FLAGSTAFF – A historic railroad that takes tourists from Williams north to the Grand Canyon can expand operations to three trips a day under a plan approved by the National Park Service.
The Grand Canyon Railway now operates at least one, and occasionally two, daily trains to the canyon’s popular South Rim.
Spokesman Steven Martin said it was too early to tell if daily service will be expanded, but the approval provides a nice option if demand increases in the future.
An environmental assessment approved this week allows as many as 30 special trains a year for events and promotions. Those include sunset trips or the railway’s Polar Express, a nighttime trip that treats passengers to hot chocolate, cookies and a reading of the holiday tale.
Currently, there are no limits on special trains.
More than 200,000 passengers a year board 1950s-style rail cars pulled by a diesel locomotive from Williams through the high desert and Ponderosa pines to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.
The train departs at 9:30 a.m., after a Wild West skit, and arrives at the canyon 21/2 hours later, stopping at a depot just below the rim. It returns to Williams around 5:45 p.m, but tourists have the option of staying overnight at the canyon and boarding the train the next morning.
Passengers can climb aboard the train every day of the year except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Back in the early 1900s, the railroad was the main mode of transportation to the Grand Canyon but now accounts for just 6 percent of the 4.5 million annual visitors to the South Rim, according to 2008 Park Service figures.
Seventy-five percent of people visit the canyon by private vehicle and 19 percent by tour bus.
The Grand Canyon Railway ran the first trains to the South Rim in 1901, capitalizing on Americans’ fascination with one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. The operation ceased in the late 1960s and was reinstated in 1989 under a concession permit.
Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs lodges, restaurants and other concessions at national and state parks, now owns and operates the railway.
The Park Service’s environmental assessment of train operations at the Grand Canyon found there would be no significant impact by upping the number of daily trips.
The plan also includes installing ground power to limit idling at the South Rim depot and possible restoration of railroad tracks currently covered and used as parking spaces.