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Winter Park Express
Winter Park Express

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.

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.

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.

But downsizing might not be an issue.

 

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.

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.

 

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