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Pullman revives sleeper-car service of bygone days

Jane Engle

Do you dream of taking a train to the past? A new company hopes to rekindle the romance of rail travel with historic Art Deco-style cars, old-fashioned berths and service that it claims will recall the fabled Pullman porters.

Starting Friday, Chicago-based Pullman Sleeping Car Company, LLC, plans to run regular overnight trips between Chicago and New Orleans on cars once used by the defunct Pullman Company, which operated sleeper cars in the U.S. during much of the 20th century.

Dating from 1917 to the 1950s, the cars have been restored, at a cost up to $1 million each, and retrofitted with showers, Wi-Fi and other modern conveniences, said Ed Ellis, president of the new company’s parent, Iowa Pacific Holdings, LLC, which runs passenger and freight operations in the U.S. and England.

Pulled by Amtrak trains, the cars will have their own conductors and porters. Although onboard service won’t adhere precisely to the old Pullman guides, which set specs on every task from making beds to serving a bottle of beer, it will be “in the sprit of what Pullman did, which was to make sure there was guest satisfaction,” Ellis said.

The company, he added, is shooting for the “the kind of service you saw in ‘North by Northwest’ or ‘Some Like it Hot,’ “ 1950s films that featured glamorous stars’ adventures aboard trains of the era.

In a retro touch that mirrors these movies, the modern-day passenger service, dubbed Pullman Rail Journeys, offers open sections, with upper and lower berths that can be booked separately by friends or strangers. Each berth has a privacy curtain that can be buttoned or zippered shut; bathrooms are down the hall. The open section is the least expensive of several options, which include bedrooms with private baths. Depending on the type of accommodation, the 19-hour journeys are regularly priced from $600 to $1,710 per person each way. (Two so-called pre-inaugural runs, Oct. 29 and 31, were offered at half price.) Prices include the train fare, meals, alcoholic beverages and around-the-clock bar and café service, Ellis said.

Although higher than typical sleeper fares on Amtrak, the Pullman prices include more amenities, such as liquor. And here’s a big bonus for anyone who has squeezed into an upper berth in an Amtrak “roomette”: Pullman’s beds are at least 14 inches wider than Amtrak’s, according to Ellis.

So far, seven Pullman Rail Journeys round trips are scheduled through Dec. 21. How are sales going? A company spokeswoman said, “we are receiving bookings daily for all departures” and that some trips are sold out, although she declined to provide sales or occupancy figures, citing company policy.

Recent history has not been kind to fancy rail service in the U.S; American Orient Express and its successor, GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, foundered financially. But citing Iowa Pacific Holdings’ wide experience with passenger rail, and fares that fall short of the luxury level, Ellis said he believes Pullman Rail Journeys will stay on track.