Train'Shares to combine luxe rail journeys with timeshares

By Michelle Baran

TrainSharesThree months after GrandLuxe Rail Journeys shuttered its vintage train operation, a newcomer is taking a stab at the restored railcar-vacation business, employing a model that is part timeshare, part rail journeys.

Trainshares Inc. was created a year and a half ago and began buying or leasing vintage railcars, restoring the interiors and upgrading the mechanics to meet Amtrak standards.

Now, the Houston-based company has launched the Train'Shares brand, a timeshare and train-vacation business that will begin offering rail journeys on the restored vintage cars in April.

"The original interest of the project was to offer rail vacations, and then we started to look at it as a timeshare opportunity," said Barry Jones, president of Trainshares Inc.

"The present operation of rail vacations is the first priority. The timeshare aspect of it is critically important over the long-term, [but] the present conditions in the timeshare industry are less than desirable."

Rather than running its own entire train and engine, which is what GrandLuxe did, Train'Shares has assembled groups of vintage cars that will be attached to Amtrak trains to be transported along various routes.

Once the trains reach their destination, the Train'Shares cars will be detached from the Amtrak train and moved to a nonoperational track where they will be parked. Guests will be able to sleep onboard while visiting various nearby destinations.

At some train stations, such as Union Station in Washington, Train'Shares passengers will sleep onboard the railcars while the train is parked in the station.

At other destinations, the cars must be parked elsewhere. Train'Shares said it would provide passengers in those situations with transportation, maps and information on getting to and from the parked cars.

Prior to the collapse of GrandLuxe, Train'Shares also had planned to attach its cars to several of the luxury trains.

John Garland, marketing manager for Train'Shares, said that GrandLuxe failed "not because of a bad idea. The problems they had would not have existed had this credit crisis not happened."

GrandLuxe Rail Journeys owned the train GrandLuxe Express, which consisted of restored cars from the 1940s and 1950s. It operated luxury, private train excursions of four to 10 days in the U.S. and Mexico, many through national parks. The cars are now for sale, and Train'Shares has bids in for several of them.

Diane Elliot, executive director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners Inc., said she thought GrandLuxe's problem was that it owed Amtrak money on runs it could not fill.

A typical Train'Shares rail vacation is a seven-night trip, with an average price tag of $5,500 per person, according to Garland. Some journeys are roundtrip, and others are one-way. Cabins sleep up to four, and private cars accommodate up to seven passengers. The trip price includes all meals and accommodations, with optional additional excursions.

Train'Shares is positioning itself as an all-inclusive, luxury product. The high costs of the trips are due to the annual and monthly fees charged by Amtrak, which rents track use in most of the country from freight railroads, Garland said. In addition, Amtrak charges Train'Shares per-mile costs.

The upfront costs of buying and restoring the cars represents a significant overhead. Upgrading cars to Amtrak standards alone costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each, according to Elliot, which is why she was surprised to hear of another company taking a stab at the rail vacation business. The investment is big, and the payback is not guaranteed.

"There are a lot of people that just believe in this market," Elliot said. "They really believe that there's this untapped luxury market out there. I do not know of a single one [of private-railcar owners] that turns even a very modest profit, if that."

But Jones said that in the Train'Shares model, "the costs of the cars are buried in the timeshare expense."

Ultimately, he hopes to sell timeshares for 10- and 20-year periods that buyers can cash in for one rail trip per year or swap out for stays at properties controlled by the timeshare giant RCI.

The first group of four cars, the American Traveler train set, will launch in April. The cars, which are intended to travel as a group, will be offered on four itineraries between Washington and Toronto and between Washington and Miami.

Another set of cars, comprising a product called the American Explorer, will be launched in late July or August on numerous itineraries in the U.S. and Canada, including trips from Chicago to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver; up and down the West Coast between Los Angeles and Vancouver; and between Washington and Boston.

One of the American Explorer group, the Abraham Lincoln, is a fully restored car originally built in 1910 by the Pullman Co. under the direction of President Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Another, the Cedar Rapids, is part of the American Traveler set and was built in 1948 with a dome top with sky windows.

Jones said that the company acquired marketing lists and was focusing on a specific demographic and psychographic:  people who don't travel outside the U.S., for one.

Train'Shares is offering 15% to 22% commission to travel agents.

Launching a new product in the midst of an economic downturn isn't ideal, but Jones said that with about 50 departures scheduled next year and just more than 700 vacations, Train'Shares was not deterred.

"It's a project of love," said Jones, who is one of four shareholders in the company. The others are Garland and Stanley and Steve Priskie. Jones said the company was seeking a fifth shareholder.

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