhere from $2,500 to $7,000 per day. Some companies can even couple multiple vintage cars to accommodate larger groups.


Private Rails



The best source to find rail cars for charter, with more than 60 private Amtrak-compliant cars.

Cincinnati Railway Company


Has five cars, including the Vista Dome, Birch Grove, Chapel Hill, Oliver Hazard Perry and North Star.

Creative Charters


Offers two cars built in 1954, the Warren R. Henry, a dome car, and the Evelyn Henry, a sleeper that can accommodate up to 12 overnight guests.

Northern Sky Rail Charters


Built in 1955, this dome car has been totally refurbished, with four double bedrooms and an observation dome.

Rail Journeys West


Offers the Silver Solarium, a dome-sleeper-lounge car from 1948.

Rail Ventures


Owns a fleet of four luxury cars: the Bella Vista, Glacier Park, Gallatin River and Yerba Buena.

The Scottish Thistle


Built in 1959 as a private rail car for executives of the Canadian National Railway; its two staterooms and observation lounge have undergone mild refurbishment.
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Title Annotation:EXECUTIVE LIFE
Author:Potter, Everett
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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