Los Angeles Union Station isn't just a mass-transport hub. It's also a semi-retirement home for a cluster of vintage railroad cars that occupy the station's annex, also known as "the garden." Most of the trains won't move. A few get lucky and land the occasional film permit, scoring a cameo in a scene that calls for an old-timey train. Others, like the garden's newest residents, get facelifts and hit the tracks.
The American Railway Explorer is a group of three train cars, each named after a U.S. state: Kansas, Utah and California. They were originally part of the Ski Train, a 14-car passenger railway shuttle that transported Denver residents (mostly kids) 56 miles to the Winter Park Resort. The Ski Train ran from the 1940s until 2009, when the Canadian National Railway bought most of its cars, except these. Now, each of the three vehicles is available for charter at a rate of $5000 a day, not including Amtrak charges, liquor and food by the American Railway Explorer's exclusive caterer, Wolfgang Puck. Still, it seems like a decent price to travel back in time to the golden age of travel, if you have the money.
For nearly 70 years, Colorado's Ski Train would make a regular four-hour round-trip journey through 29 tunnels, including the country's highest -- the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel, beneath the Continental Divide. James Park, the same man behind the Eastern Oriental Express Luxury Train, has since redesigned the cars in the American Railway Explorer, which are now specially rigged to connect to the Amtrak trains that come through Union Station. It's all courtesy of Ansco, a unit of the Anschutz Corporation -- owners of the Denver and Rio Grande and Southern Pacific railroads (and the company behind L.A. Live, the L.A. NFL stadium plan, and countless other venues).
The Kansas features birdseye maple with marquetry inlays, Italian mohair upholstery and English carpets. It sleeps six, and it's the only one of the three cars with both a kitchen and a bathroom. The Kansas transported Hillary Clinton and other spouses of leaders attending the 1997 G8 Summit. They were mooned somewhere east of Berthoud Pass in Colorado.
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Oddly, the Utah is the American Railway Explorer's unofficial party car, with a full bar inside a parlor-style café-lounge, along with a kitchen and even more oddly, no bathroom. So if you want to be able to serve food and take care of business, you'll need to charter the Kansas or the Utah and the California together. You could also just ask your guests to hold it.
The California sleeps 16 and has a gorgeous upstairs area with a patented skylight-type dome. Together, the Kansas, Utah and California sleep 22 people, with a day-use capacity of 64. Of the three, the California is definitely the most stunning, but given its name, that should come as no surprise.