Reps of Winter Park and Amtrak discussed the season’s ridership figures at an informal media gathering at Union Station on Wednesday. The train’s last runs of the season will be this coming weekend, but it’s clear the service will return next winter. “It totally exceeded our expectations,” said Winter Park Resort spokesman Steve Hurlbert. “We’ve established that there’s a demand, and the potential for this is through the roof.”
Re-establishing train service from Denver was a long-running quest for outgoing Winter Park boss Gary DeFrange, as detailed in this week’s cover story, “Snow Business.” The train had been a vital link between Denver and Winter Park ever since the city first began to develop the ski area in 1940. But insurance costs and other obstacles sidelined the old ski train in 2009. Partnering with Amtrak took years, an investment of $3 million in various platform and siding improvements, tapping train equipment that was sitting idle in the winter elsewhere, and plenty of patience.
The train’s current 540-passenger capacity represents only a tiny portion of Winter Park’s skiers on a given weekend. However, DeFrange estimates that the Winter Park Express takes 500 cars off I-70 every weekend. In all, the train ran 25 days out of the season, including two holiday Mondays; last Saturday’s service was canceled because of a freight derailment. Many of the trips sold out, and more than a quarter of the tickets were purchased months before service began.
“It was like selling water in the desert,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. Magliari also gave a nod to Amtrak employee Brad Swartzwelter, who approached DeFrange with a proposal for his company to revive the service: “Brad and his union know how important this train is.” Equipment demands elsewhere in the system will continue to limit the Winter Park Express to a January-to-March schedule next season. But resort and Amtrak officials are exploring additional sponsorship possibilities and adding amenities (such as food and beverage service) next year. They’re also asking the public to send suggestions to Winter Park’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Alan Prendergast has been a staff writer for Westword since 1995 and teaches journalism at Colorado College. His stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.