Winter Park Express: What killed the Denver ski train, what brought it back and how to catch a ride

A westbound "ski train" in Tabernash, Colorado in 1940. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/OP-11288)

By Thomas Peipert, Associated Press

For decades, a train chugged into the Rocky Mountains west from Denver, snaking through 29 tunnels and crossing the Continental Divide before delivering eager skiers to the base of Winter Park Resort at an elevation of 9,000 feet. Insurance woes doomed the service in 2009, but now — with some help from Amtrak — the ski train is back.

A westbound "ski train" in Tabernash, Colorado in 1940. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/OP-11288)
A westbound “ski train” in Tabernash, Colorado in 1940. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/OP-11288)

The return of the Winter Park Express marks one of the more exciting developments for Colorado skiers in years, and resort officials say it’s already attracting attention worldwide.

Steve Hurlbert, a spokesman for the Denver-owned ski resort, said people from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia have shown interest in the train, which is set to resume seasonal weekend passenger service Jan. 7.

“You don’t have to worry about traffic. You don’t have to worry about weather. You can just sit back and enjoy the view,” he said. “It’s just a really relaxing way to get to the mountains.”

Powered by two 4,250-horsepower diesel-electric engines, the train is pulled from Denver’s historic and newly renovated Union Station about 60 miles and 3,700 vertical feet into Colorado’s snow-swept mountains. It drops passengers off about 100 yards from the lifts after passing through the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel, which was finished in 1928 and is credited with opening Denver up to western commerce.

Also featured are Amtrak’s Superliner double-decker cars, which are designed for longer distances and are roomier than normal passenger train cars. The train can carry more than 500 passengers and can be resized depending on demand.

A concept drawing of the new platform that will welcome trains at Winter Park resort beginning in 2017 (Courtesy Winter Park Resort)
A concept drawing of the new platform that will welcome trains at Winter Park resort beginning in 2017 (Courtesy Winter Park Resort)
But downsizing might not be an issue.

Hurlbert said tickets for two test runs of the service in March 2015 sold out in about 14 hours.

“We knew all along that there was a huge demand to bring this train back, and that really illustrated to Amtrak that the demand is substantial,” he said.

So far, Amtrak has sold more tickets than expected for the train, fueled in part by frustrated skiers and snowboarders who dread making the painfully slow trip to the slopes on traffic-choked Interstate 70.

The train, which shares tracks with Amtrak’s California Zephyr that runs between Chicago and San Francisco, has been a draw since it started running in 1940, the same year the ski resort opened. After the service was discontinued for a few years during World War II, it ran almost every ski season from 1947 until 2009, when billionaire investor and then owner Philip Anschutz shut it down.

“It just became cost prohibitive to run because some insurance rates went up,” Hurlbert said. “Our sense was that it would never come back.”
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said Denver-based employees proposed resurrecting the ski train a couple of years ago, and a conversation began with Winter Park Resort and Union Pacific, which owns the tracks.

It turns out, “the employee-borne idea had some legs to it,” Magliari said. “We have the available equipment. We have a willing host in Union Pacific and we have a great partner in Winter Park.”

A major piece of the puzzle was put in place when funding came through for a $3.5 million heated platform that is designed to accommodate athletes at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which is based at the resort. Contributors included the resort, the city of Denver, the town of Winter Park, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Rail Passengers Association.

But perhaps a more serendipitous development for the ski train was the recent completion of a passenger rail line between Denver International Airport and Union Station.

“This is the only service of its kind in the United States,” Hurlbert said. “This is the only place you can go from the airport to the mountain by rail. It’s a very European model. … That’s what really makes this exciting. It’s so much bigger in scope. It really kind of opens of the state to a lot of international travelers.”

If you go:

WINTER PARK EXPRESS: Amtrak train from Denver to Winter Park, Colorado. Round-trips will run Saturdays and Sundays between Jan. 7 and March 26, with an additional trip on Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day. Adult tickets cost as low as $39 each way and already are on sale. The trains will leave Denver’s Union Station at 7 a.m. Mountain time and will arrive at the resort at about 9 a.m. They will leave the resort at 4:30 p.m. and arrive in Denver at 6:40 p.m.