SPECIAL REPORT: Derailed

SPECIAL REPORT: Derailed

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – Owning a car is one thing but one Columbus couple owns a large railroad car, taking people across America in their piece of history.

Years after starting this journey on the tracks, they say they're being driven out of business or derailed by Amtrak, which they describe as a "taxpayer-funded monopoly." Now, the railroad corporation is answering back.

"It's like a cruise on land. Everybody has a bedroom and there's common space," describes Borden Black of Columbus, private railroad car owner. "You can sit out on the platform and it literally feels like you're floating through the countryside."

Black and her husband Nelson McGahee just took a group of people from Georgia to Boston on the rails. They rode in their 85 foot long 190,000-pound railroad car that this couple owns. They bought the railroad car 12 years ago on eBay, spent a lot of time and money on upgrades, then took it on the tracks in 2012.

Black tells us, "It's an experience and it's the way people used to travel."

And they've traveled far and wide in one of America's 200 privately owned railroad cars - theirs called The Dearing, named after the Georgia town where Nelson's grandfather worked as a rail station agent.

"We have run (on their railroad car) virtually all over the country - from Portland Maine to Seattle to Los Angeles to Miami, and many places in between," McGahee said.

They describe their 1925 car as a luxurious "hotel on wheels" where you have a double or queen bed, a lounge, and a 3-course meal with wine.

The typical price is similar to a high-end cruise, possibly $2500 for Chicago to Boston. It may be half that price on an Amtrak train, but experts say there's less privacy, a tinier room, and not necessarily fine dining.

"They (Amtrak) have allowed private cars to be hooked to standard scheduled passenger trains, and we pay them by the mile," Black said. "By the time you're done, you've put almost a million dollars into a railroad car."

Now, she says that dream is being squashed by Amtrak's new administration. Black told News Leader 9, "In March, they suddenly started making a bunch of very restrictive regulations."

One example, they said, is cutting in half where private rail cars can hook on and go, without notice or input from railroad car owners.

Other changes in the last few months, as expressed by the Columbus couple: large increases in mileage charges and cancellation fees; cutting meals on some long-distance trains; and $850 per day additional crew fee.

Amtrak's executive vice president testified just a few months ago before a US Senate committee:

"Our aim is to improve, as Congress has directed us, improve the economic performance of the national network, obviously focused on keeping our service," Amtrak executive VP Stephen Gardner said to US Senators.

Black argued: "They've taken one thing after another thing...They're driving off their passengers, and we see it as the beginning of the end for the cross-country rail, and we were just the first nibble."

"Cities who are not served by air service or bus service...rail is their only in and out opportunity," McGahee said.

"Such a sad thing to see this historical tradition and these family businesses be put in peril," Congressman Sanford Bishop (D) said.

Local Congressman Sanford Bishop from Georgia wrote a recent letter to Amtrak about the "negative ripple effect" their changes would have on tourism, businesses. The railroad corporation's CEO wrote back, they support private cars, but "we cannot inconvenience 300 paying customers on a regularly scheduled Amtrak train to pick up or drop off a private car."

"It is frustrating that it will be a form of transportation that will no longer be available or will be seriously diminished across the nation," McGahee said. "Georgia would be without any rail passenger service."

The company's response to News Leader 9: "Generally, Amtrak will no longer operate charter services or special trains. It is difficult to justify the cost and operational resources. Our focus remains on running a great core railroad: safe, on time, clean cars, friendly service."

"It's not the private cars making them (Amtrak) late," Black, defending private railroad car owners.

Congressman Bishop added, "Amtrak is publicly funded and I would think they have an obligation...to be supportive of these privately owned cars."

These cars, as a whole, estimated to bring in $10 million to Amtrak's bottom line.

"We hope that the senior leadership at Amtrak will open up and listen," McGahee told us.

"It's put mechanics out of business, suppliers, insurers," Black explained.

She also reminds us, the railroad has and can be an important part of America's defense, as it was during past wars; during 9-11 when planes were grounded; and during severe weather like blizzards, when trains can still go.

"We don't want to quit. We're continuing to fight it through our Congressional delegation," Black said about what's next.

Borden and Nelson say, for their Dearing Railroad LLC to stay in business, they may do more short trips and stationary events where they show off their railroad car, which is currently parked in Savannah.

Again, part of Amtrack's argument is they say charter services or special trains provide limited revenue.

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