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Midwest Rail Rangers on TrainWeb: Rosenwald Returns to the Pacific Parlour Cars

Midwest Rail Rangers - Rosenwald Returns to the Pacific Parlour Cars

A Article by the Midwest Rail Rangers, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization presenting onboard educational programs on the South Shore Line and private rail excursions across the Midwest


Robert Tabern - President, Midwest Rail Rangers &
Kandace Tabern - Educational Officer, Midwest Rail Rangers

Published: November 7, 2019

(from left to right): Midwest Rail Rangers Educational Officer Kandace Tabern, Midwest Rail Rangers President Robert Tabern, and Brian Rosenwald, former Amtrak executive responsible for the preservation and renovation of the Pacific Parlour Cars in the mid-1990's. 
Taken October 13, 2019 at the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in Trego, WI.

In our last TrainWeb article (released September 16, 2019), you may have read our article about the history of Santa Fe's Hi-Level lounges on the El Capitan (which operated 1956-1971). These cars continued to run in Amtrak service for another 47 years --- including 23 years as Pacific Parlours on the Coast Starlight. Much to the chagrin of those who loved a classy train experience, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson made the decision to remove the Pacific Parlours from service in early February 2018. In October 2018, Amtrak put out an e-mail to private railcar owners across the country asking those interested to put their bids in for the five available Pacific Parlours --- #39970 "Columbia Valley", #39972 "Napa Valley", #39973 "Santa Lucia Highlands", #39974 "Sonoma Valley", and #39975 "Willamette Valley". In March 2019, the owner of the Wisconsin Great Northern was informed that his railroad would be receiving #39972. After making the necessary arrangements to transport the car up from Indiana (where it was being stored at Beech Grove) on CSX and Canadian National freight trains, the car arrived up at the WGNRR on July 11, 2019.  For much of the summer and early fall... what is now known as Sky Parlour "Namekagon View"... has been used twice per week on Sundays for a wine and cheese train. It features both local Wisconsin wine and cheese options for passengers; some trips even feature a quick talk from a winemaker. The only real change in design to the interior was the return of a bathroom to the car (there were originally two, but Amtrak removed them during one of the 1980's re-builds). When word got out that Northern Wisconsin was now home of a former Pacific Parlour Car --- almost all departures of the car on the WGNRR in August, September, and October quickly became sold out.

A rare early season snow storm hits on October 13, 2019... providing a beautiful picture of the Wisconsin Great Northern Sky Parlour

Passengers enjoy wine and cheese... and good company... on the Wisconsin Great Northern Sky Parlour Car

The wine and cheese train bring back a lot of memories of the wine tastings on the Pacific Parlour Cars

On Sunday, October 13, 2019... we had the unique and rare opportunity to head up to the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad and conduct an in-person interview aboard the Sky Parlour Car with Greg Vreeland, owner of the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad... and his special guest, Brian Rosenwald, the (now former) Amtrak executive who ended up saving the Santa Fe Hi-Levels from the scrap pile in 1994 and transforming them into the much beloved Pacific Parlour Cars.  We filmed the whole 45 minute interview --- and hope to release an edited version of the video sometime over the spring on our website... .. and on the website of the Wisconsin Great Northern...  Meantime, here is brief summary of some of the things that were discussed that morning:

First, we sat down with Greg Vreeland, owner of the Wisconsin Great Northern. He explained, "One of the things I like to do at the Wisconsin Great Northern is to have a variety of equipment that people can ride. Some railroads like having all of the same equipment --- or having all of the colors on the exterior of their trains match. That's not what we are about here at the Wisconsin Great Northern. We want people to experience a variety of different eras and passenger equipment when they come out and ride with us. And for that reason --- I decided to put a bid out on a former Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car when we got the sheet from Amtrak in October 2018. We don't have any other Hi-Level cars on our railroad. I had never ridden on a Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge car or Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car before, but did learn a lot by reading the Midwest Rail Rangers' website at, and from visiting some of the Hi-Levels (one lounge and multiple diners and coaches) that remain parked at a storage facility outside of St. Louis, Missouri. I never thought we would actually be the winning bidder... I just put in what I could afford and hoped for the best."

Midwest Rail Rangers President Robert Tabern (left); Wisconsin Great Northern Owner Greg Vreeland (right)

Wisconsin Great Northern Owners --- Greg. Mardell, and Alexander Vreeland; family owned and operated since 1997!

Wisconsin Great Northern Owner Greg Vreeland serves up some wine and beer on the Sky Parlour Car

"The best" (as Greg puts it) -- no doubt happened. In fact, we can't think of a better home for one of these special cars. The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad remains the only place in the country that offers regular rides on a former Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge... or ex-Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car.  Two of the other cars (#39970 and #39975) were awarded to the Steam Railroading Institute of Owosso, Michigan... however... from what their management told us, the cars are currently only running for a few weeks as part of their Polar Express train in December. The two other former Pacific Parlour Cars (#39973 and #39974) remain at Amtrak's Beech Grove maintenance facility where they are set to leave soon to head to an undisclosed bidder (several Amtrak employees have told us the winning bidder lives in Texas and will use them for private office cars.)

Greg also added, "I have had several private railcar owners contact me and congratulate me on the winning bid. Then, they asked me if I was just going to use the former Pacific Parlour as a private car for myself and my family to ride on. While I could certainly do that --- that is not why I purchased it. I want to share the special experience of riding on a Hi-Level lounge with the public. That is why we are going to offer even more experiences aboard in 2020." (NOTE: The WGNRR Wine and Cheese Train wrapped up operations for the year on Sunday, October 27th... with service set to resume again between May and November 2020. Watch for schedule updates at

Author Kandace Tabern enjoys views from the Sky Parlour;
out her window is the Namekagon River, part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverways

Beautiful fall colors abound at the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad; the best way to see them is in the Sky Parlour Car

Next, we chatted with Brian Rosenwald, who now calls Chicago home, after working for many years in Los Angeles, California as an Amtrak executive. Brian actually started off his career as an Amtrak reservations agent in 1973... and quickly worked his way up through the ranks. For a period of time, he was in charge of services on the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder.

Brian explained, "What a lot of people probably don't know --- is how much of my personality went into these cars. For example, when I was young... I lived in Chicago... and would often ride on the Santa Fe's El Capitan to visit family out in New Mexico. We would never ride the all-sleeper Super Chief... we would always end up taking the El Capitan. And I remember riding in the former Santa Fe Hi-Level lounges and how special that was going over locations like Raton and Glorieta Passes. When I heard these lounge cars were just sitting at Beech Grove being prepared to be either sold off or scrapped... I knew they would be the perfect fit for a first class lounge car for the Coast Starlight.  My bosses at Amtrak gave me the green light to go ahead and try it out --- and it was no doubt a hit. Sales for sleepers outpaced that of coach with the introduction of the Parlour Car... that did not happen on any other long distance train anywhere in the system. Anyway... wine has always been a big part of my life... and that is why we specially trained LSAs (Lead Service Attendants) to do the afternoon wine and cheese tastings in the Pacific Parlours.  Going north, we would offer California wines while going along the Pacific Coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The next day, we would be in the Willamette Valley around the same time in Oregon... so we would feature Oregon and Washington State wines. It was to complement what people were seeing out their windows and where they were on the journey."

Brian Rosenwald gives tours to passengers of the former Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car at the Wisconsin Great Northern

Memories abound with former Amtrak executive Brian Rosenwald as he tours a former Pacific Parlour Car

Brian Rosenwald explains to Wisconsin Great Northern passengers about how he was able to save the lounge car in 1994

Brian shared many stories of designing the Pacific Parlours... and what it took to get them to the beautiful cars that we see now.

Brian mentioned, "When we got the cars from Beech Grove to turn them into Pacific Parlours --- they were in really, really rough shape. Before they were Pacific Parlours, they were what was called See-Level lounges. They were in service on the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited... and were tired... they were not taken care of very well during the late 80's and early 90's. So we really had the work cut out for us. I'll admit we went way over budget too when refurbishing the cars.  We ran into a lot of unexpected things... one example was as installing the theater on the lower level requiring re-enforcement of its ceiling. New piping was also required. That drove up the costs of the Pacific Parlours by a few hundred thousand dollars each. We tried to combat that a bit by offering people the chance to eat their meals in the Pacific Parlours... instead of the dining cars. Every time people chose to eat in the Pacific Parlours versus the dining cars --- the Pacific Parlours would actually get credited the food amount sold... and that was one of the things we did to keep the cars going for as long as they did. Wine sales also helped to show these cars were not costing some at Amtrak as much as they thought."

We also asked Brian the question that many rail enthusiasts and Pacific Parlour fans probably have been wondering ----- What does he think of Amtrak's February 2018 decision to get rid of the Parlours? His answer... he wasn't surprised.  Brian mentioned that there were at least four times during his tenure at Amtrak (between the car's launch in 1995 and his retirement in 2013) that other high-level managers tried to get rid of the car. Some of the biggest resistance faced came from the mechanical department. The Pacific Parlours were definitely different that the traditional Superliners --- and required special parts to be made when something broke. Parts had to be specially made when needed; they could not be made in advance and stored like they were for the much more numerous Superliners. This led to many of the Pacific Parlours being taken out of service for months on end.... when something like the air conditioning went down. This... along with the congressional mandate to cut costs... and Brian's retirement and lack of a replacement to champion for the cars... led to their removal.

Brian concluded by saying, "I'm really glad some of the cars ended up in good hands... like at the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad. Greg has done a fantastic job here and offers a true first class operation where people can still come out and enjoy what these cars were all about... especially with the wine and cheese trains."

Pacific Parlour Car "mastermind" Brian Rosenwald helps Midwest Rail Rangers Educational Officer Kandace Tabern pick out that perfect glass of wine

What an honor to be seated at the same table as the person who designed the Pacific Parlour Cars!

A book about the history of the Pacific Parlour Cars is available online at or at the Wisconsin Great Northern gift shop

The downstairs theater features a 13 minute movie about the history of the Pacific Parlour Cars; it was produced by the Midwest Rail Rangers

The Sky Parlour Car will once again host passengers starting in Spring 2020. On select weekends throughout 2020, Interpretive Guides from the Midwest Rail Rangers will be hosting special talks and "open houses" aboard the car --- where more than 50 pieces of Santa Fe and Amtrak memorabilia will be on display. The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad is located about 2 hours northeast of the Twin Cities, about 5 hours northwest of Milwaukee, or about 6 hours northwest of Chicago. The Midwest Rail Rangers is proud to present our onboard educational programs on a former Pacific Parlour Car in conjunction with the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad.

A new 52 page book by the Midwest Rail Rangers is now available!
It features information about the car's days as a Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge car and Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car.
It is available at or at the gift shop at the Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad.

We hope you enjoyed this article/trip report from Midwest Rail Rangers on If you did, we hope you are also interested in learning more about the Midwest Rail Rangers. We are an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides on-board educational programs on private rail excursions, Amtrak coach charters, regular runs of the South Shore Line on select weekends, and we make appearance at various outreach events such as TrainFest and MadCity Rail in Wisconsin. Our group of experienced Interpretive Guides have also written a series of railroad route guidebooks, e-books, and MP3 podcasts for the various passenger train lines across the Upper Midwest and across the United States. Check out our website at for more information and our listing of upcoming excursions and trips!


Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad's Website


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