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Trainmaster, Bob Hicks, AOE and GrandLuxe


GrandLuxe Train Sale

A visit to the GrandLuxe Train in the heart of California’s world-famous Napa Valley wine country.

December 3, 2008

Report and Photos by Carl Morrison,

Trainmaster Interview and Interior Photos

After photographing the exterior of the 20 GrandLuxe cars for sale in American Canyon, CA, and some 'Boxcar Art' on the adjacent track, I met Trainmaster, Bob Hicks, for an interior tour of the GrandLuxe cars.

IMG_9050.jpgBob and I hit it off from the get-go, since we're both from the midwest and have the same easy-going demeanor.  He welcomed me, after my walk along the 20-car consist of the GrandLuxe, into the most unique car of the group, the observation-lounge car New York.

Bob has a long career in railroading, following his father.  He spent 33 years as engineer, conductor, Passenger Operations Manager, among other jobs.  He started with AOE in 2003, and has 6 years with these cars as Trainmaster.

The GrandLuxe is being sold as more than these 20 cars, there are 11 more cars at their shops in Lupton, Colorado.  These extra cars used to be part of the Second AOE train that ran as AOEI, Blue Unit, and AOEII, Red Unit, but have been used for parts to keep these 20 cars road worthy.

We talked about the history of these cars and I learned that AOE ended their association in 2006 (the same year Sue and I took a trip on the east coast on the AOE).  GrandLuxe started operating these cars in 2007, and here we are at the end of 2008 at the sale of these cars. The final operation of the GrandLuxe Express was between Chicago and Oakland for a month a year ago.  These were "Limited" trips with 6 cars on the back of the California Zephyr.  The operation was successful, but there were no crew breaks for the crew at the end of each leg, so it was a hard operation for them, unlike the California Zephyr crews who got a break after each leg.  The consist on these "Limited" trips, an experiment with Amtrak, was the diner Seattle and 4 coaches.  Ridership was good and, as you know, this trip in November and December was beautiful with snow much of the way.

The GrandLuxe operated much like AOE when they first took over the cars, with trips such as:

Spring:  Antebellum South, Transcontinental Rail Journey, Napa to Albuquerque, and National Parks of the West.

Summer:  National Parks of the West, Albuquerque to Seattle/Tacoma Area.

Fall:  Great Northwestern National Parks, Seattle Area to San Francisco Bay Area, Rockies, Sierras and Napa, San Francisco Bay Area to the Copper Canyon.

Winter:  Mexico's Copper Canyon.

Then they went to the "Limited" trip experiment with Amtrak mentioned above.

I am always asked, "Why did the GrandLuxe go up for sale?"  I did not learn the answer to this question from Bob, but in the excellent book, The GRANDLUXE EXPRESS, Traveling in High Style, by Karl Zimmermann, ISBN 978-0-253-34947-7, I did learn this:

Since the mid 1990s, freight railroads have merged and become significantly busier.  This increased pressure on track capacity has made them often inhospitable hosts--either shunning the AOE completely or saddling it with hopelessly inconsistent timekeeping.  Track capacity and traffic density, locations suitable for secure overnight parking and servicing and endless other factors often got in the way.  There has been an ebb and flow of itineraries, with some falling by the wayside for lack of patronage or the unwillingness of freight railroads, on whose tracks the AOE would have to run, to host.   The development of new routes is a complex task, typically taking well over a year.  In addition, ongoing itineraries have been repeatedly tweaked--to make them better, but also out of operational necessity or for cost savings.  The GrandLuxe is akin to cruise ships, fated to roam the country for long periods without making it to home port.  GrandLuxe Rail's shop facilities are located in Fort Lupton, Colorado.  If major mechanical problems crop up en route, the train is at the mercy of the local shops belonging to Amtrak or one of the host freight railroads, which, happily, have generally served it well.

The term "Cruise Train" started with the original California Zephyr in the sixties.  Not until the American Orient Express became  firmly established in the late 1990s did the cruise-train concept reach maturity.

This posh, nomadic train largely abandoned the transportation function that originally was passenger railroading's raison d'etre.  "Getting there is half the fun," the famous Cunard Line boast, could have been applied with accuracy to the California Zephyr.  Aboard the GrandLuxe Express, as aboard the vast fleet of cruise ships that is active today, getting there is ALL the fun.


Observation-Lounge car New York, originally the New York Central's, Budd, 1955, Sandy Creek--the feature car of the world-renowned 20th Century Limited  (above and below).

(Double-click any photo to see a larger copy; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)

 Bob Hicks, Trainmaster for 6 years on the AOE and GrandLuxe, inside the observation-lounge car New York.
The car still looks elegant as it did during our trip with it in 2006 when it was in AOE service.



A "Vintage Pullman" room, the least expensive accommodations on the train.  This room ran about $5,000 per person, double-occupancy, for a 7-day trip.  (Left) The vanity in the Vintage Pullman.

Views of various room accommodations available.  Each was labeled above the door so prospective buyers could see which room type was in each car.

Left and right, a Suite made up for day traveling.

Hallway along one side of the cars.


Elegant artwork and rich paneling throughout.

Same room as above right, from opposite direction.






This photo and the one above, right, was a lounge area the full width of a car that guests in that car could use as a lounge.  Bob said it was very popular.
One of the more expensive rooms, about $7,000 per person, that had more than a single  bed.

Same room as upper right, made up for day use.  Also showing shower and vanity in the room.  Since you are here for a week or more, cabinets and dressers for storing your goods.

Same room as left, but from opposite direction.

Copper Canyon full-length dome car has some claim to fame having been featured on Great Northern's Empire Builder.

Bob had some tables set to show the china pattern and menu holders.

Soup bowl


The lower level of the dome car is an office and lounge.

This tour office is where you could purchase side trips, buy souvenirs, and book future trips.

The lounge area of the dome car.

Souvenir cases in the lounge area, with "Boxcar Art" on the adjacent box car showing through the window.

Zurich dining car, 40+ seating.

Chicago dining car, 40+ seating.

A two-top table like Sue and I always had until we met some new friends on the trip and joined them at a 4-top.

My favorite car, Seattle, the Club Car where they had a piano player before and after each evening meal.  I'd always request Sentimental Journey and Route 66.



The sun came out as I was leaving, so I took a sun-side picture of the New York car with the GrandLuxe Express name on the may be the last time we see it.  Hopefully the trainset will continue as a unit with the new owner.

Next Page:  Final Notes and History of the train

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