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The Orient Express... in Tucson? 

A ritzy Copper Canyon tour uses Tucson as its starting point.

When the folks traveling on the luxurious American Orient Express arrived in Tucson early Jan. 10, nobody noticed.

Tucson is the starting point for the shiny blue train's Mexico tour, with guests staying at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort before they are bused to Nogales, where they begin their plush journey on the train.

Ace railman Neil Wright thoroughly studied the route before deciding on the Mexico trip. He's the director of transportation for the American Orient Express, owned by billionaire Henry Hillman Jr.'s Rail Holdings, which also owns other luxury trains, a stern-wheeler riverboat and cruise ships.

Once the first group makes the leisurely eight-day swing from Nogales to Chihuahua, including the gorgeous journey up the Copper Canyon, guests are flown back to Tucson on the same plane that brings the next group to Chihuahua, where the trip repeats itself, this time ending up in Nogales. It costs $2,890 to $5,290 per person.

There are about 40 employees on the train with their own crew cars, crew lounge and sleeper. The guest sleepers are finished with a dark reddish Honduran mahogany. There is a laundry car, six or seven sleeper cars, two diners, a club car, the sporty Copper Canyon dome car and the New York tail car. Supper offers a choice among five entrees, with five courses.

The American Orient Express completes its series of eight trips in March. It will be back next January however, to carry on the Copper Canyon tour, with Tucson as its jumping-off city.

An old Amtrak man himself, Wright recalls that 1953 was the first year the airlines carried more passengers than trains.

"When President Dwight Eisenhower came back from Germany, he was impressed with the Autobahn and expanded the interstate highway system. They took the mail from the trains," Wright said.

This loss, in Wright's opinion, sounded the first major alarm for the decline in passenger railroading in the United States.

"The mail has never been handled as well since the railway lost it," he said. "You could go to the railroad station and they had a drop on the side of the car and you could mail the letter right on the train."

Wright credits the energy crisis of the 1970s with giving Amtrak the boost it needed to survive.

More information is available at www.americanorientexpress.com.

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