Grand Canyon Railway, Canyon National Park, National Park Service, Arizona

Project Point of Contact

Douglas A. Lentz


When Xanterra acquired the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) in 2007, the company immediately went to work making the entire operation as environmentally sustainable as possible. Spawned by passion and conceived by ingenuity, the train now runs on 100 percent cleanburning and renewable waste vegetable oil, a Xanterra waste product generated just a few miles away in the kitchens at the Grand Canyon.


Rail travel is one of the most energy-efficient methods of travel, typically consuming up to 50 percent less energy than motor vehicles traveling the same distance. However, operating and maintaining a historic tourist train and resort can still generate large amounts of pollution.

When Xanterra acquired the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) in 2007, the company immediately went to work making the entire operation as environmentally sustainable as possible. On this day, Xanterra moved a 19th-century, inefficient steam locomotive dinosaur out of the Jurassic era and into the 21st century by retrofitting it to run on a renewable energy source - while also preserving its historic character. Spawned by passion and conceived by ingenuity, this train runs on 100 percent clean-burning and renewable waste vegetable oil, a Xanterra waste product generated just a few miles away in the kitchens at the Grand Canyon. With the odd aroma of french fries in the air - instead of a black cloud of smoke - engine No. 4960 chugged away from the Grand Canyon Railway depot toward a world of possibilities.

For Xanterra, this train is a living example of what sustainability looks like in the real world: unexpected partnerships, a new aesthetic paradigm, and technological advances with a nod to the past. It is among our proudest accomplishments as a business - one that operates in some of the most beautiful places on earth: our national and state parks. It symbolizes our acknowledgement that we must take responsibility for finding cleaner ways of operating our resorts and that our contribution to climate change must be addressed. It reveals a business strategy that sees clean energy in the tourism industry as smart and profitable.

Globally, if 6 billion humans on this planet are going to continue to add carbon and generate other wastes, we will need to develop regenerative ways of living and conducting business. As a people, we need reach beyond current science and controversial ways of thinking to transform our society. As a company, we need to change our whole system: our sourcing, packaging, transportation, buildings, food, retail, accounting systems, and employees lifestyles. The renewable fuel that powers this train, which operates on special occasions (seven to ten days per year, with two round trips to the Grand Canyon) represents only a drop in the bucket relative to the resources we use as a company. But, it's one of many efforts from the sustainability trenches in Xanterra s long-term mission to balance both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. Full steam ahead.

Results and Achievements

Anyone in food service will tell you that used vegetable oil - the stuff to cook french fries and other food - looks, well, rather disgusting. So it is even more remarkable that the engineers at the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) came up with such an original way to repurpose the stuff: to power the steam train. For more than a century, steam locomotives were powered with dirty coal. In recent decades locomotive technology switched to another fossil fuel - diesel. Now, Xanterra operates what may be the only steam train in the country that runs on clean burning, renewable, 100-percent waste vegetable oil (WVO). Many train enthusiasts were surprised to see the almost complete lack of visible soot emitted from the stack under full power, since vegetable oil burns much cleaner than conventional fuels.

With each 130-mile round trip to the Grand Canyon, this train carries between 1,600 and 2,000 people and uses 1,320 gallons of WVO. This saves 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel per trip. We also collect rainwater during the monsoon season and snow melt during the winter season. The water, more than 11,000 gallons saved per trip, would otherwise have to be pulled from the aquifer. Using a train to enter the park is dramatically more efficient than using an automobile. The energy used per capita when taking a train is roughly 0.67 gallons of fuel for the 130-mile round trip. And when using WVO instead of diesel fuel, it results in carbon emissions of 26,856 pounds per trip and keeps approximately 600 automobiles out of the park each trip.

By applying the principles of our Ecologix Environmental Management System (EMS), GCR set aggressive targets for improving efficiency and environmental performance. Some of the successful programs implemented include:

  • Reducing train ticket generation from 2.8 million to 700,000 per year by consolidating tickets and reducing the number of tickets mailed by using a will call pickup window.

  • Reusing hundreds of used railroad ties per year, some for fencing and landscape applications.

  • Using biodegradable, non-toxic pin, bearing and journal oil (PB & J) to lubricate steam locomotive bearings, slides, and mechanical drives.

  • Becoming the first short-line tourist railroad in the United States to receive the prestigious ISO 14001 third-party certification for our EMS.

  • Saving fuel by eliminating an old school railroad practice of idling locomotives 24 hours per day all year to keep engine and fuel temperatures up. Locomotives are now parked indoors saving 18,000 gallons of fuel per year.

  • Using a pharmacy approach to eliminate hazardous chemicals. This approach resulted in the elimination of all EPA F-listed hazardous solvents used for cleaning locomotive parts and replacing them with 100% citrus-based. biodegradable cleaners.


Through our extensive outreach and educational efforts beyond the property line, the Environmental Affairs Department at the Grand Canyon Railway (GCR) has been able to share our successes and failures with local school groups, Northern Arizona University students, short line railroads, and other tourist operations across the country. - GCR is experimenting with burning WVO in our shop heaters located in the Railway Maintenance Facility and Purchasing Warehouse. Currently we burn used oil generated from our vehicle and locomotive fleets. - GCR is in dialogue with Deirdre Hanners, NPS Environmental Protection Specialist to share the success of our projects and look at the feasibility of collaborative projects between Xanterra Parks & Resorts and NPS Green Team s. - We achieved Conditionally Exempt status from the ADEQ for reducing hazardous waste generation by 97% from March 2009- December, 2010. We have significantly reduced the costs associated with proper disposal as well as eliminated the extensive paper work and fees associated with large quantity generators of hazardous waste.