David Thebodo searches all over the country for vintage rail cars and cabooses.
Very few things capture the imagination like trains, especially around the holidays. Almost every tiny holiday village display has a train, and toy train sets have been coveted Christmas presents since the 1830s. Trains seem irrevocably entwined with Christmas in our popular imagination, so it’s no surprise that a real caboose might figure in someone’s wish list.
The discerning rail car customer looking for a caboose, passenger car, freight car, or locomotive contacts the Rail Merchants International in Fairfield. It’s a specialized division of Anderson Steel Flange Railroad Equipment Company that David Thebodo started over 25 years ago.
In and out of Fairfield since 1974, Thebodo fell in love with the community and was looking for a way to stay. With two business degrees and a background in metalsmithing, he perked up when he found out the Anderson Steel Company was for sale. “The place came with a metal shop and an old foundry, so I thought by combining the two, I could make a living.”
Thebodo started focusing on rail cars because they were one of his main sources of scrap metal. He added a specialized division, the Rail Merchants International, to better facilitate the marketing, buying, and selling of deluxe passenger rail cars throughout North America and the world. Thebodo finds the rail cars, saves them from being scrapped, and finds new homes for them. A member of various rail car organizations, he keeps an ear out for possible finds. “It just breaks my heart when I get there too late and they’ve already cut up the car for scrap,” he says.
Some vintage cabooses are turned into retail establishments or B&Bs.
Thebodo says many of his buyers are women looking for a structure to make into a B&B, a guest cottage, or a retail store. He’s even helped convert some rail cars into ice cream stores. Buyers generally have a past connection with the railroad—a father or grandfather who worked for the railroad, or even a childhood love of trains. “Every guy has a mistress,” Thebodo says, “and her name is nostalgia.”
While he does get a lot of inquiries about rail car purchases for holiday gifts, very few follow through. “People call about them for Christmas, but realize it’s expensive to move them,” Thebodo says.
Buying a rail car is a big investment. A caboose can go for anywhere from $10,000 to $18,000, depending on its condition and how far away the buyer lives. Private rail cars have a much higher price point of $350,000 and up. Dome cars sell for $1,500,000. Thebodo remembers one lady who bought her husband a caboose and had it shipped out to Nevada in time for Christmas. Thebodo is sure her husband was pleased, but doubts it was a surprise, as she had to lay down tracks to get the caboose to their house.
“I think one of the things we do is enable people’s dreams,” Thebodo says with satisfaction.
Thebodo also sells a lot of rail cars to movie producers. “Hollywood loves trains,” he says. “We sold six of them a few years ago to the Disney Company for The Lone Ranger.” Thebodo also sold full-sized Long Island commuter cars to be used in Transformers 3. He helped move the cars to Detroit for the movie shoot, and got to watch as they were lifted up into a building to create a post-apocalyptic ambience.
Part of his job involves consulting, as well as escorting train cars for private individuals and rail companies. He keeps an eye on things during transit, in case of mechanical failures. Recently, one of Thebodo’s train cars was used as a set for the independently produced film The Last Tree Standing, written and directed by the winner of the David Lynch M.A. in Film Scholarship Award.
Thebodo has many stories to tell about the fates of his rescued rail cars, and truly loves the adventure of finding and restoring old rail cars. “The most fun,” he says, “is finding these cars.”
For more information see Rail Merchants International.