Hotel Watch: The Greenbrier Express

by John Arundel

Billionaire entrepreneur Jim Justice unveils his newest project, The Greenbrier President Express, a luxury rail that will transport guests in style from Washington’s Union Station to the resort’s front steps.
By John Arundel

A look at the Greenbrier Presidential Express' Exterior.

After rescuing it from bankruptcy two years ago and unveiling a Tara-like casino last summer complete with a star-studded opening, billionaire entrepreneur Jim Justice unwrapped his third gift for his cherished West Virginia resort Wednesday: The Greenbrier via luxury rail.

Launching weekly runs next summer from Washington’s Union Station to the resort’s front steps in White Sulphur Springs, The Greenbrier Presidential Express will cost about $650 round trip and feature 15 parlor cars matching the resort’s interior design made famous by the legendary interior designer Dorothy Draper.

The six-hour train trip will take up to 240 resort guests on a lazy, winding ride through the Northern Virginia suburbs and then deep into West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains. It will operate 11 months a year, departing D.C. on Wednesdays and returning on Sundays, starting in July 2012.

“Today is a very happy day for West Virginia, The Greenbrier and America’s train lovers…We’re building what will be the world’s finest train,” said Ross Rowland, whose company is refurbishing a locomotive and parlor cars at a former Bethlehem Steel Co. factory in Pottstown, Pa. “The Greenbrier will become the only resort in the world with its own private train.”

Rowland, Justice and interior designer Carleton Varney made the announcement during a news conference at the Hay-Adams Wednesday, followed by a VIP cocktail reception on the Top of the Hay for several hundred of the resort’s DC-based friends and frequent guests.

“I have a fantasy about everything we do at The Greenbrier,” said Varney, the Greenbrier’s curator and president of the New York-based Dorothy Draper & Company. “It’s the most fabulous resort in the country, and soon it will have its own private train.”

Justice, the oversized, approachable business tycoon who manages a portfolio of 47 family companies and who coaches his daughter’s high school basketball team in his spare time, said that The Greenbrier — a AAA Five Diamond property frequently named the nation’s top resort by the readers of Conde Naste Traverler — is locked “in a battle against ourselves to get even better.”

“When I grew up we could not have possibly afforded to go to The Greenbrier,” he said. “It was instilled in me that this was our nation’s treasure. It’s my goal now as its new owner to restore the treasure and make the dream last forever.”

Justice outbid hotel goliath Marriott Corp. for The Greenbrier in July 2009, paying about $20 million to CSX and assuming millions in debts. “It would have been tragic for this to have become a chain hotel,” he said. “We really wanted to throw away the snootiness and give it real character.”

Rowland said that he pitched the idea of a luxury train in 1995 to the resort’s former owner, railroad giant CSX, but company executives passed on the idea, telling him the resort was always full and did not need it.

But after buying The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in July 2009 — in the thick of a prolonged recession which has frozen the wallets of many luxury travelers — Justice decided to give it a shot, investing $15 million in the newly-formed Greenbrier Express Company.

“This crazy guy calls me on the phone one day and says he’s got the answer for me,” Justice says with a folksy chuckle. “The experts now have the ball.”

A former Amtrak executive and antique train buff, Rowland is the company’s first president and CEO. One of his first acts was to purchase two C-39 diesel locomotives and the 15 luxury rail cars, originally put into service in the 1950s for the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads.

The planned design of a Presidential Express salon car, outfitted with classic Greenbrier decor and luxuries.

The rail cars were most recently owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, the oil and telecommunications baron who also owns The Washington Examiner. Anschutz had once envisioned a luxury train service to several national parks out West but eventually scuttled the plan.

The ultra-luxe train will feature a board room car, salon car and even an open air car, all offering unhindered views of the passing mountains. A direct hotline to the Greenbrier’s Conceirge will allow Greenbrier Express travelers to make reservations for spa appointments, skeet shooting and other activities that it’s renowned.

The parlor cars are being designed with the Greenbrier’s signature decor and will be outfitted with all the trimmings and trappings of the resort’s heightened sense of luxury, including WI-FI Internet access, valets and wet bars in each car, and even a registered nurse onboard.

“My goal is to make this train very regal and royal,” Varney said.

As such, Varney chose an interior palette of colors consisting of soft blue ceilings, frosted white glass and Rhodendron red fabrics used at places like Monticello and The White House, where he once worked during the Carter administration as decorator.

“When you enter one of the parlor suites we want you to feel like you’re already at The Greenbrier, entering the lobby,” he said. “Very fruit wood-y mahogony and Baroque-y in detail.”

Varney cautioned that the idea was not to replicate Asia’s fabled Orient Express train service. “We have nothing to do with Agatha Christie,” he sniffed. “We want all the magic, color and fantasy of The Greenbrier.”

For his part Justice said that he hoped the luxury train will put “some energy” back in the resort and help increase occupancy, while also providing an opportunity to “step back in time.”

“The whole concept of the train is to slow things down,” he said. “It brings out the child in all of us. We all need a break.”

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