Heading to Grand Canyon? Well-traveled train station closes

The train rolled in well past sunset as a couple of shuttle drivers waited at a dimly lit platform for passengers headed to the Grand Canyon.

After loading the shuttles, the last driver turned off the lights, closing down the Williams Junction station as the Amtrak train faded into the distance.

The routine had become one of passengers' most treasured experiences in the American West, but it ended with the new year. The company that runs the shuttle service between the train stop and the small city of Williams 3 miles (5 kilometers) away said it was becoming too much of a burden, effectively closing the station.

"I'm very sad to see it close because the whole history of this area — Williams and the Grand Canyon — is based on the trains bringing people out this way," said Jim Sigmon, a Prescott resident who traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, with his wife over the holidays via Williams Junction.

Amtrak's twice-daily trains between Los Angeles and Chicago have stopped at the station since at least 1999, when a company that runs a nearby hotel built it to serve passengers on its own rail line to the Grand Canyon.

Xanterra Parks and Resorts bought the Grand Canyon Railway in 2007 and decided last year to stop the free shuttle service at Williams Junction. As of Monday, passengers are picked up and dropped off in the Northern Arizona city of Flagstaff, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away.

Railway spokesman Bruce Brossman said the train schedules were inconsistent, and passengers who arrived late at night or before dawn lingered in the hotel lobby — sleeping on couches, with nowhere else to go, and making guests and staff uncomfortable.

The shuttles also took a beating on the rough road to the station, he said.

"We really think that it's going to be a better experience for the train passengers to go to a real train depot in Flagstaff," Brossman said.

Those who have used the station don't want to see Williams forgotten if people choose to drive from Flagstaff directly to the Grand Canyon. Built on ranching and the railroad, the small city was among the last in Arizona to have Route 66 bypassed by Interstate 40.

For Mike Kinsey, arriving at Williams Junction with his wife and son was an adventure. He said his family like offbeat places, and it fit the bill.

"Frankly, I was thinking I should have my pistol hidden under my jacket because it's out in the boonies," the South Carolina resident said. "It's just really remote. Nothing bad, but it's just a little odd."

In comparison, the train depot in downtown Flagstaff is open around the clock and has hotels, restaurants and other businesses within walking distance.

Trace Ward, director of the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city has been working with Amtrak to let passengers know what's open around their scheduled arrivals and departures.

"We're hopeful that it means more economic impact via tourism for the city," he said.