Los Angeles Times
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Monday, February 22, 1999

All Aboard for 1940s
Antique Rail Car Is One Man's Passion--and Passengers' Delight
By DAVID HALDANE, Times Staff Writer












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Boarding Bill Hatrick's railroad car is like stepping into a time machine.
     The lavish Art Deco lounge exudes the luxury of the 1940s. A bartender behind a wood-paneled quarter-circle serves cream sodas to the passengers. And beside the steward's room is what may be the country's last operating barbershop on wheels.
     "America has a secret love affair with trains," says Hatrick, 39, a sometime locomotive engineer and part-time mechanic from Santa Ana. "Deep inside," he says, "people love the railroad."
     Hatrick has spent 10 years re-creating what he sees as America's golden age of transportation, when the railroad reigned supreme. His Overland Trail, a restored coach that carries passengers once a month between Los Angeles and San Diego, is a dramatic alternative to riding the rails 1990s-style.
     "It was a different era," Hatrick says, "and that's what we're trying to sell."
     The longtime train buff began his sentimental journey during a stroll along a Barstow railroad spur in 1987. He spotted an old lounge car on the tracks. Later he ran across that same car in Anaheim and could not pass it by again.
     "My hand was shaking as I signed the contract," he recalls of his $20,000 purchase of Southern Pacific 2981 from a private collector. Though Hatrick had restored many coaches for other people, he had never owned one, and "it was the biggest purchase I'd ever made."
     His lounge car was built in 1949, when railroads were spending huge amounts of money to hold on to a traveling public being lured away by automobiles. It carried first-class passengers from San Francisco to Chicago until the early 1960s. For a few years, Hatrick says, SP 2981 was part of the Del Monte passenger train from Oakland to Santa Cruz. From 1966 to 1979, it served as a dance car for gamblers on the Reno Fun Train from Oakland to Nevada.
     "They put down linoleum and played disco where the bar was," Hatrick laments. "When I first saw it, the barbershop was a bare room being used for storage."
     Hatrick invested another $25,000 and thousands of hours refurbishing the car. Working from its original plans, he restored the Art Deco lounge, complete with tables and chairs custom-made from styles shown in old photographs. He reconstructed the bar, the murals and the barbershop, which he fitted with a chair and mirrors virtually identical to the originals.
     "That barbershop," Hatrick says, "is why I bought the car."
     Last month, Hatrick unveiled his project and invited the public to travel back in time. For $50, a passenger can go from Los Angeles to San Diego and back in the style of first-class travelers of the 1940s. (The same trip on Amtrak is $44 regular fare, $66 first-class deluxe.)
     Hatrick pays Amtrak $1,000 a trip to let him hook up his coach to a passenger train for a run that follows the regular schedule and makes the usual stops.
     Trips are on the second Saturday of each month, leaving downtown L.A.'s Union Station at 7:20 a.m. for the 2 1/2-hour journey down the coast. A second boarding is at 4:05 p.m.
     "Most people don't come for the transportation," Hatrick says, "but for the nostalgia."
     The mood is augmented by recorded music from the 1940s, $1 cream sodas, magazines of the period, service by porters in white dinner jackets and Hatrick in a vintage conductor's uniform. All that--and haircuts by an experienced barber for $5.
     On a recent Saturday, Ed Mazure of Huntington Beach was among the passengers relaxing in Overland Trail's blue lounge chairs. "This is unbelievable," says Mazure, 62. The commercial real-estate appraiser describes himself as a longtime train buff who crossed the country by rail several times in his youth.
     "I enjoy anything that reminds me of my era, and this is my era," he says. "I feel like a kid."
     Passenger W.K. Kalina, 84, a Whittier retiree who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad for 36 years, describes the coach as "right on the button" in its authenticity. "This is the way it was," he says. "Concentration on passengers was a priority--this was the way to go in those days."
     Another traveler, Roscoe Griffith, 83, of Lakewood, says he will definitely be traveling this way again. "It brings back memories," he says. "I like the quietness and the leisurely pace."
     Hatrick keeps operating costs down by getting his family involved. Wife Debbie works in the galley, and daughters Amanda, 10, and Christy, 8, help out by vacuuming before trips, decorating the tables with flowers and serving refreshments.
     Still, Hatrick says, given what he pays Amtrak, plus the $600 monthly fee for storing the car at Union Station, the enterprise is a strain on his budget. "It basically just covers expenses if we have a full car," he says of the coach, which holds 39 but has been attracting about 20 for each trip.
     None of that matters, though, to the man whose passion is old trains.
     "I hope that everybody comes away with a little bit of history," Hatrick says. "I want them to know what the golden age was like, when travel was more than getting from point A to point B. It was done at a slower pace, and getting there was half the fun."
     That message is not lost on a recent passenger far too young to have experienced railroad's glory days.
     "I'm flabbergasted," says Matthew Melzer of Woodland Hills. Already a devoted rail buff at 15, the teenager says he had taken lots of train trips but never anything like this. "It's totally unique," he says. "I love it. Everyone deserves to know what it used to be like."
     Overland Trail information: (800) 539-7245.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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