Traveling by train was once the epitome of class and decadence. I’m not talking about your standard, run-of-the-mill Amtrak here. I’m thinking old-fashioned luxury–sleeper cars, white tablecloths, and sweeping vistas rolling past your window–the works. I have always romanticized this type of travel (for some reason all of my fantasy train rides involved snow-covered peaks, filet mignon, and a roaring fire. Fire hazards don't exist in fantasy train rides, you know). But, like many Americans of my generation, I have never experienced it firsthand.
In the United States, luxury trains seem to be a thing of the past, elbowed aside by airplanes, interstate highways, and cruise lines. The events of the past month only solidify that trend. As Jane Engle of the L.A. Times reported, GrandLuxe Rail Journeys, formerly American Orient Express, ceased operations due to financial difficulties late last month. The company, a standout in the U.S. market, offered high-end rail travel across scenic North America, complete with fine dining and private sleeper cars; all in fully restored vintage trains.
The events certainly caught many by surprise (including IT, as we blogged about GrandLuxe when it teamed up with Amtrak in '07) – most notably those customers who have already booked trips for the upcoming months. This past week, the company annouced plans to sell the 31 cars from their luxury locomotive, the GrandLuxe Express. (They presented it as a "unique opportunity for a sophisticated investor." While you're at it, why not snag a villa as well?) While they've effectively pulled the breaks, the rest of the rail industry is wondering what this all means.
That question remains to be answered. To add to the confusion, luxury train travel seems to be actually growing elsewhere in the world.
In India, the Economic Times recently reported new plans for a pan-India luxury railway; this just following the recent introduction of Golden Chariot, which explores India's southern state of Karnataka in style, in the spring.
And around the world, young upstarts such as Central Europe's Danube Express and China's Tangula are joining the ranks of luxury rail powerhouses such as the The Pullman Orient Express, which has been pampering passengers for more than one hundred years.
Why are luxury trains going by the wayside in the U.S. and flourishing in the rest of the world?
I'm afraid I don't know. However, if someone is interested in funding a year-long, around-the-world study of luxury trains (passenger behavior, dining options, scenery, and so on), I will be glad to do some more research.
Photo: 1940's-era lounge car, via grandluxerail.com