The Denver Post has a story today by Scott Willoughby called “Riding the Rails to the Slopes.” A primer on using Amtrak’s California Zephyr train as a ski train, it lists the stations along the route with access to ski resorts. Included are Frasier, (for Winter Park,) Glenwood Springs, (Sunlight,) Grand Junction, (Powderhorn,) and several in Utah and Truckee California. I would add Aspen and Snowmass to the Glenwood Springs list. Although Aspen is 40 miles from Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork Valley has excellent public transit and express bus service linking Glenwood Springs to Aspen.
This is a great article, and an excellent resource for visitors who want to combine a rail trip with mountain towns. Its also a great way for carfree folks to access the slopes, and a way for those with ample free time to visit ski towns via a comfortable scenic journey sans traffic.
The only problem? Given Amtrak’s delays and performance record “ample time” isn’t a suggestion – but a requirement. This past spring and summer I’ve considered taking the Zephyr train up to Glenwood Springs for a weekend. I’ve ridden Amtrak around California, mostly the L.A. – San Diego Surfliner, and I’ve been wanting to do a trip on the Zephyr through Colorado. I could arrive Glenwood Saturday afternoon, do some biking or hiking, hit the brew-pubs Saturday night and have a relaxing ride back Sunday evening, or stay on additional day and head down Monday.
The only flaw with this plan is the delay factor. The Denver – Glenwood Springs leg is only 150 miles of Amtrak’s 2,500 miles between Chicago and San Francisco. And small delays on other parts of the route can add up significantly. Amtrak is infamous for lengthy delays, and this necessary contingency factor makes it quite impractical for a weekend trip. The Zephyr is scheduled to depart Denver at 8am from Union Station with an arrival in Glenwood Springs at 1:54pm. Unfortunately I can’t count on the Zephyr to depart on time, and the odds of arriving Glenwood Springs, (or Grand Junction if going further west,) on time are slim to none.
If I bought a ticket I wouldn’t want to spend half the day Saturday WAITING in Denver for a six-eight hour delayed train, which for a weekend getaway would greatly eat into your time. Furthermore, if the eastbound train, (scheduled to leave Glenwood Springs 1:15pm) is delayed somewhere in the vast expanses of Nevada or Utah, that means I wouldn’t arrive Denver until past midnight Sunday night.
Almost everyone knows that Amtrak’s priority is second to the freight lines they shares tracks with. The delays aren’t always Amtrak’s fault, and some routes (like the Acela and Surfliner) do offer frequent predictable service. But sadly a large window of contingency is required to ride “commuter legs” of Amtrak’s long cross country routes. Until that is solved Amtrak will not be able to cater to those with tight schedules. For Amtrak to provide weekend getaways to the busy professional then the tightening of schedules is a must. I love rail travel. I would love to bike down to Union Station and sit on a train for five instead of stop and go traffic on I-70. But for me its simply too unpredictable. At least until I retire.
Meanwhile I saw this story before Christmas. Amtrak’s Pierre Marquette, which runs between Chicago and my hometown of Grand Rapids Michigan, was delayed for 16 hours in the hamlet of Holland, just 25 miles southwest of its final destination of Grand Rapids. The reason? The Pierre Marquette had pushed out late from Chicago, encountered some weather delays, and by the time it reached Holland the crew had reached their maximum work hours. The passengers were left stranded with food, water, and resources (LIKE TOILET PAPER,) quickly running out. Of course the logical question was “Why couldn’t the crew simply push on the last 25 miles?” A fair question. This isn’t the Conejo grade, but a flat boring stretch through the Grand Rapids suburbs. But if an accident did occur within that last 25 miles you can bet the crew work limit would factor in. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t right? (And they didn’t)
Here’s my hero aboard the train. 24 year old Eric Kuhl realized that he was only a few miles from his house, so he simple gathered his stuff, opened the door, and walked out into the snow. He figured out where he was and had his sister pick him up at a nearby gas station. If I was on board I would have been right behind Eric – and could have shared a ride into town. Now if only we could do that on the tarmac without repercussion. (ok maybe that’s not such a smart idea.)
Even worse PR for Amtrak; when the good folks from the Holland police showed up after receiving calls from those on board they were denied access to the train:
Holland Mayor Al McGeehan said he also is seeking answers. When he heard a news report that the train was stuck in Holland, he asked Holland Police Chief John Kruithoff to check it out. About 7:30 a.m., Kruithoff located the train in the CSX rail yard, less than one-half mile east of the Holland rail depot, McGeehan said. CSX officials denied the chief access to the train, McGeehan said.
“I find that to be amazing,” said the mayor. “All we wanted to do was assess the situation and see if anybody needed help of any kind. There could have been upset mothers, tired kids, hungry kids,” McGeehan said. “We are always involved in emergency preparedness drills, but nowhere in our drills have we come up with a situation where no one would give us access. I’m not satisfied with that answer.”
Here’s the story from the Grand Rapids Press. Some follow ups linked are included as well.
Back in Denver – the Ski Train, servicing Winter Park, starts up service this weekend, and while it too has experienced the occasional winter delay the Ski Train has a pretty good reputation around town. And somebody got new skis for Christmas – so see you on board soon.