“There it is …” His voice trailed off. It was late afternoon in October; the Dinky was waiting to make its next 5-minute jaunt to campus. In a flash, all of it was gone, and our view out the expansive windows returned to the suburbs and industrial warehouses of the Northeast Corridor.
The train we were on was not part of New Jersey Transit. We couldn’t exactly say we were taking Amtrak, either — not in the normal sense, because our car had a sofa, six bedrooms, four booth tables, and a full kitchen, plus a dedicated manager-chef named Gerry. We were riding the NYC Swift Stream, French’s private railroad car, hitched to the back of Amtrak’s Crescent train on its way from New Orleans to New York. By the time we passed Princeton, French and five friends had been on the train for nearly a day and a half. The Crescent, normally a 27-hour ride, was running three hours late.
For the passengers on the Swift Stream, a passenger coach built in 1949 by the old New York Central Railroad, the delayed arrival was by no means a setback for their trip. In fact, this was their trip. French was bringing his car to New York so it could be stored over the winter in Whippany, N.J., on the Morristown & Essex freight line — and the next day, he planned to fly back home to Birmingham, Ala. Private railcar trips are not cheap — French said that for this trip, he was paying Amtrak somewhere in the range of $3.50 per mile — and so it functions less as a house on wheels and more as a mobile vacation home that he uses two or three times a year. He sees it as a great way to spend quality time with friends and family. “It’s like a big RV that you can’t take quite as many places,” he jokes.
When he’s not riding the Swift Stream, French is in charge of Dunn Construction Inc., a road-building business that’s been in his family for generations and that got its start, well before he was around, building railroads. He was a concentrator in civil engineering while at Princeton — a good fit for someone who, all his life, has been interested in the different ways people get from one place to the next. “I like travel and transportation in general,” he says, and railroading provides a special bonus. “You can really see the countryside in ways you can’t when you fly or take the interstate.”
He’s not the only one who feels this way. The American Association of Private Railcar Owners (AAPRCO) estimates the number of private railroad cars certified to run on Amtrak today hovers around 80. But that number is getting smaller by the year, as Amtrak increases prices for things like distance or parking and tightens restrictions as to where these so-called “yachts on rails” can go in a perceived attempt to end the practice for good.
For now, though, French is still able to take the Swift Stream pretty much wherever his family — or a private group charter — wants to go. He’s been all around the South, north to Kansas City, Chicago, and New York, up and down the California coast, and many other places in between. All with the smell of the railroad in the air, the world flashing by his window, and a cherished “yacht on rails” rumbling beneath his feet.