By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
The Napa Valley Wine Train recently added a new vintage to its collection: A restored 1952-53 Pullman boxcar that has been repurposed into a power-generating rail car.
The historic railroad — which has been transporting wine enthusiasts, train fans and tourists through California's Napa Valley since 1989 — entered the "Grappa Power Car" into service this summer to boost the train's power and help keep the air conditioning on for passengers' comfort during the three-hour, 36-mile trip from Napa to St. Helena, Calif., and back.
The train's services include wine tastings, gourmet meals and winery tour packages. The design of its latest car is unique in that it enables passengers to walk through a power car — and stop in the 40-inch hallway to look out the car's open-air windows at wine-country vistas — while the train is operating, says Chief Mechanical Officer and Trainmaster Walt Eastman.
The car went on line in July after an eight-month restoration project. The railroad acquired the boxcar from the Mare Island Naval Yard in the San Francisco Bay area. Wine Train officials named it the "Grappa Power Car" after grappa, a strong brandy made from the fermented residue of grapes after they've been pressed in the winemaking process.
A hybrid between a passenger car and a working power car with a generator, the Grappa car contains the head end power (HEP) unit, which controls the train's onboard electricity such as interior lights and air conditioning. Now, when the train reaches its northernmost point on its route in St. Helena, the engines are disconnected for the turnaround but the electricity stays on in the train, drawing from a diesel source in the car.
"By putting the power car in the middle of the train, we've got a little bigger generator than what we have in the locomotives and we are now using the generators in the locomotives for back-up power," says Eastland. "And by not dropping the power, the air conditioners stay running, customers stay in comfort, and we don't have the shock to the equipment of stopping and starting it all the time."
Crews installed a low-noise generator so that passengers could converse while in the Grappa car.
"We have a lot of passengers hanging out there and enjoying the open air," says Eastman.
The train's six original cars were built by Pullman Co. between 1915 and 1917. After acquiring them from the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. used the Orient Express, Andalusian Express and other luxury railroads as models to restore the cars. Today, the Wine Train’s cars are furnished with Honduran mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass and velveteen chairs.
Two of the other 1915 Pullman cars were built for the Southern Pacific as heavyweight passenger coaches. The Wine Train purchased those cars from the South Carolina Railroad museum. The train's "Vista Dome" car was built by Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Co. in 1959, and originally served on the Olympian Hiawatha line.
The railroad also owns four FPA-4 ALCO diesel locomotives, which were built in Canada at Montreal Locomotive Works in 1958 and 1959. In recent years, the railroad converted one of the locomotives to run on 100 percent compressed natural gas.
A few other footnotes in the train's history, according to the Napa Valley Wine Train website, include:
• San Francisco millionaire Samuel Brannan built the rail line in 1864. The California Pacific Railroad then owned it until the Southern Pacific bought it in 1885.
• The railroad played an important role in the economic and agricultural development of Napa Valley during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It provided regular passenger service in the valley until the 1930s.
• Southern Pacific abandoned the road's right of way between St. Helena and Calistoga in 1960, and eventually decided to sell the property in 1984. A citizens group formed the Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. to preserve the transportation corridor for future use. After Rice-A-Roni founder Vincent DeDomenico invested in the organization and became its president and CEO, it was able to acquire the rail line from Southern Pacific.
• After acquiring and restoring cars and locomotives, the Wine Train took its first trip in September 1989. DeDomenico died in 2007, but his family remains active in the company as board members, investors and shareholders. Granddaughter Kira Devitt is director of marketing and public relations.
Today, the Wine Train appeals to train fans as well as Napa Valley visitors, according to spokeswoman Catherine Chen.
"The train fans love the authenticity of our rail stock," she says. "Tourists love the authentic, memorable experience that echoes the glory days of train travel."
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