The Past Is Back on Track


Some people soup up cars. Others collect model trains. But a small group of Orange County enthusiasts have found a way to combine the two: They buy or sometimes lease classic rail cars, refurbishing and storing them along a small stretch of Metrolink railway in Anaheim.

Less than a mile from Ball Road, hidden behind a stretch of warehouses, five such cars are kept. There, Burt Hermey of Costa Mesa walks down the narrow aisle of his California Zephyr sleeper car. The 1948 "Silver Rapids" is a work in progress. The plumbing needs attention. The '70s-era pink paint and upholstery need replacing. And the brakes and air-conditioning system need overhauling.

Even though it sometimes feels like more trouble than it's worth, Hermey, 48, will slowly and methodically get through each task. "Any of us who get into these things do it as a labor of love," he said.

In June of last year, Hermey and a partner leased the car from its Chicago owner. He struck a deal to pay for the $45,000 in improvements himself. But he'll recoup the expense easily, he said, because when the rail car is properly restored, he'll offer it for charter and keep half the profits.

Hermey previously refurbished and chartered another California Zephyr, the luxurious "Silver Lariat." The rail cars at this spot are self-propelled and the owners usually act as the operators on a trip.

John Caestecker, 43, of San Clemente owns a Denver Zephyr dome car parked along the same stretch of tracks. He purchased it for $90,000 in 1997, started in on refurbishment and expects to put another 3 1/2 years and $250,000 into the project. But Caestecker says the hobby isn't just for the wealthy: People "with all kinds of pocketbooks" can purchase classic rail cars for as little as $5,000.

The hobby becomes similar to restoring an old home. "You get all the joys and headaches of the restoration process," Caestecker said.

His interest in rail cars followed a childhood fascination with model trains. That's how most classic train owners get into it, he said.

"Almost all of us had model trains as children or young adults," Caestecker said. "But it gets to the point where you get tired of fussing around with tweezers and glue."

Not that Caestecker isn't still fussing. These days the challenges revolve around glass, the interior and electrical work.

In another Anaheim spot, near Vermont Street, three more rail cars are parked, two in running condition.

Rod Basich, 68, operates a Canadian National business car from the Vermont tracks. It is the third rail car he's refurbished since 1975. He's chartered the car for trips across the country. A man from New York wanted to show his two adopted children the U.S., Basich said. And a woman from Idaho flew her husband to Los Angeles to celebrate his 60th birthday with a train ride.

For train buffs, a trip in a classic car is well worth the $6,000 per trip they may shell out.

Carol Voss, 64, of Salinas chartered Hermey's "Silver Lariat" to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary. When she was 12, Voss traveled from Oakland to Chicago in an original California Zephyr. She saved snapshots, menus and her $100 ticket from that trip, and remembers the beautiful scenery and friendly "Zephyrettes"--the train stewardesses.

"For somebody who was 12 years old and loved trains, it was incredible," she said.

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