Amtrak marks 30 years in Grand County
July 19, 2013
After months of delay, the first Amtrak train rolled into Granby station on July 16, 1983.
The silver and blue passenger train, emblazoned with the "Amtrak" logo, is now a familiar sight in Grand County. It emerges each morning from the Moffat Tunnel at Winter Park as it zips west to San Francisco. It claps through the Middle Park countryside each afternoon on its eastbound journey to Chicago.
Amtrak calls its California Zephyr line, which runs through Colorado's Rocky Mountains, "one of the most beautiful train trips in all of North America." But the rail service faced formidable barriers, both manmade and natural, before its Colorado debut exactly three decades ago.
"It's a delightful way of travel, always has been and always will be," said Clifford Black, who worked as Amtrak's chief of communications from 1981 until his retirement in 2010.
“We were delighted Amtrak could reroute the train ... It was one of the great passenger train routes in American history.”
former Amtrak chief of communications and Grand County second homeowner
Black is also a part-time resident of Grand County with deep roots in Colorado. He frequently took the Amtrak from his home base in Washington, D.C. to vacation at family property near Tabernash.
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"I was scheduled to be on the inaugural run, but there was a huge landslide at Thistle, Utah, which significantly postponed the startup of the Amtrak service," he said.
Amtrak's Chicago/California line passed through southern Wyoming at the time. When the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad offered its Zephyr passenger line between Denver and Salt Lake via the Moffat Tunnel, Amtrak leaped at the opportunity to run a train through Colorado's scenic mountains.
"We were delighted Amtrak could reroute the train," Black said. "It was one of the great passenger train routes in American history."
The first run of Amtrak's California Zephyr on Colorado's historic railroad was set for April 24, 1983.
But 1983 was an unusually wet year. Record-breaking precipitation, heavy winter snowpack and rapid spring melt filled Grand County's reservoirs and flooded streets. In Utah, the deluge triggered a massive landslide – the largest and most costly slide in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Damages exceeded $200 million, and turned Thistle into a ghost town. By April 21, the slide had buried a section of the railroad, severing an important freight and passenger corridor. Rail companies scrambled to bore a 2,600-foot tunnel through the mess.
Sky-Hi papers from the spring of 1983 reported extensively on the train's delay.
"It's all up in the air … we don't know what we're going to do," Black told the Sky-Hi on April 21, 1983, when he still worked as Amtrak's communications chief.
Meanwhile, the state of Wyoming filed a court order against Amtrak, furious about losing its passenger line. In mid-June, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Amtrak to continue operating the California Zephyr through Wyoming until the court finished hearing briefings. Colorado's passenger train plans were left in limbo.
Finally, on July 1, the tunnel was drilled and the court ruled in Amtrak's favor.
"The natural and manmade barriers are now out of the way. AMTRAK will begin its daily train service through Grand County at 10:25 a.m., Saturday July 16 in Granby," the Sky-Hi said on its front-page story.
About 300 residents greeted the train, including county commissioners and the Granby mayor.
Despite the struggles, Black said rerouting the train through Colorado was a great move.
"It increased ridership significantly, because of the beauty of that route," he said. "People flocked to the train – the scenery is spectacular."
Three decades later, residents continue to take pride in the Granby Amtrak station. The Town of Granby, which owns the station, replaced its floor and remolded its exterior last February. The town plans on enhancing an interior mural and beautifying the exterior with landscaping early next year, according to Town Manager Wally Baird.
"We didn't realize it was the 30-year anniversary," Baird said. "But it was important to beautify it because it's one of the first things people see when they get here."
A quaint one-story wood building located on Railroad Avenue, the Granby station has no office hours or ticketing services. It acts as a simple jumping off point for train travelers. Amtrak reports the station received 3,528 passengers last year. The more popular Fraser/Winter Park station, which was added as a stop in 1984, received 7,162 passengers. Both Black and Baird said the California Zephyr is popular among skiers traveling from the Midwest.
Passenger trains haven't replaced the popularity of car and air travel. According to Amtrak data, ridership in the county peaked in the early 1990s, but even with a small spike around 2000, passengers have slowly tapered off since. Still, Amtrak provides a small boon to Colorado. The company reports employing 68 Colorado residents and spending about $12 million on goods and services in the state in 2012.
"I don't know that it's sparked any economic development, but it certainly hasn't hurt anything," Baird said.
With his 30-year perspective working at Amtrak, Black said there's a strong, viable future for train travel. Rising fuel costs and public interest in environmental impacts will only increase ridership, he said.
"I think the future is very bright, particularly in high density population areas. But long-distance trains like the California Zephyr bind those places together," he said. "And, frankly, in this helter-skelter world we live in, it's a wonderful way to unwind and see the country."