Winter Park Express takes riders back to a time before Colorado ski traffic
WINTER PARK (CN) — There is no feeling like flying down a snow-covered mountain with a waxed board strapped to your feet — one if you snowboard, two if you ski. It’s liberating. It’s exhilarating. It’s the reason thousands of Coloradans wake up at dawn, pack onto I-70 West, and spend the weekend inching toward their preferred ski resort.
There is one alternative and it just may be the ski industry’s best kept secret: the Winter Park Express. The beloved train runs weekends January through March from historic Union Station in downtown Denver right to the base of Winter Park mere steps from the gondola.
The train departs at 7 a.m. as the sun’s rays reach across the golden plains to paint the snowcapped mountains purple. The passenger cars crawls north past Coors Field and pick up speed under I-70 where ski-rack loaded SUVs challenge the vintage engine to a race west. The train won’t see the infamous highway again until it returns at dusk, but Amtrak conductor Brad Swartzwelter regularly reminds riders that it’s there, filled bumper to bumper with stuck ski bums.
A three-decade veteran of Amtrak, Swartzwelter’s personal library contains 80 books on trains including "Rails That Climb" and "Zephyrs Through the Rockies." Over the intercom, he points passengers to fourteeners Pikes and Longs Peak, 150 miles apart and yet simultaneously visible from the train. His teenage daughter might tell you he’s been giving the same spiel all her life, but there isn’t a tired note in his voice during either two-hour leg. After all, this is his train.
Service between Denver and the resort town ran for seven decades under different owners until the Great Recession. In 2009, the train’s liability insurance bill grew too steep for the railroad to climb and then-owner billionaire Philip Anschutz sold off the cars.
Swartzwelter is credited with convincing Amtrak to pick up the torch. Regular service to Winter Park resumed in 2017. The state Department of Transportation pitched in with a $1.5 million grant for a heated ADA-compliant platform.
Other resorts located near train stops may offer shuttles, but Winter Park is the only ski resort in the United States where you can seamlessly walk off the train and onto a chairlift. The resort is but one stop on the storied track built at the turn of the 20th century.
1862 Pacific Railway Act
The 1862 Pacific Railway Act brought the first trains through Colorado, but it would take another eight years for tracks to reach Denver. The development of narrow-gauge as a less expensive alternative to standard gauge in the 1870s allowed for the construction of tracks throughout Colorado’s gold mining regions and up over the Rocky Mountains.
The standard-gauge Denver & Salt Lake Railway crossed the Continental Divide via Rollins Pass, a treacherous route beholden to the elements year-round. In 1902, owner David Moffat vowed to make a new path, not over but through the Rockies. The feat took nearly 30 years and wouldn’t be completed until 1928, 17 years after his death.
Eight hundred men worked 90-hour weeks to bore through the mountains and lay out the track. Even with the latest compressed air drills, dynamite and tenacity, it took five years to carve out the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel. More than two dozen workers died along the way.
Once complete, the Moffat Road took 173 miles off the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad’s route between Denver and Salt Lake City. By sheer luck, the route happened to pass by Hot Sulfur Springs, a mountain town with a growing reputation for winter sports. Twenty-five miles south, Winter Park officially opened in 1940 right along the tracks.
“The ski train wasn't unusual back when private railroad companies were operating a bunch of different passenger trains,” explained Paul Hammond, executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. “What's changed between then and now is all of the different railroads stopped operating their own pool trains and Amtrak took over the national passenger train operation, so special trains like this have become much less common.”
Behind a 4,200-horsepower General Electric engine, Amtrak strings together passenger cars that would otherwise sit in storage. Though the cars were renovated in several different eras, the train boasts all the luxuries of airplanes in old movies: reclining seats, curtains on the windows, jovial neighbors who become easy friends.
As a passenger, it’s hard to tell when the train is sold out, because even with every seat filled, the cars are spacious. There’s room to wander between the observation deck and the caboose. The rhythmic chugging of steel tires on a steel track plays bass beneath the leisurely din of breakfast and Bloody Marys.
Amtrak advertises tickets at $34 each way, but having been inspired by the airline industry to adopt competitive pricing, rates increase as the train fills. Unless you book in January, you’re likely to pay upwards of $54 per leg. It’s not cheaper than driving and not necessarily faster, but it truly is more comfortable.
“Going to ski in a car comes with a whole lot of complications,” Hammond said. “We all know what happens to the highways on weekends.”
Trade organization Colorado Ski Country USA tracked 12 million skiers and snowboarders riding Centennial State mountains during the 2021-2022 season. Though they didn’t all drive from Denver, and certainly not on the same day, that number was up 14% from before the pandemic. And the organization anticipated upwards of 14 million riders venturing out this year.
Denver and ski areas
There is but one winding route between the bustling Denver metro and the mountain resorts: Interstate 70. Sandwiched between the Clear Creek and a wall of solid rock, there is little room to expand. If there is a limit to the number of cars that can squeeze through the corridor in a single day, skiers are on route to find it.
In January alone, 1.1 million vehicles passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel which leads to several popular ski resorts on the way west to Utah. That's an average of 36,373 cars daily, right on par with traffic rates during the week of Christmas 2021, when the state Department of Transportation tracked between 26,066 and 43,563 cars traveling north and south through the tunnel daily.
More cars on average actually travel during July, but wintry conditions and frequent accidents make the going legendarily slow throughout ski season.
On a bluebird day, strangers chitchat about the traffic on the chairlift, one-upping one another on lengths of travel time and who left earlier. Drivers plan their day around the road, hoping that leaving at noon will be early enough to beat the Idaho Springs parking lot.
“The traffic is painful,” said Bryan Bechtold, a member of the Colorado Passenger Rail Association who volunteers on the Winter Park Express.
Bechtold inherited his love of trains from his grandfather, who fell for the steam engines of the early 20th century. He started volunteering on the Anschutz ski train during its final years and now dons a cowboy hat on the Amtrak iteration.
In addition to recalling the history for passengers, the volunteers help load and unload skis and snowboards. By the gear to passenger ratio, Bechtold estimates only two-thirds of passengers ride the mountain. Dozens of others take the train to go snowshoeing, snowmobiling, tubing and sightseeing.
Though the train brought them out, it’s hard to know whether folks would have braved the traffic and made the trip otherwise.
“The traffic is going to ultimately kill the ski industry,” Bechtold said. “People are going to go elsewhere. People visiting Colorado will go to Utah.”
Rail back in style
Although rail went out of style with the rollout of highways during the post-World War II boom, state lawmakers are seriously considering passenger trains as a means to help decongest highways.
In 2018, the Colorado Legislature allotted $2.5 million to a commission mandated to plan passenger rail from Pueblo to Fort Collins. In the coming years, voters will be asked to approve a tax hike to cover the billion-dollar bill.
“We're running out of space and it's becoming too expensive to maintain and expand our highway system to deal with it,” said James Souby, chair of the Colorado Front Range Passenger Rail District board of directors. “There is a real powerful argument to do passenger rail where you have congestion.”
Once tracks are in place, Souby argued, it’s more efficient to add cars to a train than it is to add lanes to a highway. Both his father and grandfather worked for the Union Pacific Railroad.
“They both supported passenger rail as long as it was profitable,” Souby said. “Today it's too expensive to get it built, but once it is built, because of the congestion and market demands, it's falling back into the side of the equation where you can make money at it.”
When you ask why someone — if not the state, a train company or a benevolent billionaire — doesn’t just build a new train track to depressurize I-70, you’re told in the same tone they use to tell the kids Santa Claus ain’t real that it’s simply too expensive.
Reflecting on his own undertaking, David Moffat once said, “I had no ideas of greatness when I undertook the building of the Moffat Road. I wanted to do it for the good of the state and nothing more.”
The sentiment no longer rings true. While miners of today drill with vastly superior equipment compared to Moffat’s day, his builders also didn’t adhere to OCEA safety requirements, EPA protections, and minimum wages.
Rail challenges in mountains
The challenges of building a railroad to other ski resorts are as great as the mountains people yearn to ride. Time will tell whether that equates to being insurmountable. But for now, with little competition in sight, an eager ridership, and an award-winning resort at the end of the line, the Winter Park Express is poised to chug through a few more chapters of the state’s history books.
“I love history,” said Taylor Hill, riding a train for the first time in her life. She and her husband flew in from Houston for their honeymoon and planned to go skiing for the first time. Had it not been for the train, they might have picked a different resort or state.
“I never knew that,” Jacob Hill grinned, handing his wife a breakfast cocktail. As the train carried them through the Moffat Tunnel, Mr. Hill recalled some of the train’s story he had gathered from the ColoRail volunteers.
“This might be our new family tradition,” Mrs. Hill remarked. After eight minutes of darkness, the train emerged at the Winter Park Station in a town of sparkling snow and skies as blue as the image on a postcard.
And right on cue, the gondola began boarding the day’s first riders.