My friend Cristina Roman is doing a series of interviews with people who have unusual hobbies. She asked me to participate, based on my experience volunteering as a bartender on a 1930s railroad car.
The Dover Harbor is like a 90-foot long, 90-ton luxury bed & breakfast hooked onto the back of an Amtrak train. For passengers, it’s like something from an old movie, with beds that flip down from the ceiling, a comfortable lounge for enjoying hot meals prepared in our onboard kitchen, and a rear vestibule for waving at people along the way.
What prompted you to take up this hobby? How long have you been doing it?
A friend recruited me to volunteer on the 1930s Dover Harbor Pullman railroad car, as a way to combine my interest in trains, history, travel, and client service.
I’ve volunteered as a crew member since 2008, doing one to three trips a year.
I typically work as a steward/porter, our onboard client service role. My job is to work both in public and behind the scenes to create a memorable experience for our 8-24 passengers. This can involve everything from mixing drinks at 80 miles an hour to hauling 150 pounds of a ice a day from the Amtrak commissary to restock our kitchen’s original 1930s icebox.
What keeps you going back for more?
It’s a unique, behind-the-scenes experience, especially for me as a train enthusiast. There were once as many as 8,000 Pullman sleeping cars and dining cars operating around the U.S. on a daily basis. Today, the Dover Harbor is the only one left that still does regular mainline trips. And while there are about 100 private railroad cars restored to Amtrak safety standards, the Dover Harbor is the only one I know of that’s volunteer-run (the car is operated by a railroad preservation non-profit, the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Railway Historical Society).
There’s also a great sense of teamwork and camaraderie for the crew. We’ll usually have three people on overnight trips (a chef, a steward, and a mechanic), and up to seven people on day trips (a chef, a chef’s assistant, 2-3 stewards, and 1-2 mechanics). Everyone’s a volunteer, so they’re there because they want to be there, not because they have to be there. Our volunteers’ day jobs range from management consultant to landscape architect to IT manager.
Finally, we go to some interesting destinations. I’ve done trips to Montreal, Chicago, Denver, Savannah, New York, and more. The Dover Harbor hooks onto the end of Amtrak trains but we’re fairly self-contained. We can park on a siding and operate for a few days on our generator and water tank, with the car serving as our hotel. But as the early Steve Jobs biography was titled, “The Journey is the Reward.”
What are the biggest life lessons/takeaways you’ve learned through your hobby?
A lot of lessons! I’ve written an article about marketing-related lessons: “Marketing tips from mixing martinis as a railroad bartender.” I also gave a TED-style presentation in 2012, which you can see here: “How to create memorable experiences: What I learned from mixing Manhattans at 106 mph.”
As a marketer, the biggest lessons is a reminder that this is all about your customers, not about you. A Canadian tourist train, the Rocky Mountaineer, notes that for crew members it’s a job, but for passengers, it’s the “trip of a lifetime.”
What is the biggest/best thing you’ve learned about yourself through this hobby?
My role as a steward gives me an appreciation for the role of Carson, the butler on Downton Abbey.
When you’re volunteering as a crew member on the Dover Harbor, your job is keep things running smoothly and to always put the passengers first. This can mean sacrifices on your own part, whether it’s staying up to shine passengers’ shoes around midnight so they can discover them freshly polished in the morning or waiting to eat meals after all the passengers are done.
I think it’s worth it. After a day trip a few years ago, a passenger told me, “Today felt like going on a one-week vacation!”
Any advice/resources for someone looking to get into this hobby?
It’s fun but it’s also a lot of hard work. Working on a day trip means arriving the night before to get the car ready, and then getting up around 5am to prepare for passengers to arrive around 7am. You get breaks but the days are long. Overnight trips include layovers and involve fewer passengers at once, but because everyone’s in a 90′-long space, it’s a bit like living at work.
We have high standards for service. New volunteers do a stationary orientation at Washington Union Station or at our homebase in suburban Maryland, and then they do a day trip as an apprentice. There’s definitely a focus on on-the-job training. It took a year before I was ready to do an overnight trip as the solo steward. Even as I start my sixth year of volunteering, I’m still learning new things. Every trip is different in its own way, which keeps things interesting.
When it comes to volunteering on an operating private railroad car, you’ll be one of about 20 people in the entire world doing what you’re doing. We have onboard roles to appeal to almost everyone, whether it’s taking care of passengers, cooking meals for 10-30 people, or keeping the mechanical systems running smoothly.
Don’t want to travel to D.C.? We have plenty of other volunteer roles, ranging from ticket agents to marketers who run our email newsletter to grant writers. People can do the “remote” volunteering roles from anywhere in the world.
If you like some combination of train, history, and travel, you should consider volunteering on the Dover Harbor and our new cars, the Franklin Inn and Collinsville Inn. A full listing is on the Volunteer section of the DCNRHS website, and people can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credits: Lounge service photo by Bill Hakkarinen via DCNRHS