Recently, I was able to participate in the 20th anniversary of the Grand Canyon Railway, which operates daily round trips from Williams, Ariz. to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. There were bands playing at the depot prior to boarding, speeches delivered by the owners and local politicians and crowds watching the festivities. There was even a Wild West show, which featured an old-time shootout play, with the audience seated in bleachers taking in and photographing the action. The morning was bright and sunny. Soon, we heard a steam whistle and I glanced down the track and coming into the station was a steam engine pulling a 13-car silver streamliner. It slowed to a stop, the brakes were set and attendants put down the steps at the ends of each rail car to allow the passengers to board the train.
The distance from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon is 65 miles. This section of track was completed by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1901. The depot was completed in 1908. By this time the Grand Canyon was beginning to get attention from all over the United States as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Santa Fe Railroad took advantage of this early press and built the rail line to the south rim. They also constructed the noted El Tovar hotel, which still stands and continues to be open on a year-round basis. Tourists would come by train from the Midwest and East on the Santa Fe and detrain at Williams for a connection to the south rim. This provided travelers with a safe and comfortable method to see the (then) remote geologic wonder.
After World War II, the automobile was greatly improved both in the area of comfort and convenience and by the mid 1950s most travelers preferred the independence of their cars for domestic travel. Highways were also greatly improved, permitting speed with comfort. Famed Route 66 gave entry into Williams, Ariz., which connects with Highway 64 running north to the south rim. Slowly but surely, rail traffic fell off to the point where Santa Fe closed the Grand Canyon rail line in 1968. It remained so until 1989.
In the 1980s a couple interested in the West, Arizona and railroading began looking at rebuilding the line from Williams to the south rim. The line had severely decayed due to hot summers and cold winters. Max and Thelma Beigert continued their interest and finally decided to rebuild the rail line, depot and hotel. It was completed in 1989 and the first train departed to the canyon that same year.
When Mr. Beigert reached the tender age of 80 in 2007 he sold his holdings to the Xanterra Company, which is the largest park management company in the nation. Their national park operations include Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Everglades, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Death Valley, the Petrified Forest, Crater Lake, and they manage still other locations.
They also took over the holdings of the Fred Harvey Company. Only two months ago it was announced that Xanterra had purchased the rolling stock of the former Grand Luxe Railway Company, which gives them the equipment of what was the finest train in America. It had been the famed American Orient Express before being renamed Grand Luxe. This train set had come from the finest streamliners in America that were placed in service in the 1940s and ’50s. Some of the cars were from the celebrated Twentieth Century Limited which whisked travelers from New York to Chicago in 16 hours and provided them with the highest level of service, luxury and food. Rumor has it that this luxury train will be completely rebuilt and be used in travel to the national parks.
Most of the equipment used in the Grand Canyon Railways train set was built by the Budd Company in the 1950s for streamliner service on the nation’s rail system. Some of the dome cars were first employed on the greatest scenic train in our country, the California Zephyr.
The Grand Canyon Railway has completely rebuilt this fine, sturdy equipment into modern, efficient rail cars that are very comfortable with pleasing interiors, seats with plenty of leg room and lavatories in each car. Many have a buffet dining area at the end of the car. My personal favorite rail cars are those with the domes allowing you sit on the second level surrounded by glass in reclining seats to get the best views of the passing countryside.
The Grand Canyon train offers several classes of service daily. Coach class; first class which provides a complimentary buffet of snacks and beverages; observation class featuring the dome seats, along with appetizers and champagne in the afternoon; and luxury parlor class which follows the grand tradition of great trains of the past with comfortable seats, a variety of snacks and champagne. At the end of this car, which is the last on the train, is an open-air platform where you can step outside and breathe the high country air and take some fantastic photographs.
The train is constructed of stainless steel and is silver from beginning to end. It’s beautiful.
The 20th year celebration train I recently enjoyed was made up of 13 cars and three engines. Two were modern diesels and on the front, as part of the celebration, was an early 1900s steam engine (#4960), a former Burlington product, which was completely rebuilt by the Grand Canyon Railway in their own shops in Williams. It now burns re-constituted vegetable oil which has come from french fry cookers at McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants. Some say it smells a little like french fries being cooked as the engine rolls through the country side. I understand it is a very environmentally clean burn for a steam engine. The railway spent over a million dollars to convert it to burn vegetable oil.
Now, to the actual day-to-day operation: the train runs daily round trips from Williams, Ariz. to the south rim of the Grand Canyon departing now at 10 a.m. and arriving at the canyon at 12:15 p.m. The railway offers a selection of coach tours to visit, with ease, the stupendous sights. Some of the tours include lunch. If you are not taking an organized tour you have plenty of time for lunch at a selection of restaurants and for walks along the paved paths along the canyon rim. There are several fine photo locations from which to capture the ever-changing beauty. Train boarding for the return to Williams is at 3:15 p.m. and it departs at 3:30 p.m. for a 5:45 p.m. arrival at the depot in Williams.
During your time onboard, in each direction, are western singers who move through each rail car entertaining passengers with songs. Some even take requests. Onboard each car is an attendant who will provide interesting information regarding the scenery and amenities and can answer questions you may have.
The railway has a very fine hotel located next to the Williams train depot, which offers standard rooms and suites. It has a bar, functional rooms for groups and next-door to the hotel is a large restaurant serving tasty food buffet style. Eat all you want for a set price. This is a great arrangement for families. Packages are offered that not only provide the round-trip rail ticket, but also one- or two-night stays at the hotel, with meals included. Prices vary depending on the season of the year.
The Grand Canyon Railway will begin its eighth season of carrying children, their families and friends on the magical journey from Williams to the “North Pole” in November. More than 74,000 passengers are expected over the coming holiday season. It takes a little more than an hour-and-a-half for the early nighttime adventure. The train consists of old rail cars that have been re-furbished, but look like the train set used in the Tom Hanks movie of several years ago. The Polar Express Train leaves from the Williams depot at 6:30 p.m. each evening through the holidays and travels to a brightly lit set designed to appear to be the North Pole. The children see Santa and his helpers as they wave to the passengers. Upon departure, Santa comes aboard and presents each child with special gift. I understand seats for these special “Polar Express” trains are selling fast. Two years ago we took the young grandchildren and they had the time of their lives. We enjoyed the package, which included the train and hotel, plus meals. Your children and grandchildren will never forget their time on the Polar Express.
You may contact the Grand Canyon Railway by calling 1-800-The-Train for information and reservations. The entire experience is fun for all.