The Winter Park Ski Train Reboot Is Shifting Into Higher Gear

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<p>(Courtesy of Colorado Railroad Museum)</p>
Photo: Vintage Ski Train 1

Update Dec. 16: Winter Park says the Ski Train is unlikely to return this season. Our original story is below.

The Winter Park Ski Train was once an iconic part of Colorado lifestyle, carrying skiers from Denver’s Union Station to the slopes for decades starting in 1940. Now, for the first time in six years, there’s talk of reviving the train, possibly as soon as this winter.

What might this new ski train be like?

The goal is this: Starting in the 2016-2017 ski season, a person could land at Denver International Airport in the morning, take the new East Rail Commuter Line to Union Station, board the Ski Train and arrive right at the slopes of Winter Park without ever needing a car -- all in about three hours. Winter Park says it's the only place in North America where it's possible to take the rails all the way to a ski resort.

Is the tourism industry excited about this idea?

Carly Holbrook with Colorado's Tourism Office is. She says if the ski train were revived, it would be a big selling point for Colorado: "It's a unique experience where you get a taste of Colorado's history on the route that's been around since the 1940's, it's a very relaxed experience. You're not worrying about driving in traffic to a ski destination. So I think if visitors are considering Colorado amongst other states for a ski destination, the train could be a big selling point, and could also entice visitors to choose Colorado over other ski destinations just because it is such a unique form of travel to go skiing."

Could this help solve weekend I-70 traffic headaches?Photo: Vintage Ski Train 2

The Colorado Department of Transportation says it welcomes anything that could relieve congestion on I-70 in the winter, but also says the department has plans that will make a bigger difference, like a new express shoulder toll lane opening later this year on eastbound I-70 from Empire to Idaho Springs. The train likely wouldn't make a significant dent in winter traffic along the corridor headed to Summit County and beyond. But for skiers who'd want a no hassle way to get to the slopes, this seems ideal.

This isn't the first attempt at reviving the ski train:

In 2009, after the Anschutz Company sold off the ski train citing poor profitability and the downturn in the economy, another private company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, made plans to operate the train. They even sold tickets for the excursions. However, disagreements between Amtrak and Iowa Pacific forced the company to cancel the trains and refund around 13,000 passengers who had pre-booked seats on the train.

What makes people so sure the train could come back this year? Photo: Vintage Ski Train 3

The main difference here is that you have both Amtrak (that would provide the actual trains) as well as Union Pacific (which owns the tracks) at the negotiating table. When the train was owned by Anschutz, it had to ask permission to use the tracks and operate as a passenger service. Plus Amtrak required the company to have very expensive liability insurance.
Winter Park says things have aligned just right, and there's little to keep the new train from starting operation as early as this ski season.

Is there market demand for a new ski train?

If you remember earlier this year, Winter Park and Amtrak announced they would provide a special excursion train to celebrate Winter Park's 75th anniversary. It was an Amtrak-run train, and tickets for seats sold out in hours, with another train quickly added the following day. Those tickets sold out in minutes. So the demand is there. And that solidified both Amtrak and Union Pacific about the demand for the train, and its profitability.

What needs to happen before this ski train can become a reality?

Quite a bit, actually. While Winter Park is very eager for this to happen, Union Pacific and Amtrak have been much more mum on the details.

A lot has to be figured out yet. For example, where will the train be stored while skiers are on the slopes? Where will the train's crew stay? How will the train turn around for its return trip to Denver? All of those questions are yet to be answered in a plan created by Winter Park and Amtrak which has been submitted to Union Pacific. They’ll in turn work with federal railroad officials to finalize details including the possible building of a permanent platform at Winter Park.

What about funding for the train?

Winter Park says that since Amtrak is going to provide the cars and the crew, Amtrak will be footing the bill for the train. If a train platform is required, Winter Park will provide that funding. The resort is also exploring the possibility of providing housing for the crew while they wait for the return trip to Denver.

Once everything is ironed out, how much will tickets cost?

That's still to be determined and Winter Park is working with Amtrak on that. While it's still too early to talk about fares, there is talk about a Winter Park rail pass, which would work much like a typical ski pass. In theory, one could buy a ski pass with their train tickets already included. The resort also says they’re working on a kiosk at Union Station that would allow people to buy lift tickets and train tickets at the same time.

So what are the next steps?

Winter Park, Union Pacific and Amtrak have met a number of times already, once in April and again last month. There are plans for them to meet again by the end of this month. It’s important to remember that Union Pacific and Federal railroad officials are the linchpins here. If Union Pacific gives Amtrak approval to use their tracks, federal approval won't be far behind. Again, both Union Pacific and Amtrak have acknowledged that meetings are taking place; but they're not much more forthcoming then that. However from Winter Park’s perspective, there is nothing currently on the table that could be a deal breaker.

When does an answer come one way or the other -- train or no train?

Winter Park says an answer could come in the next few months and most likely before the start of this ski season.