Ed Ellis and Pullman Rail Journeys

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pullman sleeping car Glen SummitThe 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.

Former SP sleeping car 9400Now 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.

Former IC observation car PaducahYou 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.

Former Nickle Plate diner-loungeBought 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

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