The Grand Canyon Railway currently operates two trains daily to transport passengers between Williams, Arizona, and the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Now the Park Service is considering whether to allow the owner, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, to add a third daily train carrying up to 1,046 passengers as well as an evening excursion trip from the South rim carrying up to 322 passengers.
The National Park Service has strongly supported the train service option for South Rim visitors because it cuts down on vehicular traffic and reduces related traffic congestion, parking problems, and air pollution. (The latter problem at Grand Canyon compels the GCR to seasonally switch from steam locomotives in the warm season to diesel electric in the cooler months when frequent temperature inversions inhibit circulation and stagnate the air.)
The Grand Canyon Railway has a venerable history at Grand Canyon. Inaugurated on September 17, 1901, train service to the South Rim was offered for nearly seven decades before being suspended in 1968. The popularity of auto travel had soared, and interest in train travel had waned.
The GCR resumed operations on September 17, 1989, exactly 88 years to the day after the inaugural run. Max and Thelma Biegert, a husband-wife team of entrepreneurs, had stepped in and saved the GCR in the nick of time; the railroad’s previous owner had already begun to tear up the tracks for salvage. Putting the business back together again was not easy or cheap. Among other things, the Biegerts rebuilt the tracks, restored the historic depots at Williams and the South Rim, and reconditioned two vintage 1906 and 1910 steam locomotives.
Over the years, the GCR has accumulated quite a roster of notable passengers, including John Muir, quite a few presidents (including Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower), a goodly number of Hollywood celebrities (Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, etc.), and some of the wealthiest people on the planet (Warren Buffet and Bill Gates).
GCR passenger volume has increased substantially in recent years. About 175,000 Grand Canyon visitors rode the train in 1999, but by last year train riders numbered 230,000 (a 31% increase in eight years) and accounted for a little over 5% of the park’s 4.4 million annual visitors.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Grand Canyon’s primary concessioner (operating at the South Rim as Xanterra South Rim, LLLC), purchased the Grand Canyon Railway in 2005. The big company -- largest of all the park concessioners in the National Park System -- has since promoted train service to the South Rim very aggressively.
The National Park Service is inviting comments about the proposed rail service expansion. Visit this site for details. (Accessing this site may be problematic due to server problems.) The deadline for public comments is October 4.