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A Gen Z Look at the American Orient Express: The Last Luxury Passenger Train of America? 

I was browsing volume II of Lionel’s 2023 catalog with my brain in neutral, thumbing through pages of Legacy steam engines and diesels. Suddenly, I sat up and snapped to it. On pages 46-47, I saw passenger cars for a train called the American Orient Express. Now, I am a HUGE fan of the original Orient Express in all its forms–from the Agatha Christie book and films (David Suchet is my favorite Poirot) to the actual trains. I even got a Kato N scale Orient Express for Christmas. But an American Orient Express? Never heard of it. The train historian in me kicked in, and I “did my own research.” Here’s what I found.

Terence Cuneo’s painting, Simpleton-Orient-Express (1930s)
Terence Cuneo’s painting, Simpleton-Orient-Express (1930s)

What it was: The American Orient Express (AOE) was a private luxury passenger train that ran in the U.S. from 1994 to 2008. But all kinds of stuff happened to the AOE during its 14 years of its existence. The concept of the AOE was the brainchild of Alby Glatt, who had already launched tourist and dinner trains in his home country of Switzerland. In the “news to me” category, I discovered that “Orient Express” is a brand that several operators have used for their luxury trains, running on routes around the world. Encyclopedia Britannica says the original Orient Express stopped running in 1977. Today, the trademark seems to be owned by Accor Hotels and SNCF, France’s national railway company. But while the Orient Express name was up for grabs, Glatt started the Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient Express in 1988. And he was serious about the Orient in Orient Express because his trains ran in Europe, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Somehow, he even ran a train called the “Extrême-Orient-Express” between Paris and Tokyo. As someone who wrote my college thesis on gauge breaks, I really want to know how Glatt navigated the perils of the Russian gauge and reached the island of Japan. But the European and Asian versions of the Orient Express will be another blog post because today, we’re in the good old U.S. of A.

Anyway, Glatt and others wanted to revive luxury passenger trains, like New York Central’s 20th Century Limited and Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited. That’s because, by the 1960s, passenger train travel was struggling thanks to the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which created a massive road network (41,000 miles) that shifted the public’s focus from trains to cars. Suddenly, everyone wanted to get their kicks on Route 66. Over the years, many companies, including Amtrak, have tried to bring back passenger trains. But as I noted in my blog on Jon Oliver and train crashes, Americans may have become too reliant on our cars. Trains can take you through some of nature’s most majestic canvases–mountains, rivers, forests, and deserts–but we’re okay with highway vistas and South of the Border. Olé!

American European Express. The AOE started as the American European Express (AEE). Glatt apparently partnered with, or maybe persuaded, Florida entrepreneur, William F. Spann, to bring luxury trains back to the U.S. Spann gathered investors and launched the AEE in 1989, with bad results. The first iteration of the AEE, which ran between D.C. and Chicago, lacked scenic routes, was too expensive and took too long for business travelers, who were the target demographic. According to an exhaustive history of the AEE and AOE by and a brief one in Trains, the AEE stopped running in 1990, but returned in early 1991 with new and improved routes between New York and Chicago. It operated as cars attached to the Broadway Limited and Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and was marketed to tourists. Then it briefly became a standalone train called the Greenbriar Limited (huh?), running between West Virginia, D.C., New York and Chicago, before closing down in late 1991 due to low ridership and two major accidents. The Greenbriar Express was on a special trip with its investors–as in the people whose money the AEE desperately needed–when it derailed in Indiana on June 21. That accident badly damaged three cars and probably had investors booking flights the next day. Then the AEE struck and killed two girls outside of Philadelphia on September 12. By October 1991, operations ceased. 

There’s a lot of confusion around what happened to the AEE’s cars between 1991 to 1994. As far as I can tell, they were possibly/probably used by tourist trains operating out of Texas, Oregon and Montana. But their history is murky. It reminds me of how 17 cars from Glatt’s Orient Express disappeared for 40+ years, only to be found rusting in a Polish railyard in 2022. So no surprise that it’s not easy to track the fate of the AEE cars. Happily, according to, the equipment came to life again in 1994 as the American Orient Express, purchased by venture capitalist Henry Hillman in November 1997.” No details on how the equipment returned from railroad purgatory, but the AOE ran until 2006, when it changed its name to GrandLuxe Express (maybe trademark issues?). Eventually, following rising operational costs and ticket prices, as well as the economic crash of 2008, GrandLuxe declared bankruptcy and closed for good. Btw, has a roster of the cars and their origins here. According to the timetable on, the cars were sold to the Greenbrier Presidential Express in 2011, who then sold them to various new owners in 2014. I assume most have gone to the Railyard in the Sky by now. Or maybe their whereabouts is a mystery for Hercules Poirot, who may or may not have been reincarnated as Benoit Blanc.

I came across a documentary on YouTube that showed what a ride on the American Oriental Express was like. I didn’t realize that the “carriages,” as the British narrator called them, were reconstructed from Streamline Era cars. For example, the observation car came from New York Central’s 20th Century Limited, and the sleeping cars were Pullman. The interior of the train evokes a moneyed European aesthetic, with dark wood paneling, gold-framed artwork, and richly detailed furnishings. Not as upscale as the current versions of the Orient Express, but fancy enough for me. 

A Very Brief Dive into Why Amtrak is ‘Meh.’

For luxury train travel today, Europeans have the Orient Express. Japanese have the Seven Stars and Twilight Express. Indians have the Maharajas Express, among others. And the richest country in the world? We have first class on Amtrak’s long distance routes. Comparing these luxury lines to Amtrak is like comparing apples to crabapples. Amtrak, a sort-of public company, has a virtual monopoly on long-distance passenger rail travel in the U.S. But I was yesterday-years-old when I learned that Amtrak was built to fail. wrote about Amtrak’s creation story, and it’s ugly. In the seventies, most railroad companies wanted to focus on their freight business and get rid of passenger service. So they got together with the Nixon administration in 1970 and hatched a Machiavellian plot. Shocking, I know. They decided to create the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, aka Amtrak, to take over passenger service, mostly around cities. Amtrak launched with terrible funding and a third of its passenger fleet. Then Amtrak named Roger Lewis as its first president. Lewis was a man who had no background in railroading and had been fired from his CEO job at General Dynamics, a defense contractor. In the railfan community, Lewis has fans, but far more detractors seem to believe he was hired to ruin passenger service. 

Amtrak also named Harold Graham as its marketing VP. Graham had a background in transportation, but he was from Pan American World Airways. Apparently, he didn’t particularly like trains and thought a train should look like a plane. I’m told we’re weren’t always stuffed into cramped seats on airplanes, but sitting in steerage today feels like Graham didn’t like people, either. Another factor hindering Amtrak’s launch was that many passenger cars had been acquired from other railroads and were badly in need of repairs. But against all odds, Amtrak survived. In 1975, Lewis was replaced by Paul Reistrup, who’d actually worked for railroad companies, like the Baltimore & Ohio and Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. Reistrup got Amtrak’s earnings up and cars in better shape, but the biggest contribution he probably made was getting control of most of the Northeast Corridor between D.C. and Boston. Amtrak remains America’s primary passenger carrier, with service across the country. And things are looking up for Amtrak. It finally has a big fan in the White House. Biden is a lifelong train commuter who announced in 2023 that Amtrak will receive $16 billion to modernize and grow.

Let’s go back to traveling on trains.

Personally, after watching John Oliver ’s exposé on Boeing, I’m all in on taking Amtrak for my next long-distance trip. Every day, there seems to be another problem with Boeing’s planes, whether it’s pieces falling off or aircrafts suddenly dropping mid-flight like stones. Oliver basically said that corporate greed has led Boeing to cut corners and turn out dangerous half-finished planes. I get that planes are faster than trains, and cars are usually more convenient. But if you believe in climate change, then no major form of transportation has a lower carbon footprint than railroads. Not only that, but they’re pretty relaxing for long distances. I traveled on Germany’s Deutsche Bahn and several Swiss trains. The Swiss trains are so clean, spacious and punctual that their operators scoff at the German train system. But even when the Deutsche Bahn was late, which was always, I preferred taking them to dealing with traffic jams, road construction and iffy GPS directions.

Luxury Trains. Even if train travel doesn’t pick up, it’d still be nice to experience luxury rail service in the U.S.. This past fall, I rode on the Champlain Valley Dinner Train out of Burlington, Vermont. I got to stick my head out of a window (literally) and stare at stunning scenery while having a delicious meal served to me. Crispy Apricot Chicken with a Fall Harvest Salad beat the heck out of a turkey sandwich in a plastic container from Amtrak’s dining car. I hope more people, especially Millennials and GenZers, want to return to the days of luxury train rides. The Boomer generation can’t do it all themselves. If railfans around the country can invest in restoring steam locomotives, maybe they can also fund the return to the classic passenger train experience. There’s hope! In the last few years, Hudson River Rail Excursions has been running trips on the 20th Century Limited. Most are day excursions from NYC to Albany and back, but a few will go from NYC to Chicago. These trains are being discussed by younger railfans on YouTube, and even the advertising features many younger models, which suggests the company is targeting a wider audience. In a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, the excursion operator said that most of their guests are “millennial folks looking for a unique experience but don’t necessarily know the backstory of the 20th Century Limited.”



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