Craftsmen restore old train cars in Madison for luxury travel on nation’s rails –

Posted: Saturday, December 26, 2015

MADISON • It looks like a cemetery for old passenger trains — tight rows parked along sidings behind a high fence. Faded plywood covers shattered windows. Nearby is a jumble of rusting wheels.

It’s a different story inside the tidy workshops nearby, where skilled craftsmen meticulously restore old rail cars for private owners, from wealthy railroad enthusiasts to excursion lines. An occasional specialty job for major railroads helps pay the bills.

“Some people think we’re just a scrap yard,” said Roger Verbeeren, president of Gateway Rail Services. “Truth is, we don’t scrap anything.”

Since 2000, Gateway has operated on part of a former Union Pacific yard next to Illinois Route 203 near the heart of this old railroad town. The company has about 140 old passenger and baggage cars, a few from the 1920s, on its 10 tracks. Many are salvage from Amtrak, the nation’s passenger service since 1971.

Its dozen workers tend to the demand of a rarefied market. An owners association estimates there are only about 300 private cars that meet the standards for hitching onto Amtrak trains. Excursion lines of all sorts, from luxury trains to lumbering antiques, operate perhaps 2,000 more, but most of them aren’t Amtrak-certified.

On a recent day, the task inside the main shop building was restoring two “dome cars” — passenger cars topped with a bubble of windows for unobstructed views of passing scenery. One has leaky windows but is otherwise sound. The other is raised high above its wheels by four burly power jacks, and still needs plenty of work.

The leaky car is a new assignment, delivered to Gateway only last month from a dinner-train operator in Cincinnati. The car balanced on electric-powered jacks has been a wealthy California theater owner’s obsession for five years. A dome car can weigh more than 80 tons without its wheel assemblies (called trucks) and 15,000 pounds more with them{strong}.

Nothing is cheap in this kind of work. Gateway’s crew is stringing heavy wire at $8 per foot through the Californian’s car so it can handle the 480-volt service of Amtrak trains. The owner wants the back to have an old-time open platform, so workers are scratch-building a new door and safety rails from stainless steel.

Verbeeren said a top-flight dome car ready for sale could run more than $1.2 million, a standard coach $400,000. Those intended as museum pieces cost less. People who want their private cars customized tend to spend a lot more, he said.

“Sometimes, people get in over their heads and have to stop,” he said, further explaining the slow movement of company inventory.

Others just get in deeper. Dr. Mark Greve, a pediatric anesthesiologist in Birmingham, Ala., owns three cars and is a Gateway board member. He regularly drives up to visit the shop.

“It’s a disease,” Greve said. “I was spending all my money on this, so why not own a piece of the company?”

He watched with fascination as Kyle Wolford and Robert Madison slowly reworked the aluminum window frame of the Cincinnati car, painted in the style of the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Wolford used a grinder, Madison a hammer. Both longtime employees, Wolford learned his skills as an auto-body man, Madison as a woodworker. At Gateway, everybody does a bit of everything.

And it takes time. Clyde Hentz, the foreman, said they needed almost two weeks to figure out why the windows leaked. The problem was that the curved glass panels installed by a previous company weren’t quite big enough. As work continues on the frames, Gateway has ordered new glass and special rubber gaskets.

“Everything we do is custom,” said Hentz, who joined the operation two decades ago. “You just can’t open a book and get easy answers. We’re always having to figure things out.”

Because private cars have to pass federal inspections to be coupled onto Amtrak trains, Gateway hires consulting engineers for more complicated procedures. The inspection takes place before a car leaves the shop.

Charlie Robinson, hired 11 years ago as an electrician, said, “What appeals to me is that we’re not doing the same thing all the time. Today I might be running wire, another day installing wall panels. It’s challenging.”

Hentz joined when the company was in Edwardsville and called Illinois Transit Assembly Corp. It moved to Madison 15 years ago and became Gateway Rail Services under new ownership in 2003. Verbeeren has been president since 2008. The company’s offices and board room are in four old cabooses lashed together.

Verbeeren got his start in the trade right out of DePaul University in Chicago, when he was hired to work on excursion trains from Milwaukee. (He got the bug as a kid growing up two blocks from the old Pullman Car factory in south Chicago). In 1998, he founded American Rail Excursions, also based at the Gateway office, which organizes rail-car charters throughout the country.

Said Greve, “The charters have been great PR for Gateway’s business.”

Times have been better. Verbeeren said the company had twice the people on its payroll before the recession in 2008. On average, he said, it works on about a dozen cars a year, including some used by St. Louis Union Station for its Christmastime “Polar Express” day excursions around St. Louis. It usually takes a year to fully restore a track-worthy car. Depending on an owner’s taste and bank account, it can take much longer.

Extra jobs include contracts from the big railroads to refashion passenger cars into “geometry cars,” which are filled with sensors for checking track quality. He said Gateway had built six of them.

Gateway also has a contract to rework the six-wheel passenger car “trucks” used by the Royal Canadian Railway on its prestigious and expensive excursions through the Rockies. That must happen for all passenger cars every 40 years, Verbeeren said. His crew uses a heat-treating furnace to bend the massive truck frames back into line, then makes the surfaces smooth again. The shop is filled with the whine of grinders, the smoky odor of welding rods and bursts of sparks.

As costs go, owning a private railroad car is just a start. Verbeeren says it costs $3,000 to have a car delivered three miles from the shop to Union Station. There are strict rules for hitching a car onto the back of an Amtrak train for a trip, which costs $2.80 per mile, or more than $8,600 from New York to Los Angeles. (Frequent users get a 26 cent-per-mile discount). Overnight storage in Chicago is $509 per night. In Boston and New York, the cost to have a switching engine unhitch a private car from an Amtrak train is $336.

Borden Black, of Columbus, Ga., director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, said many of them frequently rented their equipment to businesses, excursions and other enthusiasts to help cover costs, which easily can run $10,000 annually. Black and her husband own a remodeled 1925-vintage car, and they hook it onto Amtrak whenever they can.

Expensive but worth it, Black said.

“There are so many obstacles, you have to be passionate about it,” said Black. “But it’s a relaxing throwback to more civilized travel. It’s the best way to see how beautiful this country is. Sitting on an open platform, you float through the landscape.”


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