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Alas, the Luxury Train Tour of Western National Parks Won't Even Leave the Station


If you had your heart set on spending upwards of $1,500 a day on a luxury train tour of national parks next year, you'll have to settle for either Amtrak or your own rig. It turns out that this project isn't leaving the station.

Backers of the American Railway Explorer had expected to begin riding the rails between Crater Lake, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks, among others, next year, with packages proposed to start at roughly $900 a day and which could have quickly climbed to $1,500 a day.

What would you get for those costs? The Denver-based railroad was promising "world-class food, comfortable on-board accommodations, and memorable on- and off-train experiences."

Initially bankrolling the project was billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose company in the fall of 2008 bought Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates lodgings in Yellowstone, Death Valley, Crater Lake, and Zion national parks, as well as the Grand Canyon Railway that runs from Williams, Ariz., to Grand Canyon National Park.

However -- and perhaps not too surprisingly, in light of the fares -- the company has derailed the project. Without explanation.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall, though. The American Railway Explorer had purchased some of its rolling stock from The American Orient Express, which also offered luxury train travel to national parks but which reached the end of the line in August 2008 when its owners filed for bankruptcy. Its rates, for comparison's sake, ranged from $620 to $927.50 per person per day for an eight-day journey to Mount Rainier, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks.


The American Orient Express reportedly made money for several years before being sold two times to subsequent owners. It is now known that the last owner was on sketchy financial ground due to his other business ventures prior to the purchase of the AOE. Each sale would presumably raise the capital required to service the debt on the purchase price and therefore either cut into the bottom line or cause fares to increase. In the meantime freight railroads and their lawyers have been demanding greater insurance protection from potential passenger injury lawsuits. The Denver - Winter Park (Colorado) Ski Train was killed off last year by Amtrak and UP demanding $400,000,000 in insurance from the potential operator. Combined with a reported >$13,000 per trip charge for the 67 mile trip with the operator providing cars, locomotives and fuel made the new Ski Train a non-starter.

The two biggest problems with the passenger rail business are outrageous insurance demands due to out of control lawsuits and the freight railroads not wanting to give up any track time from much more profitable unit trains of coal, grain, containers...the commodities that haul in $3000 to $5000 per hour of track time. I can't blame the management and stockholders on the latter but we can only blame the ambulance chasers for the former. The AOE teamed up with Amtrak to create the only train on the system on which Amtrak turned a profit. Ultimately, the case could be made, Amtrak may not have wanted a private operation out there making money when Amtrak has been running a cash burning machine for years.

Phil Anshutz is a businessman with a golden touch. He has teams of people to run the numbers and watch the trends. He rarely makes a misstep and that is how he took his father's +/- $600 millon and turned it in to several billion dollars. The fares for the new American Railway Explorer were most likely set at a rate which would return a fair profit on the investment. When the freight railroads, Amtrak, insurance carriers and a pile of ambulance-chasing lawyers all wanted their cut up front, it was no doubt less expensive to pull the plug than pay the price.

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