Chartering helps offset operating expenses. Owners say they can spend $10,000 to $50,000 a year to store a car and keep it in running condition. Amtrak, in addition to doing annual inspections, checks each private car on every trip. If a problem is uncovered, a car is uncoupled from the train for repairs, which can cost thousands of dollars. "A lot can shake loose because of the constant movement," says Elliott. Even when there are no mishaps, Dean Levin estimates that a one-way trip from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. can cost $2,000.
At the Union Station gathering, the rail car owners acknowledge the steep price of their hobby, but mostly they talk of the pleasures of owning vintage railroad cars. "It's a bit of fantasy," says Stephensen, "and a labor of love."