All aboard for future of Winter Park Ski Train service
WINTER PARK — A little boy peeking wide-eyed from under his ski helmet at the hulking engine.
An engineer leaning easily out of the high window of the locomotive, grinning into the sunshine as he watches skiers and snowboarders descend Village Way and Larry Sale.
These were among the indelible scenes from the platform at Winter Park Resort as passengers disembarked from the Winter Park Express’ inaugural journey on Saturday, March 14.
The train left Union Station in Denver around 7 a.m. on Saturday, following a ceremony that featured representatives from the City of Denver, Winter Park Resort and Amtrak. Both of Colorado’s U.S. senators were also there.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are to be here this morning,” said Gary DeFrange, president of Winter Park Resort. “It is so wonderful to see skis back at Union Station.”
During the ceremony, praise abounded for the various collaborators who facilitated the Winter Park Express, a reincarnation of the eminent Ski Train that ferried skiers from Denver to Winter Park for almost 70 years.
But what seemed to draw the most cheers were comments about the possibility of regular service to Winter Park Resort next season.
“Here’s the question so many will be asking: Will Amtrak want to do this again after this weekend?” asked Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak’s route director for the train. “Well, the answer is, ‘You betcha.’”
Amtrak will confer with Winter Park Resort, Union Pacific and other stakeholders to make a “business-based decision” about possible train schedules and fares, Brzezinski said.
The announcement seemed to confirm what has been speculated ever since the Winter Park Express was first announced in late February – that the train’s two weekend excursions could be a prelude to regular service in the future.
After the March 14 train sold out of its more than 450 tickets in less than 10 hours, Amtrak scheduled a second trip for March 15. That one sold out even quicker.
Amtrak officials said the success would factor in to decisions about future service to Winter Park.
Many lamented the loss of the original Ski Train when it ended its service in 2009.
Many still refer to the Winter Park Express affectionately as “the Ski Train.”
“There are few things more iconic Colorado than the ski train,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, recalling early rides on the ski train.
“This train is part of our legacy, it’s part of our history, it’s part of who we are,” said Sen. Michael Bennet. “Let’s bring this back for every day for the ski season next year.”
A new and improved Winter Park Express
Brad Swartzwelter is a conductor for Amtrak. He reckons he first rode the Ski Train as a child in 1972, embarking at Rocky Flats to go to ski school.
He started working on the Ski Train in 1991 while studying travel administration and tourism in Denver.
“This is the guy whose call started the whole thing,” DeFrange said, introducing Swartzwelter to the crowd on Saturday morning.
Swartzwelter has been involved in the Winter Park Express since he first proposed it, and rode along for both trips over the weekend.
“I’d say it couldn’t have been better,” he said. “It met expectations.”
Some even called the excursions “major improvement,” Swartzwelter said, citing more attentive customer service and the train’s double-decker Superliner.
“I would say we’re taking a step forward, even in the way people enjoyed it,” he said. “This year it was festive, right up there with the best of our old Ski Trains.”
Stakeholders will meet in April to discuss future service, Swartzwelter said, though he did offer some insider knowledge of the situation.
Though very busy during the holidays, Amtrak’s passenger service is slower from January through March.
Therefore, skiers and snowboarders could possibly see train service provided during those three months next season.
Though nothing is confirmed, Swartzwelter said the success thus far is auspicious.
“I don’t really see how there couldn’t be a bright future in what we’re doing,” he said. “Everyone seems to be for it, and it’s really hard to find anyone who’s negative about it.”
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Winter Park approved an across-the-board raise for town staff that had initially been paused due to the coronavirus pandemic’s expected impact on the budget.