What began in 1989 as the American-European Express confined to one eastern route, peaked in 2004 with the long, twin streamlined first-class touring trains of the American Orient Express -- exploring the width and breadth of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Successor GrandLuxe Express carried on the tradition of excellence in adventure right up to the brink of the Great Recession.
The American-European Express 1989 - 1991
In late 1989, Florida entrepreneur William Spann and the operators of the Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express (most notably Alby Glatt and Edy Zuger) launched the American-European Express. The idea was to offer first class travel aboard restored vintage railcars attached to regular Amtrak trains over routes that would support a well-heeled patronage.
Initially the American-European Express consisted of four vintage streamlined passenger cars that had been refurbished to a level of elegance unseen on American rails. Thirteen cars had been acquired and 10 refurbished to create two sets of 5 cars. These cars, in their striking blue, cream and gold paint scheme, were attached to the back of Amtrak's Capitol Limited between Chicago and Washington, DC. At full capacity, a set of AEE cars included a lounge, diner and as many as three sleepers. The limiting factor was the Capitol Limited's ability to pull more than its usual consist of regular Amtrak cars. The AEE service was offered six times a week. The cars were lounges BAY POINT and ST. MORITZ, diners CHICAGO and ZURICH, and sleepers BERLIN, ISTANBUL, MONTE CARLO, PARIS, VIENNA, and WASHINGTON.
The first run of the AEE came November 15, 1989. Ridership never quite took off and the service was reduced to three times weekly in May 1990, but twice a week the AEE cars began traveling to New York behind the Broadway Limited, another Amtrak train. The last trip in this iteration of the AEE was in November 1990, to make room for a new concept for the train.
The Greenbrier Limited was the new idea. It would likewise run from Chicago to Washington, but would run in association with the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Spring, WV and cater to upscale tourists and tour groups. A test run was made Dec 21, 1990.
The Greenbrier Limited 1991
On March 1, 1991 the Greenbrier Limited had the inaugural run of its twice-weekly service. Now the ten cars of the AEE (plus, soon, round-end observation car NEW YORK) were running as a single train. The train was pulled by CSX business train F-unit diesels and later by AEE's own leased diesels 1 & 2.
The operation was working well, but on July 21, 1991 the train hit a trailer at a grade crossing and most of the cars went on the ground. There were no serious injuries. Though none of the cars tipped over, some were taken out of service for repairs. Leased cars made up the difference as the (shorter) Greenbrier Limited was back up and running in just 10 days. The service was soon turning a profit and attention turned to a New York to Miami route for the winter months. In October, 1991, near Philadelphia, a press preview run of the new service struck two people trespassing on the Northeast Corridor tracks. With investors spooked twice in one year, the AEE/Greenbrier Limited was mothballed for the winter.
The American Orient Express 1994-2006
The mothballing of the train lasted longer than expected. With restart costs estimated at $4M, the train was not going anywhere without a change of control.
Enter George Pierce, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives. Pierce had owned the Texas Dinner Train out of San Antonio before selling the train to Transisco Tours. A visit to burgeoning music mecca Branson, Missouri convinced him there might be a market for upscale train service from Texas to Branson. He went into a partnership with the owners of the cars (by now Edy Zugar's new venture Reiseburo Mittelthurgau) in 1994 and relettered them American Orient Express, retaining the smart AEE paint scheme.
The Branson Limited ran nine trips in 1994 and eight in 1995. During the Christmas seasons of 1994 and 1995 the train was leased to retailer Neiman Marcus as the Neiman Marcus Holiday Express. Five of the cars were carefully stripped of their interiors and turned into showrooms of Neman Marcus merchandise. Sleeping cars provided a place for employees to sleep, and the whole train went on the road touring cities that didn't have Neman Marcus stores. The promotion was considered a success, but the Branson trips less so -- and George Pierce was ready to exit.
One of Pierce's collaborators on the 1995 Branson trips was T.C. Swartz's travel company TCS Expeditions. TCS helped put together four transcontinental excursions for the AOE in 1995. They also worked on some charters for the train. By 1996, TCS had an exclusive on booking the train.
TCS turned the AOE into a true land-cruise operation in cooperation with Amtrak, who supplied the locomotives. Bookings took off. Over the ensuing years, the AOE ran itineraries with names like The Great Transcontinental Journey, National Parks of the West, The Rockies and the Sierras, The Rockies and Yellowstone, The Great Northwest and Rockies, The Great Southwest. In the midst of this, in 1997, the train cars were purchased by Henry Hillman and he was looking to expand.
AOE offices were set up in Denver, Colorado, while the cars were shopped nearby in Englewood. A super dome and a couple of regular dome cars were acquired, but not refurbished, before a better deal came along. A couple of great domes were acquired from Amtrak and refurbished to AOE standards, becoming NEW ORLEANS and COPPER CANYON. And still, the train kept growing. It was eventually split in two. The AOE II debuted in 2002. Trips were now run more frequently -- and in the US, Canada, and for a couple seasons, Mexico. Repair operations moved to Washington state. In 2004, the trains were recombined, creating a train up to 22 cars long. Length was becoming a problem.
The GrandLuxe Express 2006-2009
Then, in spring 2006, the name of the operation was changed to GrandLuxe Rail Journeys. The train was sold to GrandLuxe Holdings and Tom Rader of Colorado Railcar fame. Operations and repair facilities would once again be in Colorado. The observation car and dome were relettered GrandLuxe Express.
The train continued its journeys far and wide through 2006 and 2007, sometimes 21 cars long -- about the maximum most of its station platforms could hold. Plans were to use some of Rader's luxury bi-level cars to relieve the problem of a train that could no longer grow by simply getting longer. The future of the train looked as promising as ever.
Then the economy collapsed.
Just like that, the Great Recession was on and the GrandLuxe Express was off. On August 8, 2008 the train made its last trip. Three weeks later operations ceased. By June 2009 the cars were on their way to new owners -- and soon repainted. The last great streamliner of the 20th century was gone.