In 1948, passengers strolled down a red carpet in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and boarded the 20th Century Limited, a gleaming streamliner bound for Chicago. Furnished with overnight compartments, art deco detailing, and white tablecloths in the dining cars, print ads billed the experience as a ride on “the world’s most famous train.”
More than 70 years later, two refurbished railway cars—one from the 20th Century Limited, and a second vintage car from the same era—are returning to the rails this summer and fall. Options include service from New York City to Albany—traversing a portion of the original midcentury route—as well as along the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
The Hudson River Rail, New York
The New York route is called the Hudson River Rail, which is returning for its second year after launching last September. It’s run by the United Historical Railroad Society of New Jersey, which plucked the meticulously refurbished vintage cars from the nonprofit’s collection of railroad equipment.
History is taken seriously aboard these trains. Think staff attired in vintage Pullman uniforms (plenty of passengers break out their own retro finery), a curated soundtrack featuring 1940s and ’50s jazz, and fresh flowers on the tables, just because the original railway cars had floral arrangements, too. It all channels an era when train travel was considered something special.
“We’ve tried to make it the same as it was back in 1948, as much as is practical,” says Kevin Phalon, president of the railroad society.
This time around, travelers will depart from Penn Station’s new Moynihan Train Hall—not Grand Central—at 11:20 a.m. (Tickets include access to Amtrak’s exclusive Metropolitan Lounge starting at 10 a.m.) Affixed to the tail end of Amtrak’s Empire Service, the train takes you on a 2.5-hour journey each way, with an “intermission” at Albany-Rensselaer station. The return trip leaves at 4:30 p.m. and arrives in NYC around 7 p.m. Compared to 2021, the number of Hudson River Rail trips has doubled, with Friday trips added to weekend dates in June, as well as late September and October.
The luxury-class Hickory Creek car is at the very end, with a “lookout lounge” to make the most of the oversized picture windows. A four-course meal with beer and wine is included in the price of the ticket ($349). Meanwhile, the lounge-class Tavern-Lounge No. 43 features lounge seats for 28 passengers and a buffet-style meal ($149). This car is BYOB; stewards will keep wine or beer chilled and serve guests at their seats. (Hard liquor is discouraged, so keep that antique flask stashed away.)
New this year: The Hudson River Rail has added the option to purchase tickets for a group, such as renting an entire car for your history-minded cosplay squad or a family reunion. In part, this was inspired by a group of retro enthusiasts who last year bought out an entire car, Phalon recalls. “One brought a vintage phonograph, and they started listening to records on the train.”
The cars also will be available for special events, like private events or corporate outings, on weekdays (Monday through Thursday) during June and October.
Looking ahead, Phalon hopes to make the vintage cars “a permanent fixture” in New York.
The Autumn Colors Express, West Virginia
In mid-October, these two vintage rail cars will move to West Virginia, where they will run for four trips along the New River Gorge between Huntington and Hinton as part of the Autumn Colors Express.
Pulled by an Amtrak engine, the Autumn Colors Express is made up entirely of privately owned vintage railway cars from around the nation assembled solely for this seasonal excursion. That means, in addition to the vintage train cars from NYC, you can also book passage on a former Santa Fe Big Dome car or one of the last remaining Skytop observation parlor lounges from the Milwaukee Railroad.
Because this train is operated by a separate company, the ticket prices are a bit higher than the NYC excursions ($599 for the Hickory Creek car, and $299 for the Tavern-Lounge No. 43). Those prices include the round-trip fare, a shuttle from a hotel in Huntington, breakfast and dinner on board, and nonalcoholic drinks.
The trip departs from Huntington, West Virginia, at 8 a.m., with a second boarding point in Charleston, West Virginia, at 9 a.m. From there the train travels along the New River Gorge, stopping from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Hinton, West Virginia, where riders can attend the Hinton Railroad Days Festival and have lunch on their own before returning to Huntington in the evening.
Sure, you can take a similarly scenic ride on a modern-day train (Amtrak’s Cardinal line also runs between Huntington and Hinton, while the Empire line includes a daily route between NYC and Albany). But these classic cars are a reminder that the railways were once considered a pleasant, even upscale way to travel.
“We don’t have this anymore—that’s why we do it,” Phalon says. “For those who get to ride, our job is to bring you back in time and show you how it was to travel when it was as good as it ever was.”
How to book
For the Hudson River Rail, tickets for the Hickory Creek car ($349) and Tavern-Lounge No. 43 ($149) go on sale at 10 a.m. ET on April 22 at hudsonriverrail.com. Note: Last year the tickets sold out in two minutes flat.
For the Autumn Colors Express excursions, tickets are already on sale at autumncolorexpresswv.com. To book the 20th Century Limited rail cars, look for the “Hickory Creek - Chairman” car ($599) or the “NYC 43 - Lounge” car ($299) at checkout.
Spring/Summer Departures—all Hudson River Rail (NYC–Albany)
- June 3, 4, 5
- June 10, 11, 12
- June 17, 18, 19
- June 24, 25, 26
- September 30, October 1 & 2 – Hudson River Rail
- October 7, 8, 9 – Hudson River Rail
- October 20, 21, 22, 23 – Autumn Colors Express (West Virginia)
- October 28, 29, 30 – Hudson River Rail