The railroad career of Edwin Earl Ellis has been anything but common and ordinary. He started two short-line conglomerates (and was fired by the first one). He bootstrapped Amtrak’s mail and express business into a $150 million-a-year behemoth that created 46-car Southwest Chiefs and 25-car Lake Shore Limiteds (and as thanks, was fired again). But say what you want about Ed Ellis, he has tenacity.
Now begins the most audacious — some would say foolhardy — part of his remarkable life. In Iowa Pacific Holdings, his second short line empire, Ellis and partners struck it rich. And he is putting some of the earnings to use to recreate first-class rail travel as a profit-making venture called Pullman Rail Journeys.
You sense both the vision and the challenge of this enterprise inside IPH’s passenger car and diesel shop on the edge of downtown Alamosa, Colo. Two F units, part of the company’s fleet of Electro-Motive passenger diesels from the late 1940s and 1950s, are being worked on. But your attention is immediately drawn to Glen Summit (top photo), built by Pullman late in 1929 with six bedrooms and three drawing rooms and last used in mainline service almost half a century ago.
Bought from a private party, Glen Summit is, in a word, a mess. “Ed, this is a million-dollar car,” you say, and he replies yes, meaning that putting Glen Summit back in its 1929 condition could cost $1 million. “Want to see it inside?” he asks, climbing onto a vestibule. The door is locked. So is the door on the other end. Too bad, you think. It’s a holiday, and but for you and Ellis, the shop, smelling faintly of oils and solvents, is deserted.
Iowa Pacific owns 162 passenger cars and is negotiating to buy dozens more. Many are assigned to the short-line railroads that IPH owns or operates. Almost all of the company’s properties have a passenger-train component. Forty-two are earmarked for Pullman Rail Journeys. As for the rest, who knows?
The three shop tracks, and tracks south of the shop, are a picture book of passenger train history. You slowly stroll and turn the pages. Inside the building, there’s Calumet Club, once an Illinois Central flat-end observation lounge. Former Southern Pacific 9400 (second photo) is a 12-bedroom lightweight car being prepped for Pullman Rail Journeys service. Observation lounge Paducah ran on IC’s Louisville section of the City of New Orleans. Beside it is a former Southern Railway heavyweight coach now in IC colors (third photo).
Outside are more than a dozen other cars, some assigned to summer service out of Alamosa on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad (proudly called “The La Veta Pass Route”) and others waiting their turn in the shop. Your attention is drawn to a modernized heavyweight diner-lounge still wearing the faded gray and blue colors of the Nickel Plate (fourth photo). You wonder to yourself, is this man crazy?
The two of you end up in the railroad’s offices on State Street and resume a conversation begun almost two months earlier. Ed Ellis has a keen business sense, and no, he’s not crazy. His passenger endeavors are but a part of his life, the majority of his time being devoted to building up the freight franchises of IHP subsidiaries. But without his passion for the Pullman project, it would not exist. “I’m in this for the long term,” he tells you. “I’m 58, and will spend the rest of my life building this enterprise.”
Pullman Rail Journeys is not a luxury service with mahogany walls in the sleepers and voluptuous meals in the diner. What Ellis is creating is instead a first-class service that takes you back to the time that the Pullman Company consistently delivered comfortable overnight accommodations and dining cars served delicious, wholesome meals. If you cannot understand his distinction, stop and think a bit about it. To explain it another way, his model is not the luxurious American Orient Express or its successor GrandLuxe Express, which ended in financial disaster, but the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which recreates in vintage equipment the first-class rail experience across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. And the VSOE is a financial success, Ellis reminds you.
Pullman Rail Journeys got off to a disappointing start. So far, it consists of Iowa Pacific cars on the back of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans out of Chicago, making two round trips a week. Alas, last November 17, on one of the first trips, a broken axle on the sleeping car Baton Rouge would have derailed the train but for the quick actions of Pullman conductor Jody Moore, who heard gravel underneath the car, saw sparks flying, and initiated an emergency stop in Tuscola., Ill.
Ellis plans to relaunch the New Orleans train in late March, giving the marketing staff time to sell the vision of this service to the public. And from there, again, who knows? Amtrak has said no to running Pullman’s cars on the rear of the Chicago-New York Lake Shore Limited because of space concerns in Penn Station. But there is more than one way to get to New York.
The thought keeps nudging you: Can this possibly succeed? It’s the American way to trash our heritage like some scrap of cellophane — out with the old, in with the new. With prices starting at $500 (for an upper berth) and going to $950 for a roomette and $1,950 for a bedroom for two, the service is aimed not at the upper 1 percent of Americans but at affluent-blue collar families and up. Are people tired of cruise vacations and Las Vegas shows and $20 blackjack tables and ready for a different experience? In essence, Ed Ellis is betting that the answer is yes.
“I want to get New Orleans right,” he says, as you prepare to depart. “It’s hard to do this right. There are so many pieces to manage. We don’t have commissaries in every town. Pullman knew how many sheets and blankets went into each car. We are relearning all of that. I want to make sure that in service, marketing, cleanliness, and in every possible way from Chicago to New Orleans we are Pullman, before we go to any other route.”
This is a remarkable story, no matter how it ends, and unlike any I’ve ever written. In the June issue of Trains, I’ll explore Iowa Pacific Holdings and its Pullman Rail Journeys subsidiary in far more detail. See you there! — Fred W. Frailey
Looking forward to the June issue. That target market is a bit on the upper end of my budget, but at least I'll get to experience an upper berth. Do IP fares include meals, and is there an additional Amtrak charge?
No Amtrak charge and meals included.
I got to see 2 of the cars up close as they sat in Tuscola getting repaired. Simply beautiful. I hope to see them run again soon. The chocolate brown and orange is a classic!
I think this is a wonderful Idea I can't wait to Try it!
I recall the great promise of Mr. Ellis' career at Amtrak - Mail and Express would enable passenger service to fill out all the blank spaces in Amtrak's skeletal offerings, without that pesky bother of getting Congress and the taxpayers to go along. Seemed to be successful for a short time, then it was all over and Mr. Ellis was gone. My understanding was that the freight roads saw a threat and killed it with their leverage. Is there more to the story? Am I wrong? I'd be interested to know if you have any additional insight, Fred.
This is a great story. I hope he succeeds.
My companies, Rail Travel Center?Rail Travel Adventures sold all the US and international deluxe land-cruise trains and candidly none were either very practical nor rationally priced.
The saga of the AMERICAN ORIENT EXPRESS/GRAND LUXE provides the best example. On-board the AOE was wonderful, but the typical price for a trip exceeded $4000 per person. The train needed to average in excess of 80 passengers per trip just to break even.
The various operators broke one of the first rules of cruise ship sales, namely space sells bottom up and top down. This means the greatest demand is for the most attractively priced rooms and then for the most costly space. As agents our task was to try to sell the client "up" to better than basic rooms, but it was the shortage of entry level space that consistently frustrated our efforts to sell the AOE trips.
All of the various operators of this train tried to reduce the number of entry-level rooms and to emphasize quasi suite accommodations. But this belied the need to first convince potential riders of the value and comfort of the train travel experience.
The overwhelming majority of Americans have never set foot on a train--not to mention a sleeping car service. We might be able to get them to purchase a $4000 per personal National Park Tour in what the AOE called "Classic Pullman" (eg. an uncoverted traditional Double Bedroom), but unless they had ridden once it was virtually impossible to get them to spring for a $7,000 per person trip in a suite. Yet consistently that was the dream of the AOE, proven by the gradual reduction in the number of entry level rooms. After a good AOE experience the customer might rebook in a luxury category, but to get the first sale we needed sanely priced space, and increasingly there was very little of it on offer from the AOE.
A review of Ed Ellis website shows that he wisely is offering several rationally priced options, including traditional Sections and classic Roomette singles. This will also help him with volume. A 10 Roomette/6 Souble Bedroom sleeper will carry 22 passengers if all rooms are filled. One of the AOE's rebuilt suite cars was only able to carry 14-16 passengers.
Hopefully Amtrak will come to see the potential value of the Ellis venture to them as well. Amtrak is desperately short of sleepers and as a result can not meet the demand on offer. And Amtrak resists adding sleepers even when they are available in many cases because it doesn't want to add a second diner (the EMPIRE BUILDER is a classic case). But Ellis plans include a dedicated diner and lounge. The Pullman Rail cars will move as pure profit for Amtrak, as they will be charged the Amtrak private car tarrif, but if jointly/coooperatively marketed they could really ease pressure on Amtrak's limited inventory.
My biggest concern about the initial Ellis service is that it is apparently offered only end-point to end-point. This is purportedly because Amtrak claims short platforms and doesn't want to double stop. Admittedly every station may not need a Pullman Rail option, but if Ellis cars appear on the CZ there is no reason not to allow passengers to join/leave at Denver, Glenwood, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento as well as at Chicago and Emeryville. Further Amtrak "double stops" long trains frequently. Ellis needs to be able to tap multiple markets to have a fair chance at success.
On the first route, Chicago-New Orleans surely passengers could be allowed to board/detrain at Memphis, for example. Pullman Rail can offer a fairly basic pricing structure for intermediate stations, but it will be very hard to get everyone to go all the way. If, for example, Ellis runs New York-Pittsburgh-Chicago on the PENNSYLVANIAN/CAP why can't riders board at Pittsburgh? The cars will be there in Pennsylvania STation Piuttsburgh for several hours in each direction waiting to be switched between trains.
I realy wish this effort well. It's the predictable and routine scheduling and sane pricing that makes Ellis idea so fascinating.
Rail Travel Adventures
So no Pullman on the Lake Shore? To bad! Perhaps that why in part Iowa Pacific is teaming up with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad to perhaps in the next few years start charter trains from New York City to Lake Placid.
There are still three NYC Slumber/Sleeper Coaches for sale online, it be nice to have them restored and put back in service, they actually fit more passengers than Amtrak Viewliners, considering what a good job VIA has done with its old equipment, to bad Amtrak doesn't have any for the Lake Shore.
I think that a new service like DB's City Night Line could work in the US on city pairs like…
Chicago-Twin Cities, Chicago-Omaha, Chicago-Kansas City, Chicago-Memphis, Chicago-Pittsburgh, Washington-Atlanta, New York-Charlotte, New York-Montreal, LA-San Francisco.
These trains could use existing Amtrak stations and routes, going no faster than the existing Amtrak trains on these tracks. Seems to be a lot faster and cheaper way to expand passenger rail than high-speed rail.
Overnight hotel trains don't have to go fast to succeed. Joe Sharkey the travel writer in the Business Section of the NY Times has written several times recently about an overnight Amtrak train as an alternative to flying…
On a Long Train Trip, Rare Pleasures Return, Dec 2011
Airlines Are Retrenching, and Alternatives Are Slim, Dec 2012
Trains Fill the Gaps in Airline Schedules, Dec 2012
So perhaps there is a market for overnight hotel trains for business as well as pleasure, as there is in Europe!
P.S. One of the most peculiar passenger cars Iowa Pacific has are the former LIRR double-decker coaches they use on the Saratoga & North Creek. It was funny to ride deep into the Adirondacks on a former MTA Long Island coach!
I think the Newport News - Boston overnighter would be a natural. And there is not any Amtrak sleeper at the moment. But on and off at Wiliamsburg would be essential. (As well as Providence, Baltimore, Wshington, Richmond)
Sounds cool. I really love passenger trains. I will be in Memphis and New Orleans this summer and maybe I'll see the cars. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Jody Moore a couple years ago. As a matter of fact, he was following Mardi Gras, now owned by SLRG and in IC paint.
Regarding Mr. Fowler's comment that Pullman Rail ought to consider offering nservice to intermediate points, such as Chicago-Memphis, and Chicago-Pittsburgh, that simply will not happen.
The reason is that handling passengers at intermediate points is work that exclusively belongs to Amtrak employees covered by Agreement (in the Union) - and I doubt if any private car operator has cars staffed with Agreement employees, which limits those operators to providing end point to end point service only.
If Mr. Ellis is prepared to staff his cars with Amtrak Agreement On-Board Service employees with their existing rates of pay and working conditions, then maybe there would be a "go", but somehow I doubt if his existing "price point" of about $1000 pp/ni factors those costs.
All I want to know is where the F-units are going. I have selfish reasons for asking.
Remarkable, indeed. Ed is an idea man and a man who can make things happen. I'm impressed with what he has already accomplished in short lines, passenger service, car rebuilding and steam. I very much look forward to reading the June Trains article.
Steam Conquers La Veta Pass: railroadglorydays.com/RGSR
In response to the person who suggested acquiring former slumbercoach cars, I do not believe any of these cars were ever converted to HEP or otherwise brought up to current Amtrak standards. The deal killer with these cars is the plumbing. In today's world of retention tanks these cars would be a nightmare to get all of those rooms piped to new retention tanks. I guess you could remove the toilets from each room but would people want to ride them that way?
At least 23 Budd slumbercoaches, 2050-2056 & 2080-2097, were rebuilt with HEP. That said, this is not what Pullman looking for these days.