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Amtrak decided to sell off its unrefurbished Pacific Parlour Car #39971 in the early 2000's; it is currently in storage outside of St. Louis, Missouri. This is the only former Santa Fe Hi-Level Lounge that did not stay in operation through the Pacific Parlour Car retirement that Amtrak implemented in February 2018.
There has been a lot of speculation on various rail enthusiast websites about what happened to the Pacific Parlour Car that Amtrak sold off in the early 2000's... including where #39971 is currently located... and what condition it is in. For the re-launch of PacificParlourCar.com, the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation decided to investigate. You may be really surprised at what we came up with!
Before we get to that though, a brief history lesson. The Santa Fe built a total of six Hi-Level lounge cars during the mid-1950's and ran them in service on the historic El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles (and eventually on the combined El Capitan / Southwest Chief).
A model of Santa Fe Hi-Level Lounge Car #576, which would later become Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car #39971. (Courtesy: BrassTrains.com)
When Amtrak took over in 1971, it continued to operate the Hi-Level lounge cars on the same route, just on the re-named Southwest Limited and Southwest Chief. It wasn't until enough Superliner Sightseer Lounges could be built in the mid-1980's that Amtrak was able to move these cars off the Southwest Chief and on to other less scenic routes. The Sightseer Lounges were the "new" cars at the time with the bigger windows, and Amtrak wanted these cars on the Chief. The Hi-Level lounges continued to operate through the early 1990's as "See-Level Lounges" on other routes like the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. Their apparent demise was considered only after the second order of Superliner cars (often called "Superliner II's") were delivered.
The exterior of Amtrak "See-Level" Lounge Car #39971, as it appeared during the mid-1980's. It appears much like this today, except with a Pacific Parlour Car plate on the exterior.
A view of the interior of Amtrak "See-Level" Lounge Car #39971 as it appeared in-service during the mid-1980's. The inside of the car was never renovated like the other five Pacific Parlour Cars, and it appears in this configuration today. Note the Christmas lights strung up; many attendants did this to add to the ambiance.
The ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level lounges looked like they might be either sold off or scrapped by early 1994. But, in stepped Amtrak Executive Brian Rosenwald. He knew the meaning of "Superior Service" and hatched a plan to save these historic cars. During the mid-to-late 1990's, all six of the cars were designated as Pacific Parlour Cars. They would serve as an exclusive first class lounge for passengers on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. Only five of the six cars though went through an extensive refurbishment where the 1980's lounge interior was replaced with dark wood paneling, eight purple recliners, bench style seating with cocktail tables, booths, and a non-enclosed bar. Amtrak figured only five of the six cars needed this new interior refurbishment -- as, given the Coast Starlight's schedule -- only four cars would be in-use "on the rails" at any given time. This allowed for one refurbished spare and one unrefurbished spare to be kept in the car roster. Amtrak chose #39971 as the car it would not refurbish because it was reportedly in the worst shape. Since parts of the ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge cars were hard to come by and had to be specifically manufactured, the long-term idea was to keep #39971 as a "parts car", that parts could be taken from over the years to place on the five refurbished cars.
A few years later, by around 2000 and for whatever reasons, Amtrak decided to sell off the unrefurbished Pacific Parlour Car... as it was rarely being used. Some reports have said the money raised from the sale of this car partially went towards the costs of refurbishing the other five cars, too. This would be mark the first time in 44 years the ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level Lounges would not be together as part of the same fleet.
After sitting around Amtrak's Beech Grove yards for a few years, the Hi-Level Lounge #39971 was purchased by David Hoffman in 2003. David was a successful Wisconsin State Highway contractor who was always interested in private rail cars. In 1992, David purchased Northern Sky and Northern Dreams; today he continues to operates these cars through Northern Sky Rail Charters. Taking inspiration from cruise ships and classing touring trains, David outfitted a 1955 dome observation car and a '50s sleeper into a pair of matching companion cars. About 15 years ago, David planned to expand his fleet of cars when he purchased #39971 along with four other former Santa Fe Hi-Levels (two transition cars and two coach cars) from Amtrak. We spoke to David from his winter home in Arizona for this article in mid-February 2018. He mentioned that shortly after his purchase, his cars and many of the other Hi-Levels bought by other private car owners were taken by a freight train from Beech Grove, Indiana to the yard at Gateway Rail (formerly Illinois Transit Assembly) in Madison, Illinois (just outside of Saint Louis). That is where #39971 has remained every since. You many notice that while the car number has remained the same from its Amtrak days, its reporting marks became "PPCX", which belongs to the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO).
Author Robert Tabern stands in front of the "sold off" Pacific Parlour Car #39971 in Madison, Illinois.
The Pacific Parlour Car logo is still on the car, just quite dirty and faded.
Amtrak wording is spray painted over in black and part of the seal around the window is coming off.
Sadly, funds and time just were not in the cards to allow for the refurbishment of David's new Hi-Level collection. He mentioned that there has been a lot of interest in the Hi-Level lounge, including some offers to purchase it -- however, he says it's not for sale by itself -- a potential buyer would have to purchase all five Hi-Levels that he bought in the initial purchase from Amtrak in 2003. David also mentioned to us that one of the challenges with #39971 is the fact it has no bedrooms and no bathrooms; this means potential extensive renovations would be needed if it were to run by itself in private long-distance rail car service.
For the record, David said that he most definitely did NOT purchase the five Amtrak Pacific Parlour Cars (that Amtrak pulled from service in February 2018) and has absolutely no intentions to do so. He also says he has not heard yet, who, if anyone, has purchased them. So, no hopes all six cars will be back under the same owner... at least for now!
Gateway Rail has an affiliation with American Rail Excursions. Luckily for us, American Rail Excursions is one of the private rail partners for the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation's Rail Rangers program; our Interpretive Guides volunteer their time to present on board educational programs on AME's private rail excursions. Being the Executive Director and Chicago Coordinator of the Midwest Rail Rangers we were given exclusive access to both the interiors and exteriors of the Hi-Level private rail cars that are parked at Gateway Rail, including former Hi-Level Lounge/Pacific Parlour Car #39971. Along for this special meeting/tour was APRHF President Bob Cox, APRHF Treasurer Amy Cox, and their daughter Karri Cox. With that said, Gateway Rail is a business NOT a railroad museum and absolutely DOES NOT offer tours to the public, groups, or individuals. We were granted this extremely rare access to their cars because we volunteer our time doing narration on their private rail excursions. Please enjoy this report and photos, but do not call or contact Gateway Rail and ask for permission to see their equipment; only pre-qualified buyers of private rail equipment are usually ever allowed onto the property.
Upon our arrival, our guide, Roger Veerberen brought us right to the ex-Hi Level lounge car/Pacific Parlour #39971 that we want to see for this article we were doing about the retirement of the Pacific Parlours.
Time and weathering has not been friendly to the #39971 Pacific Parlour Car; it is kept outside in the elements.
Author & Executive Director of the Midwest Rail Rangers Robert Tabern stands outside the car on a brisk winter day.
APRHF President Bob Cox does the honors of unlocking the door on Car #39971.
Let's move to our collection of photos of the interior on the upper level of ex-Pacific Parlour Car #39971:
This is the end of the Pacific Parlour Cars where booths and the dark-wood bar have been installed in the refurbished cars.
Another view of the interior of Car #39971 - the far end by the door would be where the purple swivel chairs would have been placed.
The area where the single tables are on the left side is where the buffet rack was installed on the refurbished Pacific Parlours.
This is the area where the eight purple swivel chairs would have been placed if the car was refurbished.
A photograph of another book case on the car; again this area was replaced with the purple swivel recliners.
Note the book case against the stairs where purple swivel chairs would have gone.
The orange-colored storage area is where the bar would have been built had this car been refurbished.
Another shot of the enclosed bar area that would have replaced by the wooden bar in the refurbished cars; note the "Christmas lights" - this is left over from many attendants who would put these up in the car from time-to-time.
Even the menu is still in place on this car from its days in service as a lounge car on Amtrak, perhaps as a back-up Pacific Parlour on the Starlight?
Amtrak's numbering of #39971 is still on the sliding door of the car.
Author and Midwest Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator is excited to check out this piece of Santa Fe and Amtrak history.
APRHF Treasurer Amy Cox also enjoys exploring the old Pacific Parlour Car and getting some photos.
The walkway that one would normally pass through on the refurbished Pacific Parlour Cars to head into the Superliner dining car.
Authors and Rail Rangers Managers Robert and Kandace Tabern stand together inside Pacific Parlour #39971.
How about the downstairs? Let's take a look -- this is where the real Santa Fe comes out!
Amtrak 1980's orange and brown abounds as we walk down the stairs to the lower level of the ex-Amtrak #39971.
The door and window are secured to prevent trespassers from gaining access to the car.
We were absolutely stunned to find remnants of the Santa Fe still on the lower level of the car!
Yes, the original glass from the Santa Fe has managed to stay in-tact -- they were removed on the refurbished Pacific Parlour Cars.
A view of the downstairs bar area -- this was turned into the movie theater on the refurbished Pacific Parlours.
We couldn't leave the downstairs without taking one more shot of the historic Santa Fe glass still there! We love it!!
Now that we have seen what the un-refurbished Pacific Parlour #39971 looks like -- how about some side-by-side comparison shots between this car and its refurbished siblings so you can REALLY see the differences in the nice improvements Brian Rosenwald's team did when these cars went into service on the Coast Starlight? Here are five "before and after" shots we came up with for you:
We also found some other ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level "gems" at Gateway Rail we thought we would share with you:
Also on property were several former Santa Fe Hi-Level dining cars; like the lounges -- only six were made! According to records that we found, it was purchased from Amtrak by Phil Sheridan & IFE Leasing. In about 1985-86, when enough Superliner Dining Cars were built, the Hi-Level diners were re-made into a half diner/ half lounge and served on the Desert Wind. In the summer months, they ran between Los Angeles and Denver on The Desert Wind. They also were used on the San Joaquin's at about the same time. Later, they were on the Capitol Corridor trains when the California Cars were first delivered because the 8800 diners were about a year behind the coaches & cab cars. They disappeared when the California lounge cars were delivered and the Desert Wind was discontinued.
Inside one of the former Amtrak & Santa Fe Hi-Level dining cars.
Part of the conversion done to make the Hi-Level Dining Car into a combined diner/lounge.
Author Robert Tabern inside one of the converted dining/lounge Hi-Level cars.
Another view of the converted lounge area.
Looking back at the counter from one of the lounge seats in the converted Hi-Level lounge/diner.
Exterior of another Hi-Level ex-Santa Fe and ex-Amtrak Dining Car #39980. Our records show this was owned by Phil Sheridan and Les Kasten.
Even some of the damaged/derailed ex-Santa Fe and Amtrak Hi-Level equipment is out here!
An ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level Coach/Dorm Car and many other Hi-Levels parked at Gateway Rail.
Stepping back in time -- the interior of numerous Hi-Level coaches are decorated with 1980's Amtrak seats and curtains.
Our gracious guide to the Santa Fe Hi-Levels was Roger Verbeeren of Gateway Rail and American Rail Excursions. It is an honor for the Midwest Rail Rangers to provide on board educational programs on many of Roger's private rail trip.
So, what's going to happen to all of these Hi-Level cars currently being stored at Gateway Rail? That remains a big "To Be Determined" right now! There has been some buzz in recent years that a company called Corridor Capital, based in Chicago, may be interested in purchasing many, if not all, of the Hi-Levels. Some plans propose completely gutting the interiors, but keeping the car shells, and making modern passenger rail cars out of them. This probably wouldn't bode well for the original glass in the bottom level of #39971 or the aging "Pacific Parlour Car" sign on the exterior, but it would give the ex-Santa Fe cars a new life. Corridor Capital appears to be aggressively targeting states, such as Indiana in the past, to get contracts to refurbish these cars -- but there have been no major moves reported as of the release of this article. Our e-mail to Corridor Capital for this article also went unanswered.
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