With a New Belgian beer, a cup of coffee and a hunk of pound cake close at hand, Bryan Fishman was loving life as the first Winter Park Express ski train of the season pulled out of Union Station in Denver at 7:06 a.m. Friday with him comfortably ensconced in the lounge car.
He didn’t know when he bought his train tickets that the addition of the lounge car this season would mean snack and beverage service for the first time since the Winter Park Express began running two years ago. And there is another new amenity passengers loved Friday: The new lounge car has floor-to-ceiling windows that make for great sightseeing as the train climbs up Coal Creek Canyon to the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel under the Continental Divide.
“This car is really cool,” said Fishman, who was traveling with girlfriend Morissa Goodman. “That was like an extra surprise. I didn’t even really know what they did to it, I just knew we wanted to try and get on the first ride of the season. Like a social car, it’s fun.”
Fishman wasn’t the only one who left Union Station before sunrise with a beer at the ready. Vishan Patidar opted for Coors Light.
“The lounge car was a big selling point for me, just to be able to relax, take in some mountain views, have a couple of beers and not have to worry about drinking and driving,” said Patidar, a software engineer for Denver Public Schools who was traveling with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. “And just avoiding I-70 traffic.”
The ski train to Winter Park has a venerable history. The original Ski Train ran from 1940 to 2009, and it had food service. Amtrak created the Winter Park Express in 2017, but the first two seasons had no snacks or refreshments. Now passengers can buy beer, wine, coffee, snacks and soft drinks.
Mike Haas and his wife, Mellssa, were in the lounge car for the views. The couple from Johnson City, Tenn., came out for a three-day ski trip.
“I was looking for a place to come to in Colorado, and learned about this train,” he said as someone on the lounge car began playing a harmonica. “I thought it would be a neat way to go to the resort. Incredible views. We’ve never been to Colorado before. It’s just unbelievable.”
Melissa said she was most impressed by “the white mountains” of the Continental Divide.
Along the way, “Conductor Brad” explained points of interest over the train’s public address system with a friendly sense of humor. Brad Swartzwelter has been in “railroading” for 24 years, his interest first kindled when he rode the old Ski Train as a kid in the early 1970s. In those days the train made a stop near Rocky Flats so passengers from the western suburbs could board there.
“We’re going to leave the western suburbs of Arvada now and cruise out towards what we call the ‘Big 10’ curves,” Swartzwelter said shortly after the train rolled past the spot near Colo. 93 where the old ski train stopped. “We’re gaining altitude at a 2 percent clip and we’re going to keep doing so all the way to 9,200 feet above sea level, deep inside Moffat Tunnel.”
Swartzwelter said the Big 10 curves are “so named because from the air it looks like somebody drew a 10 on the landscape with the tracks.” Moments later he told passengers they were approaching “one of my favorite places for railroading in the entire world, that being the Tunnel District. … We’re going to go through 27 tunnels in just 12 miles. This is the most concentrated area of tunnels anywhere on the American railroad system.”
Then came some glorious scenery south of Boulder.
“We’re going to start by weaving through the Flatirons formations,” Swartzwelter said. “These are massive sandstone batholiths that were formed as the beach of a massive inland sea about 70 million years ago. Then, as the modern Rocky Mountains had their uplift, they took those solidified sandstone slabs and stuck them up on end to create these glorious rocks that we’re going through.”
Soon the train made the turn left turn into the mountains, which offered views of the glistening Continental Divide. As the train passed through the Moffat Tunnel, Swartzwalter explained that there was 3,000 feet of granite above the train, adding, ”That means for most of us, this is as deep into the Earth as we will ever get in our lives.”
The train was in the dark of the tunnel for 10 minutes, When it emerged from the West Portal of the tunnel at 8:45 a.m., there was a sudden splash of light and color at the Winter Park base.
“Oh my gosh,” one child exclaimed, “This is Winterland!”
The train will run Saturdays and Sundays through March 31 and the first two Fridays of each month as well. Tickets, available through Amtrak, are $29 each way.
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