As far as Lovett Smith is concerned, the best way to see the country is by rail, and nowhere is the view any better than from the back of the New York Central 3.
An elegant business car built in 1928 for executives of the New York Central Railroad, the NYC 3 is still transporting people to different places, although not nearly as often as when it was part of the Empire State Express during much of the 20th century. Smith, a former manager with Union Carbide and now retired, purchased the car in 1992 for $240,000 from a railroad repair yard in Florida after it had been abandoned by Conrail in Altoona, Pa.
Following some serious refurbishing, Smith started offering people rides on his railcar, and for the past 15 years has been renting out the NYC 3 to anyone willing to pay the fare. Among the most popular routes is a three-day excursion from New York City to Montreal, and twice during July, Smith’s car hitched a ride on the back of an Amtrak train and made that trip, which includes a stop in Schenectady.
Labor of love
“There are some owners with real deep pockets who are filthy rich and have a railroad car instead of a yacht and a private plane, and then there are owners who need to supplement the cost of the car and travel by chartering it, and those usually form a corporation of some kind strictly for that purpose,” said Smith. “I’m in the latter category, and over the past 15 years there were some years where we actually made a little money and had to pay taxes. Most of the time, however, we don’t make money, but for me it’s a labor of love. It’s my form of historic preservation.”
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The car, which was routinely used by former New York Central president Harold Vanderbilt, sleeps eight comfortably, but for a typical Montreal trip Smith might take as many as 20 people along. Figuring out the fare is a little complicated, but Smith’s three-day expedition to Montreal earlier this summer ran his passengers around a combined $9,000.
“We had a group of 16 that we took to Montreal, and that was a pretty nice size,” said Smith, who lives in Brookfield, Conn. “If you eat and sleep on the train you’re covered, but obviously if it’s a big group some people make hotel reservations and spend the night there and pay for the room themselves. We have a bare boat fare where we let people bring on their own food and fend for themselves, and then we have a catered trip with meals prepared by chefs from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park.”
According to Smith, the trip north to Montreal with Lake Champlain on your right and the Adirondacks on your left is unforgettable.
“The view along Lake Champlain is as spectacular as anything you’ll see in this country,” he said. “It’s in the top five up there with the California coast, the Columbia River Gorge, and the trip from California to Denver. It is simply wonderful.”
Sometimes, the car is rented for a corporate outing, and on other occasions it’s a family reunion, birthday party or some other kind of special event. For Robert Ebling of Boston, the event was his 60th birthday celebration. A finance professional in the medical and banking field, Ebling began looking into the possibility of doing something special for his birthday, like a trip on a luxury railroad liner and liked what he found at VarChandra Inc., (a combination of Varina and Chandra, Smith’s two daughters).
“I estimated what I thought it might cost to rent a car, fully staffed, for 14 to 18 people for three days, and Smith’s cost was only 75 percent of my estimate,” said Ebling, who ended up taking the New York to Montreal three-day excursion. “So I quickly drove from Boston to see the car and we immediately shook hands and set the dates. I didn’t even negotiate the price, which is my normal business practice.”
Occasion made special
And how was the experience?
“Our guests were all family or lifelong close friends, and It proved to be an absolutely outstanding event and memory,” said Ebling, who along with his gang pulled out of New York City at 8:20 on a Friday morning and pulled into Montreal about 8 that night. “The car rides very, very smoothly, and the scenery along the west side of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River is just spectacular. The cost was surprisingly reasonable. So I would hope others might take the plunge and share a similar experience.”
While Ebling was fulfilling a lifelong dream, Smith, an Oregon native, has been reliving his childhood. His father was an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
“After a few promotions, my father got to high enough level in management that he was able to take me in the office car and we would go all along the route, the whole system, inspecting the tracks, checking on derailments and things like that,” said Smith. “Traveling around with my dad was great fun. I would always think back on that time and say how I wanted to do it again.”
Smith doesn’t make every trip the NYC 3 takes, but he’s on quite a few of them.
“I wouldn’t just give the car to a stranger and let them take it away,” said Smith. “We’ll have at least two people on every trip, and one of them will know the car mechanically, as well as all the Amtrak rules. Then we’ll have another qualified person in the car, and between the two of them they’ll be able to solve any problems that come up, as well as serve as genial hosts to our guests.”
A popular spot on the NYC 3 is the rear platform, where passengers can get a great view of the countryside whizzing by, sometimes at 100 miles an hour.
The rear platform, however, was also often the focus of attention, as was the case when Adlai Stevenson used the car to travel around the country during his presidential campaigns in 1952 and ’56. At every stop, Stevenson got out and spoke to potential voters from the rear platform, and while the NYC 3 may not attract the same large audience it did when Stevenson spoke, it remains a real crowd pleaser. Ebling found that out when on his trip the train stopped in Rouses Point, the final stop in New York on the way to Montreal.
“Many of the townspeople came out to observe the train because our very official-looking car was flying U.S. and Canadian flags,” said Ebling. “I’m sure they were certain that either President Bush or Vice President Cheney was on board, and ironically we did have a passenger who’s a near perfect twin of Dick Cheney.”
Although Cheney wasn’t on the train, if you do see the NYC 3 out on the rails, there’s a good chance you might recognize one of the people standing on the rear platform.
“Along with some presidential candidates, we’ve had rock stars rent the car and just recently we had a very big opera singer [Cecilia Bartoli] who took the car from New York to Los Angeles,” said Smith. “There are a number of well-known personalities who don’t like to fly, or they’re just sick of everything you have to go through at the airport.”
Along with the two visits to Montreal this summer, Smith recently came back from a 19-day trip to northern Minnesota.
“The demand varies. So we might do between 10 and 12 trips a year, but when you have a 19-day ride through Minnesota or a trip to the West Coast that takes up some time,” said Smith. “I have no aversion to flying, but this has been a wonderful experience, and now that I’m retired I try to do as many trips as I can. We’ve had over 185 trips now and gone over 300,000 miles, and my family’s been able to do a lot with me. At times, my kids have worked the cars for me. So I was able to do for them what my dad did for me.”