The ski train: One guy's big difference

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Enough, I say, about crude by rail, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Hoosier State, mergers and Electro-Motive. The talk of the town the past few weeks has been the sudden, and by all accounts successful, revival of the ski train out of Denver, under Amtrak’s auspices. Tickets for last Saturday’s train sold out 10 hours after they went online and two hours after first word from the news media, namely National Public Radio. So Amtrak added a second train for Sunday and it, too, sold its 470 seats in a flash.

The Ski Train (in capital letters) was a 69-year-old Colorado institution to the Rocky Mountain resort of Winter Park when owner Anschutz Corporation pulled the plug in 2009 and sold the equipment to Canadian National Railway for use on the Algoma Central line. Common knowledge is that it had always lost money but was billionaire owner Phil Anschutz’s hobby, one of his several gifts to Denver, so to speak. When Denver Union Station closed in 2009 to be rebuilt and Amtrak was banished to a one-track temporary station, the Ski Train had no home and Anschutz gave up, probably with some regret.

So a little credit for this venerable train’s Lazarus-like return is due to some people, starting with 50-year-old Amtrak conductor Brad Swartzwelter (that's Brad in this Steve Patterson photo). He and I spoke by phone this morning, and I’ll let Brad tell the story:

“When Amtrak returned to Union Station last year, we paid for two tracks but rarely used the second one. Plus, we have all this equipment stored in Chicago from January through March, the ski season. So when Bob Brewster wrote a note in ColoRail News [a publication of Colorado Rail Passenger Association, an advocacy group] saying it’s time for Amtrak to revive the train, it made incredible sense to me. As an Amtrak conductor and president of SMART Local 166 [the former United Transportation Union], it also made sense. There is talk of moving this crew base from Denver to Lincoln, and a ski train means more jobs based here in Denver.

“The first thing I did was call Anschutz Corporation. Did they want to bring the train back? No, but we had their blessing, the only stipulation being we couldn’t use the name Ski Train, which was their copyright. So I came up with the name Amtrak’s Winter Park Express. Next, I went to my local union. Would my coworkers support  this idea? Of course, a unanimous yes. With that, I talked to Joy Smith. She is with Amtrak in Chicago and helped make the Texas Eagle stick around and work, and also the Heartland Flyer. Her title is Manager of Product Excellence, and if Joy thinks something ought to happen, it’s difficult to say no to her. Joy took this up and down the Amtrak chain of command. Then she brought a group of our executives to Denver on December 9.

“I took the lead in setting things up, starting with a tour of Denver Union Station. Then we took the California Zephyr to Winter Park to tour the ski resort. They have a lot to gain from a train, and Gary DeFrange, the chief operating officer, held nothing back. We also met with Becky Zimmerman, head of the National Sports Center for the Disabled, the world’s largest skiing program for the disabled.

“By then I was getting help from all the leadership team at Colorado Rail Passenger Association. We knew we needed a business plan showing the train would at worst break even for Amtrak, because nobody would get behind a money loser. So I put together the plan with all the numbers and details and operational issues and got editing support from the guys at ColoRail. I thought it was a pretty darn good plan, actually. We presented it December 9.

“The Amtrak gang went home and started work to make it happen. Joy convinced our executives it was something Amtrak ought to do. The 800-pound gorilla in the room, of course, was Union Pacific, which owns the tracks to Winter Park. When Amtrak put the proposal to UP, an awful lot of people made phone calls and wrote letters to Omaha in our support. They included the mayor of Denver, both U.S. senators and many disabled veterans who find it hard to get to the slopes. I was out of that loop, of course. Union Pacific came back with a yes.

“Meanwhile, Tina Slapcinsky dug around and found the two locomotives and six bilevel coaches we needed, three of them coach-baggage cars to hold the skis. Then we added a seventh car.”

Brad Swartzwelter was aboard both trains, acting as a host. Together they brought in $70,000 of revenue for Amtrak. He says of this: “Very few things can you do in the business world and not have losers. There are no losers in this.” Brad says demographics of Denver lean in favor of keeping this train alive next winter. The area around Union Station is undergoing huge redevelopment in hand with the station itself, which is now the ground transportation hub of the entire region. “There has been an explosion of residential apartments within a one-mile radius, occupied by wealthy, athletic ski-types, some of whom don’t own cars. The market today is far greater than in the Anschutz era.”

I also spoke today to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “Clearly it was a success this weekend,” says Marc. “But next season? We will sit down among ourselves and talk this through, and then with the resort. If we both think it is a good idea, then we’ll talk to Union Pacific about track access.”

So a tip of my had to Brad, who goes out tomorrow evening on the California Zephyr, on its overnight run to Omaha. “You know what’s fun about this job?” he says. “I get a different group of people to be around every run. There’s variety every time.”—Fred W. Frailey

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