Grand Canyon Railway

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Grand Canyon Railway
Logo for the Grand Canyon Railway with the copyrighted G and the words "Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel Est. 1901"
Grand Canyon Railway 4960 on a special run for photographers pulling freight cars, 2011
LocaleCoconino County, Arizona, U.S.
TerminusGrand Canyon Depot
Williams Depot
Commercial operations
Built byAtchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway
Original gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Preserved operations
Owned byXanterra Travel Collection
Reporting markGCRY
Length64 mi (103 km)
Commercial history
Closed to passengers1968
Preservation history
1988Purchased by Max and Thelma Biegert
2006Purchased by Xanterra
Route maps
Grand Canyon Depot
National Park Boundary
Imbleau (formerly Apex)
locomotive shop
Williams Junction
Southwest Chief
turnback wye
Williams Depot
BNSF junction

The Grand Canyon Railway (reporting mark GCRX) is a heritage railroad which carries passengers between Williams, Arizona, and the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

The 64-mile (103 km) railroad, built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, was completed on September 17, 1901. The arrival of trains led increased tourism to the area, and the railway company was instrumental in the creation of the Grand Canyon Village to serve guests. Declining ridership due to the increasing usage of the automobile led the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to cease passenger service of the Grand Canyon Railway in July 1968 and freight service on the line ended in 1974.

Private investors purchased the line in 1988, restored the facilities, and started running passenger trains again on September 17, 1989. Today, the railroad carries hundreds of passengers to and from the canyon every day and operates year-round.

The entire Grand Canyon Railway has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the contribution the train has made to the history of the United States.


Santa Fe ownership[edit]

Inaugural run, September 1901

In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway completed a branch line from Williams to Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim. The first scheduled train to carry paying passengers of the Grand Canyon Railway arrived from Williams on September 17 of that year. The 64-mile (103-kilometer) long trip cost $3.95, and naturalist John Muir later commended the railroad for its limited environmental impact. To accommodate travelers, the Santa Fe designed and built the El Tovar Hotel, located just 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the Canyon Rim. El Tovar opened its doors in January 1905

Competition with the automobile forced the Santa Fe to cease operation of the Grand Canyon Railway in July 1968 (only three passengers were on the last run), although Santa Fe continued to use the tracks for freight until 1974.

Plans by entertainer Arthur Godfrey to resume service in 1977 fell through. In addition, two other companies attempted to resurrect the line in 1980 and 1984, with each attempt helping to maintain interest in preserving the line and saving it from scrapping.

Max and Thelma Biegert ownership[edit]

Steam locomotives GCRX 29 and 4960 in a rare joint appearance at Grand Canyon Depot, 2005.

In 1988, the line was bought by Max and Thelma Biegert. The railway was restored and in 1989 began operations as a separate company, independent of the Santa Fe. The first run of the restored railroad was on September 17, 1989, commemorating the September 17 debut of the original railroad.[1]

The Biegerts, a couple originally from Nebraska, had made their fortune in crop dusting through Biegert Aviation, founded in 1947, which had a large federal government contract for its B-17 and later C-54 fleet.[2] After leaving the crop-dusting business, they operated a for-profit day care business in Houston, Texas, which became the Children's World Learning Center and is now part of KinderCare Learning Centers. The Biegerts never intended to get into the rail business. They had loaned money secured by the tracks to another person for the rail line. When they defaulted the Biegerts took over the line.[3] In conjunction with the startup, the Biegerts were principal investors in the short-lived Farwest Airlines, an air taxi service operating a DHC Dash 7[4] that was intended to bring tourists from California, Las Vegas and Phoenix to Flagstaff where the passengers would then take the rail line.[5]

The first locomotives the railway acquired were a pair of EMD GP7u units from the Santa Fe, as well as four 2-8-0 consolidation steam locomotives formerly operated by the Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad. In the early 1990s, the Grand Canyon Railway purchased a fleet of 1950s-era ALCO FA Diesel-electric locomotives, featuring an iconic "snub nose" design. The fleet consisted of two cab-equipped lead A unit models and two cabless booster B unit models. The new locomotives supplemented the fleet of steam locomotives and allowed the railway to grow into a year-round operation. In 1996, the railway boosted their steam roster by rebuilding a 2-8-2 mikado; former Chicago Burlington and Quincy 4960, a locomotive with a long history of excursion service.

The ALCO FA locomotives lacked the features found in more modern units, such as increased horsepower and dynamic brakes. Therefore, in February 2003, the Grand Canyon Railway purchased three late-1970s F40PH locomotives from Amtrak and placed them into service in 2004.

In March 2006, owners Max and Thelma Biegert announced to the media that they were placing the railroad and its associated restaurants, hotels and amenities up for sale. The combined properties had an annual revenue of nearly $40 million. The Biegerts sought a new buyer/operator with a possible theme park background, which would ensure that the railroad, hotels, RV park, restaurants (and a possible new amusement park in Williams) would continue to be operated as one entity.

Xanterra ownership[edit]

GCRY's FPAs Nos 6776, 6793, and GP7uu 2134 at the Grand Canyon Village, 2008

On September 21, 2006, it was announced that Xanterra Travel Collection, submitted the winning bid (for an undisclosed sum) and was selected as the new owner for the Grand Canyon Railway. Xanterra is the corporate name and identity for what was originally known as the Fred Harvey Company, a company with restaurant, hotel and service ties to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway as far back as 1876.

Xanterra said that it intended to keep all 480 of the railway's current employees, and planned to focus on growing the business and increasing the coordination between the railway and Xanterra's other services in the Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim. In the press release, the railway and Xanterra reported over 225,000 passengers and over $38 million in revenue in calendar year 2005. The purchase of the GCR included all of the railway's assets, depots, hotels, RV park, rolling stock, shops and the land on which the 65-mile (105 km) line operates over.

Steam locomotive operations on the Grand Canyon Railway were suspended in September 2008. Xanterra cited extra diesel fuel costs and environmental concerns as the reason for the decision, pointing out that each roundtrip of a steam locomotive consumed 1,450 gallons of diesel fuel (compared to the 550 gallons used by a diesel-electric locomotive) and 1,200 gallons of water. Industry experts said that ridership losses due to the late 2000s recession and rising fuel prices due to the 2000s energy crisis likely contributed to the decision.[6]

Steam locomotives would return to the Grand Canyon Railway on September 19, 2009. Xanterra converted the steam locomotives to operate using waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants across Northern Arizona and installed a rainwater collection system on the maintenance building to fill boilers when available. Since 2011, special occasion trips, and at least one roundtrip per month during the summer is operated using a steam locomotive. In 2017, the Grand Canyon Railway added to its fleet of diesel locomotives, purchasing two additional F40PH units from New Jersey Transit. As of 2021, the Grand Canyon Railway only has two steam locomotives left in their roster. In 2019, the GCR purchased three Ex-Rio Grande business cars,[7] and since then, the GCR used them exclusively for private charter service, with the option of being pulled by steam or diesel.

Locomotive roster[edit]

Current units[8]
Type Builder Model Image No. Date Former railroad Status
Steam Alco SC-3 2-8-0 29 1906 Lake Superior and Ishpeming Undergoing boiler inspection
Baldwin O-1a 2-8-2 4960 1923 Chicago Burlington and Quincy Operational
Diesel EMD GP7u 1105 1952 Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Operational
2134 1953 Stored
MLW FPA-4 6762 1958 Canadian National, Via Rail, Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad (6793) Stored
6773 Static display
6793 Operational
FPB-4 6860
6871 Stored
EMD F40FH 237 1977 Amtrak Operational
239 1977
295 1979
4124 1981 NJ Transit
Former units
Type Builder Model Image No. Date Former railroad Status Current owner
Steam Alco SC-4 2-8-0 18 1910 Lake Superior and Ishpeming Stored Maguire Family Foundation
19 Static display City of Frisco, Texas
20 Static display City of Allen, Texas
O-3 2-8-2 539 1917 Northern Pacific, Spokane Portland and Seattle Static display Port of Kalama, Washington
Diesel EMD GP7u 2072 1953 Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Stored

There are also other locomotives that occasionally visit the GCR, whether its for special events like Santa Fe 3751[9] or modern units from Amtrak, or just for temporary storage, like Manitou and Pike's Peak Railway No. 4, or the Arizona State Railroad Museum's locomotive collection.[10]


The railroad carries hundreds of passengers to and from the canyon every day, totaling about 225,000 people per year.[11]

The restored Santa Fe Railway Station in Williams serves as the southern terminus for the Grand Canyon Railway and the Grand Canyon Depot, owned by the National Park Service, is the northern terminus for passengers of the line.

Most trains are pulled by the Railway's fleet of F40PH diesel locomotives. They were regeared to run at freight locomotive speeds and have been redesignated as F40FH. Steam locomotives pull trains on special holidays and the first Saturday of the peak travel season (March through October). The Grand Canyon Railway's fleet of historic ALCO FA diesel locomotives also see occasional use.

Passengers ride to and from the Grand Canyon in 1950s era climate-controlled coaches. During the peak travel season, 1920s era Pullman Harriman style coaches with open windows are also available.

The railroad adds to the Old West experience by having actors dressed as bandits stage a mock train robbery during the return trip from the Grand Canyon to Williams.

The Grand Canyon Railway offers at least one daily round trip of its Williams Flyer train between Williams and the Grand Canyon every day except on Christmas Day, December 25. During peak demand periods a second train departure is added.[12]

Train Schedule
Station Time
Leave Williams 9:30 am
Arrive Grand Canyon 11:45 am
(time at Grand Canyon)
Leave Grand Canyon 3:30 pm
Arrive Williams 5:45 pm
Second Train Schedule
(peak demand periods only)
Station Time
Leave Williams 10:30 am
Arrive Grand Canyon 12:45 pm
(time at Grand Canyon)
Leave Grand Canyon 4:30 pm
Arrive Williams 6:45 pm

During the winter season (November – January), the line runs The Polar Express from Williams to the 'North Pole', a station about 17 miles (30 km) north of town. In 2008, this winter service carried about 78,000 passengers.

The route included stops at Quivero, Valle, Willaha, and Coconino stations.

Historic designations[edit]

Grand Canyon Railway
Williams Depot
Nearest cityWilliams, Arizona
Area1,682 acres (681 ha)
ArchitectSanta Fe & Grand Canyon RR; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR
Architectural styleClassical Revival
NRHP reference No.00000319[13]
Added to NRHPAugust 23, 2000

The entire Grand Canyon Railway has been added to the National Register of Historic Places for being associated with events that made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of the history of the United States. In the nomination to the register, the railroad was credited with, "Opening up of a large area north of Williams, the building of the Grand Canyon National Park facilities at the south rim, establishment of a solid tourist trade in the American Southwest, support of cattle and sheep ranching, copper and uranium mining, lumber industries, and the building of a sub culture around the railroad that continues to this day."[14]

The Grand Canyon Depot was added to the register on September 6, 1974, while the Williams Depot and the rest of the railroad between Williams and the Grand Canyon National Park was added as a Historic District on August 23, 2000. The Grand Canyon Depot was also designated as a National Historic Landmark on May 28, 1987, for its outstanding historical significance.[15]

See also[edit]

 National Register of Historic Places portal icon Trains portal


  1. ^ "Grand Canyon Railway history". Archived from the original on February 25, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2007.
  2. ^ "Grand Canyon Railway News - Press Kit - Max and Thelma Biegert's Legacy". Archived from the original on June 5, 2008. Retrieved September 13, 2008.
  3. ^ "Grand Canyon Railway for sale -". Archived from the original on June 12, 2011. Retrieved September 13, 2008.
  4. ^ "Farwest Airlines". Airline History. Retrieved May 3, 2020.
  5. ^ "Planes, Trains and the Grand Canyon – plus masked men and marshals on horseback". Retrieved March 1, 2017.
  6. ^ "Ridership loss, rising fuel prices drove GCR to cancel steam program - TRAINS Magazine". September 2, 2012. Archived from the original on September 2, 2012. Retrieved June 17, 2023.
  7. ^ Mitchell IV, Alexander D. "Former Rio Grande business cars find a haven at Grand Canyon | Trains Magazine". Retrieved January 22, 2021.
  8. ^ "Train Equipment | Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel". Grand Canyon Railway. Retrieved November 16, 2018. Our primary movers are 3 EMD F-40PH Diesel locomotives, acquired in February 2003. General Motors Electro Motive Division built Nos. 237 and 239 in 1977 and No. 295 in 1979. Amtrak used the engines through the late 1990s. These engines have been fully refurbished and modernized, and have been in service with GCR since 2004.
  9. ^ "RailPictures.Net Photo: 3752 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) Steam 4-8-4 at Grand Canyon, Arizona by Chris Mohs". Retrieved February 15, 2021.
  10. ^ "RailPictures.Net Photo: MPP 4 Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway Steam 0-4-2T Cog at Williams, Arizona by Kevin Madore". Retrieved February 15, 2021.
  11. ^ "Backgrounder | Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel". Retrieved November 6, 2018.
  12. ^ "Daily Train Schedule | Grand Canyon Railway". Grand Canyon Railway. Retrieved November 1, 2018.
  13. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  14. ^ "Grand Canyon Railway - National Register of Historic Places". National Park Service. August 23, 2000. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  15. ^ "Grand Canyon Depot". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on March 4, 2009. Retrieved September 27, 2007.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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