Departure of Ski Train leaves void in Winter Park
January 6, 2010
Emotion is running high, again, over the loss of the ski train in Winter Park.
“There is not a single person here that didn’t want the ski train to come back,” said Winter Park Town Manager Drew Nelson.
A deal between the Iowa Pacific Holdings, a company that runs scenic railroads across the western United States, and Amtrak fell through Dec. 24, just days before the ski train was set to kick off its 70th season.
Iowa Pacific had picked up the route after a company run by billionaire Phil Anschutz announced last spring that it would stop running the ski train for financial reasons.
Winter Park was the only ski resort in the nation where riders could board a the train in a metro area and get off on the slopes.
To run the ski train, which Iowa Pacific had dubbed the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, the company had brought in improved railcars, more seating and a different business model that would have allowed passengers to stay overnight, ride both directions and purchase package deals with the ski resort and lodging companies.
With Amtrak’s direct knowledge, Iowa Pacific began selling tickets on Nov. 3, according to the Iowa Pacific Web site. Some 13,000 reservations had already been sold.
After nearly six months of logistical planning and operational discussions that involved Amtrak, Union Pacific Railroad, and the Federal Railroad Administration, negotiations between Amtrak and Rio Grande started to break down.
A congressional nudge
Sen. Mark Udall, at the request of Winter Park Resort, tried to help move the deal forward, Udall’s staff said.
“Senator Udall worked very hard in bringing the parties to the table after negotiations broke down, and he remains hopeful that a compromise can still be found because this affects jobs and the economy of Winter Park, especially during these hard times,” said Tara Trujillo, spokeswoman for Sen. Udall.
Liability and safety issues eventually killed the deal, forcing Iowa Pacific to cancel all trips for the season.
From the town’s business leaders to its government officials, people saw the ski train as an opportunity to create jobs and increase business for the ski area, downtown Winter Park and in southern Colorado where the train’s reservation call center was headquartered.
“Personally I’m very disappointed,” said Winter Park Mayor Jim Myers. “Here was somebody willing to take on this project, add cars to the train and take thousands of cars off I-70; and he wasn’t asking for anything in return.”
Statistics show that a quarter of people who rode the ski train didn’t actually ski, Myers said: “A lot of people just really like to ride trains.”
The town had hoped to capture some of those non-skiing riders, bringing them into area restaurants, shops and other recreational activities. Council members had even discussed running additional shuttle ski train riders downtown.
“There is no way to know what kind of impact this had on us,” Myers said. “Of all the things that happened his year, this is not a good one.”
Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce director Catherine Ross said: “I speak for the whole community when I say that we’re disappointed this couldn’t work.”
The good news, Ross said, is that people who had booked reservations on the ski train still want to come to Winter Park. The chamber has been fielding calls from people who had made plans with the ski train and are looking for alternative ways to get to Winter Park.
Ross said the chamber’s staff has been directing visitors to other forms of transportation, including the Home James shuttle service, Amtrak and Greyhound.
“We are just happy we have all these alternatives,” she said.
Senator Udall’s office remains hopeful that the ski train can get back on track.
“We hope this isn’t the final chapter and there’s more to be done,” Trujillo said. “I think we are in the middle of the book.”
In a letter to the public posted on its Web site, Iowa Pacific expresses the same sentiment:
“We certainly recognize how important the ski train is to this community. We join thousands of customers throughout the state in disappointment over the loss of this celebrated tradition and we hope ski train service can run next winter.”
Customers can contact email@example.com or call 877-726-RAIL to be issued an immediate refund.
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.