In 1940, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad launched a rail service between Denver and the newly opened Winter Park ski area. By 2009, rising operating costs forced the The Winter Park Express out of business. It had consistently operated at a loss for 21 years; however, beginning in January the line will officially re-open, providing weekend passenger service to the Winter Park ski resort!
A Brief History of Ski Trains
Ski trains have been operating in the United States since 1868, when a small cog railway began taking people to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. That same year, rail service began to take skiers from Sacramento, California, to Reno, Nevada. In Europe, French railway companies launched rail routes into the popular ski areas of Switzerland and northern Italy. Mountain resorts like Andermatt in Switzerland needed their own railways, and the railways led to more and more resorts. After the Canadian Pacific Railroad pushed across Rogers Pass in 1885, for example, Glacier National Park opened the following year.
By the 1960s, most of the world’s ski trains began to close, in large part because of increased operating costs, a desire to get out of the passenger train business, and increasing competition from automobiles. In the United States, many of the small passenger lines were folded into Amtrak, which continues to provide rail service to such popular ski resorts as Sun Valley, Idaho; Whitefish, Montana; and Taos, New Mexico.
The New Winter Park Express
According to it’s website, “Amtrak is a leader in the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a safety technology designed to match train speed to track conditions for improved safety. PTC provides an added layer of safety on top of the cab signal and Automatic Train Control safety systems already in place.” Not only is Amtrak a leader in PTC installation; they are also mandated to equip passenger trains with the safety technology and they’ve partnered with Union Pacific to ensure the rails themselves are PTC compatible. The following statement was released by Union Pacific: “[we are] … pleased to partner with Winter Park and Amtrak to make the 2017 ski train service a reality,” said Donna Kush, Vice President of Public Affairs for Union Pacific. “Our No. 1 focus is safety for employees, passengers and communities, and we look forward to working with all involved parties to ensure the ski train is a safe and comfortable operation.” There is a tremendous amount of energy being invested in making sure the Winter Park ski train is operating safely.
Rail Track Infrastructure Improvements
The project to restore the Winter Park Express had a budget of $3.5 million and included other infrastructure improvements at the Union Pacific siding in Fraser. According to Amtrak, which operates the service, the “heated platform [was] partially funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation, a $100,000 grant from the City of Denver, a $100,000 grant from the Town of Winter Park, $1,000 from the Colorado Rail Passengers Association, and the remainder from Winter Park Resort.”
The Winter Park Express will share this route with the daily Amtrak California Zephyr service, which stops in Fraser, Colorado. The California Zephyr will continue to operate alongside the Winter Park Express between Chicago and San Francisco through Denver. Weekend service from Denver to Winter Park will run from January through March; ticket prices range from $39 to $59 one way and are available from Amtrak.com/WinterParkExpress.
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