The Story of Classic Rail Cars

By Kevin Luebke with Ken Bitten

Private railroad car ownership was made popular by the Vanderbilt family in the 1910's and 1920's. It went out of style during the depression (there was never any time in history when this sort of accomodation was inexpensive). With the coming of the Amtrak Era, private car ownership and usage has experienced a reniassance. Classic Rail Cars owners Ken and Wren Bitten, and Kevin and Renee Luebke bought their first car in 1988. Today they own nine.

Ken was on a railfan trip with friends in 1985 when the group happened across an open-platform observation car at Cumberland, Md., lettered for the Baltimore and Ohio and numbered 940752. Ken also noticed the car was marked for scrap. Someone in the group suggested they buy it.

Ken was employed by the Chessie System in Baltimore back in 1985. After initial inquiries, Ken and three partners bought the car in the Fall of 1985. Railfan Tours. a non-profit corporation, was formed in 1987 for purposes of restoring their purchase and returning it to active service.

B&O 940752 began life as Musina, last of ten open-platform cars built in November, 1912, by the Pullman Company with ten sections and an observation lounge in Lot 4049 to Plan 2521 for San Francisco Overland Limited service, The car was sold to the B&O in December 1948, had number 7403 added, and was leased back to Pullman. Musina was withdrawn from Pullman lease in early 1950 but continued in B&O revenue service until October 1953. After that date, the car was converted to wreck train crew car X4303 and assigned to the Brunswick, Md., wreck train. The wreck train was abolished in 1985 and the car, renumbered to,940752, was considered for wreck train duty out of Cumberland but instead was written off for scrap.

Musina turned out to be remarkably well preserved. One open section had been removed to make room for an oil heating stove but beyond that the car appeared to have changed little since it was first built. Even most of the car's original interior fixtures were still in place.

In the November, 1985, move from Cumberland to Stewartstown, Pa., Musina derailed and one of the trucks was badly damaged. The November 9 date of the Musina derailment was also my wedding day. Ken made the wedding but spent the reception at the site of the derailment watching as a railroad crew cut huge chunks of brake rigging off one of the trucks in order to rerail the car.

Despite the bad first experiences, I was really begining to get hooked on PV's. My new wife and I accompanied Ken and others to SteamExpo in Vancouver in 1986. A British Columbia Railway steam excursion trip soon found me out on the open-platform of the last car on the train. Well, you know how terrific the mountain scenery is on the BCR. A trip like that is bound to make one determined to find a way to do more of the same.

Our little group spent the remainder of 1986 working on Musina but full restoration was going to be a long time away. How could we acquire a car that could be made operational sooner.

Ken wrote to railroads we felt could have suitable equipment for sale in the furutre, asking to be placed on sale lists. We concentrated on larger railroads, feeling we would do better on a bid situation than on cars being sold by individuals.

In 1987, We formed Classic Rail Cars and had accumulated a substantial amount of cash, but we knew from experience that it wasn't going be enough. Securing financing was a frustrating experience. Some lending institutions were genuinely sorry that they couldn't help, most feeling that private cars was an unusual purchase, and citing a lack of lending experience in this area. A few simply laughed us right off the phone. Others fell somewhere in between. Most frustrating of all was that the four of us had good jobs, above average incomes, excellent credit references and were debt free.

Money or not, Wren and Renee went to Roanoke that Spring and inspected all the cars on the NS sale list. Together, they took pictures, and recorded comments on a small tape recorder. Renee, a civil engineer, carefully examined running gear, and mechanical details on what we considered our three top candidates: N&W business car 300, Altavista and NS research car 34. When they returned they discovered that the tape recorder had malfunctioned and the tape was nearly blank, and the roll of pictures they had taken had been ruined at the photo lab. And the deadline for submitting bids was fast approaching.

Just as it was begining to appear that all we'd have for our effort was a nice fat file on the auction, Ken's parents and mine stepped in and offered to loan us the balance for what was needed to make a competitive bid, and we sent in bids on the cars.

The auction results from Roanoke was both good and bad news for us. Not many bids had been received for NS 34 as it had been added late to the sale list, and we were the winning bidder. Unfortunately for us, the purchasing department was planning to recommend to NS top management that our bid be rejected as too low. But Ken wouldn't quit. Drawing on experience accumulated during his Chessie System days, he negotiated with NS, increasing the bid slightly, and in the end our offer was accepted.

In July, we paid our bill to Norfolk Southern and this unlikely group of four new private car owners: Ken, a transportation consultant, Wren a registered nurse, Renee, a patent examiner, and myself, an operating engineer, were the very proud owners of Norfolk Southern 34.

Renee and I went to Roanoke on August 7, 1988. The first order of business was to collect all of the NS 34's records from the mechanical department. When we checked in at the research lab, we met with Mr. Coyte Garner who informed us that almost all electrical and plumbing diagrams and maintenance records from the 1980 rebuilding had been destroyed in the flood of 1985. Much of the historical information on our car has come through the courtesy of private car historian and author, Patrick O. McLaughlin.

Norfolk Southern 34 was first delivered in November 1914 to the Norfolk and Western by American Car and Foundry as dining car 1010, railroad class De. The diner was rebuilt into business car 101 (2nd) during the Depression year of 1934 at a cost of $40,123.20. A 1941 floor plan of the car depicts a rather interesting car with open platform, observation lounge, two state rooms, servants room, and kitchen. "What makes this car so unusual," wrote McLaughlin, "is that the dining room was mid car, between the two state rooms."

A major rebuilding and modernization in the first half of 1957 resulted in the current floorplan. In 1972, the car was given it's uncommonly smooth ride with the installation of six-wheel outside swing hanger trucks. The trucks came from former Penn Central business car 1 when N&W swapped trucks between the cars. The PC 1 went on to become NS research car RC 2.

The N&W 101 (as our car was then known) remained a business car until 1977, last assigned to Harold Carter, vice president of N&W's eastern lines. In 1978 the car was assigned to Coyte Garner of the N&W Research and Tests Laboratory in Roanoke, and in 1979-80 the car was reconfigured as a dynamics test car for testing freight car components under actual service conditions. After the Norfolk Southern merger, the car was relettered NS research car 34.

The trip home to New Jersey on our new car was a dream come true. We rode up through West Virginia, through Hagerstown, Harrisburg, and Allentown. The freight service trip was railfan perfect; fairly slow with frequent stops to pick up and set out cars. It was wonderful to relax on the open platform and to wave to people. There were even opportunities to visit at times with people in their own back yard.

Since 1988, we have done several hundred trips, and many special events and static displays. Our enjoyment of car ownership comes from sharing it with as many people as possible. Our first major event of record was NJTransit's Hoboken Festival VII, where we gave over 5,000 on-board tours in one day, and christened the car in a traditional champagne ceremony. Now for the first time, it had a real name--The Blue Ridge.

As active members in AAPRCO (The private railroad car owners group), we regularly bring cars to annual conventions. Last year, the Blue Ridge and Imperial Sands, traveled to Nelson, BC on the longest single trip we have ever operated. A trip to the West Coast can take more than two weeks, however the traveler is rewarded with rare and beautiful scenery,unlike anything to be seen in the east-- uncluttered by billboards and unhindered by congestion. A person interested in this type of travel might consider participating in an AAPRCO convention trip, as they are frequently staged to coordinate with events in the destination cities, and feature rare mileage, interesting intermediate destinations, and outstanding onboard cusine prepared by specially-selected world-class chefs.

For those interested in shorter trips, there are many opportunities to travel in the northeast, and weekend trips to Boston, Savannah, and Montreal are regular features on our excursion schedule.

On a typical weekend excursion, a small group of 8-16 passengers travel aboard the Blue Ridge from New York City or Washington, DC. Fares are generally in the $400 to $800 range. We do not include overnight hotel accomodation as part of the fare, but can assist passengers with their accomodations.

Often, we are asked to set up charter trips for groups, political organizations, and sports fans attending events in faraway cities. Typically, these trips are arranged using regular Amtrak service where possible, and the costs are highly variable depending on overall trip milage.

We hope that you can visit us the next time you see one of our cars at your favorite train station, and that you will decide sometime soon to come riding with us. But watch out, or you will catch the PV bug too.

Updated 4/9/99 by Tom Coughlin