The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
© February 25, 2013
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The Grand Canyon Railway
Written by Jim O'Connor
M y wife, Lynn, and I took some time in September 2012 to visit the Grand Canyon. Of course, it was the perfect excuse to take the Grand Canyon Railway. We flew into Phoenix, Arizona on a Tuesday and drove up to Sedona for the night. After we hiked and toured the Red Rock area (the Roadrunner would have felt right at home), it was on to Williams, Arizona in the late afternoon. Williams was, and still is, the jumping off point for the Grand Canyon Railway. In the old days, famous Route US 66 went right down main street.
Today, Williams does a great job of marketing that fact to the tourists with retro Rt. 66 gas stations, taverns and tee-shirt shops. I wanted to check out Williams upon arrival, but that would need to wait. The Grand Canyon Railway operates a hotel adjacent to the railway station and we needed to check in and have dinner. The hotel was nice, modern, and rather simple and functional. We had purchased the First Class package (there are 4 classes: coach, first, observation dome, and luxury parlor class) that included 2 nights at this hotel and one night at a hotel up at the Canyon. We also had dinner vouchers that evening for the railway's buffet restaurant, though there are plenty of dining options in downtown Williams with a bit more character if you haven't paid voucher already.
The railway's hotel in Williams. expedia.com photo
The buffet was nice and the food was above average with a nice variety and plenty of it. After dinner I was eager to check out the old western town of Williams. I was not disappointed. There were plenty of opportunities for people watching and a live musician at one of the el fresco dining establishments. We sat outside listening to the music and sampled the output from a local microbrewery until after dark.
Wednesday morning we were up a little early and packed our bags. We needed to take them to the hotel lobby for transfer to our train. Then on to the buffet for a relaxed breakfast and coffee.
There's a short wild west show at 9:00 AM to help gather the passengers and keep them busy while the train backs into the Williams station for a 9:30 departure. The show is fun. We sat in the bleachers as the actors joked and shot each other with blanks in front of an Old West facade. The moment the show is over there's a call on the PA system that it's time to board the train to the Canyon. We are adjacent to the train platform so it's a quick walk to find our train. We couldn't help but notice that on track 2 is a static display of the Grand Canyon Railway's locomotive #29, an Alco SP3 2-8-0.
The Railway pulls most of its trains with diesel power and runs steam on a few selected weekends. The steam trips fill up well in advance and we couldn't book one. Today's train was being pulled by an Electro Motive F40PH diesel acquired from Amtrak.
We find our train car and our cabin steward. As we pull out of the station headed to the Grand Canyon we notice 2 cowboys from the Wild West show on horseback waving goodbye. It's little touches like that one that make this a fun trip. Our first class accommodations on board include snacks and soft drinks (hard drinks are an extra charge). I do my best to demolish the cheese assortment.
Lynn found a copy of the "Territorial Times" newspaper published by the railway at our seat. It contains articles about the history of the Grand Canyon National Park, the Fred Harvey story (creator of the "Harvey Girls"), and the history of the railway.
The ATSF (Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway) began passenger service on a newly completed 64 mile branch line that ran from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in September, 1901.
Originally designed to transport ore, passenger service became popular and much more profitable in the days before the interstate highway system. For under $4.00 you could take the train (the other option was a much longer and less comfortable stagecoach) directly to what quickly became one of the leading tourist destinations in the US. The Grand Canyon Depot was built only a few hundred feet from the rim.
The Grand Canyon Railway ceased operating in July 1968 due mostly from competition from the automobile. Santa Fe continued freight service on the line until 1974 when the tracks were abandoned.
In 1988, the line was bought by Phoenix, Arizona investors and restored and the following year began operations as an independent railroad. In 2006 the Xanterra Corporation purchased the railway and its assets (you'll see the Xanterra logo on almost everything at the Canyon, since they are the official vendor there).
The Grand Canyon Railway acquired and ran steam locomotives (augmented by diesels) until 2008 when it was announced that, for environmental reasons, the railway would discontinue steam service to the Canyon. I don't know what happened next. I do know that steam rail fans were not happy. I suspect the general public wasn't happy either. For whatever reason, the railway found the answer in "bio-diesel". That's a product that comes from recycled cooking oil and other recycled products. By burning "green" fuel in place of fuel oil in the steamers, all would be happy. So after only a year without them, steam locomotives returned to the Railway in 2009.
Our trip to the Canyon takes a little over 2 hours. The scenery is very interesting with old ranch buildings, corrals, and loading platforms along the route. The land is rough and mostly flat, but some areas are rocky and other areas are wooded. We spotted some coyote and pronghorn in the distance.
To help pass the time, there are several entertainers on the train. They do about a 20 minute show in each car.
Before long, we slow as we enter the congested Grand Canyon Village area. Our train enters a "Wye" and turns around before we back into the depot around noon.
That train headed back to Williams at 3:30 but our package included a night at the Canyon. We didn't have a car as we left our rental car back at Williams. The park service discourages automobile traffic as much as possible anyway. Free shuttle buses are provided for travel to the major locations along the South Rim. Generally not crowded, on occasion there may be a wait for a ride. The shuttle bus system takes you from the hotels and shops at the village to hiking trailheads and various Canyon vistas.
Our Railway package included a short private bus tour with a local tour guide. He stopped at a couple of hiking spots and we got a chance to stretch our legs for the first time all day.
Our package also included an overnight stay at the Maswik Lodge up at the Canyon. Shortly before dark, we headed over there and checked in. Our bags had already been delivered to our room. We headed over to the lodge's crowded pub for some pizza and beer for dinner.
Thursday we got an early start, packed our bags (bag transfer back to Williams is included) and caught a motor coach to the Visitors Center (a couple of miles east of the Village) and hiked a few trails along parts of the South Rim. Did you know there is a continuous "Rim Trail" that traverses 13 miles of the South Rim? We walked several segments of the trail that morning.
Following lunch at the delightful Bright Angel Lodge restaurant, we checked out the little shops and buildings along the rim at Grand Canyon Village.
Our train back to Williams departed at 3:30. Jeanne was our steward on the way back. She was a real rail fan. She told us she even named her dog after her favorite locomotive, Mikado.
I don't remember much of the trip back. Train rides are relaxing and napping on one is wonderful. I do remember that we had the same entertainer on the way back as we did on the way there, as well as more refreshments.
We stayed the night at the railway's hotel back in Williams again. On Friday morning, a steam train to the Canyon was scheduled. We made sure to be at the depot early to watch it pull in.
At around 9:00, Locomotive #4960 and her diesel helper (#4960 can't generate the watts necessary to power the air conditioned cars without help from the diesel) slowly backed into the Williams depot with the load of heavyweight passenger cars. Steam fans and cameras were swarming the station.
The Grand Canyon Railway runs a steam train only 6 weekends a year. Don't miss out, plan your trip well in advance.
Written by Jim O'Connor
photos by Jim O'Connor unless noted otherwise
© Discover Live Steam
Watch this related video "Steam To The Grand Canyon"
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The On-Line Magazine of Ridable Model Railroading