William Spann isn't one of those train zealots who can name all the old famous routes. But he's so convinced that deregulation-bred slippages in air service have revived demand for pampered travel that he's embarked on bringing back the lost tradition of opulent railroading.
Three years ago the manufacturing-exec-turned-resort-developer met operators of Zurich-based Nostalgie Istanbul Orient Express, the rail of extravagance that winds through Europe. They wanted an entrÃ©e into the U.S. market; he was intrigued. "I didn't see any kind of transportation serving the luxury market," says Spann. Adding other investors, they formed American-European Express. Last November -- $15 million and an Amtrak contract later -- 10 mahogany and art deco-appointed restored Pullmans began carrying leisure and business passengers between Chicago and Washington, D.C. The price of a one-way ticket: $418 to $775.
The route was determined by Amtrak based on where it could join additional cars to existing runs; it wasn't the company's first choice. "And anybody who can afford our ticket," Spann discovered, "could afford to be someplace other than Chicago in January." Still, with springtime additions of New York City and Philadelphia stops, Spann is predicting revenues of $8 million to $9 million this year and break-even next.