The One That Got Away… 39971

by Bob Brewster

Sleeping car passengers on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight are familiar with the Pacific Parlour Car, a first class lounge car originally built for the famed Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1956. Of the six lounge cars built, Amtrak still rosters 5 for the Starlight, which is an added attraction for that 36-hour Los Angeles – Seattle coastal route. The car remains a popular enticement to ride the train and special activities further enhance the experience. Swivel parlor chairs complement the lounge-style and table seating offerings. The car is a respite from the confines of tiny roomettes and bedrooms and the overhead dome glass brings the outdoors inside.

However, one of those original lounge cars (39971) was sold many years ago, and it now sits forlorn in a used rail car mecca in Madison, Illinois, awaiting an uncertain future, along with its companion coaches and diners. Originally tagged the Santa Fe Hi-Levels, the bi-level concept led to today’s Amtrak Superliner fleet, the more efficient mainstay of most long distance trains, particularly in the west.

Santa Fe parlor car 39971

Former Pacific Parlour Car 39971 from the Santa Fe Railway. Could this become a Winter Park parlor car?

Though 60+ years old, the Budd Company’s stainless steel construction techniques make them a timeless rail vehicle. The Hi-Level coaches even have the potential to be starter vehicles for other rail services in Colorado – at a far more affordable price than brand new equipment, despite extensive rehab costs. Front Range Rail? NW Rail?

Now, the audacious proposal: Might the 39971 become a first class parlour car for the newly minted Winter Park Express? This would most certainly require private sector participation, likely in exchange for naming rights and other promotional benefits. Perhaps “Google Parlour Car,” “Silver Bullet Parlour Car,” “Winter Park Parlour Car,” “Mary Jane Parlor Car”……..

The car would require extensive mechanical upgrades and interior restoration, requiring likely at least 1/2 to $1million. Would it pay for itself over several years? Financially, probably not. But from a marketing standpoint? Maybe. But the car would offer an upscale experience and amenities such as meals, snacks, beverages and a more sociable and scenic atmosphere would make it an attractive option for special celebrations and events. The critical concern is that it contributes to Amtrak’s bottom line in operating the WPE.

For more background, Google Gateway railcar, Santa Fe Hi-Levels, and Hi-Level 39971.

ColoRail is aware that food and beverage offerings were a major request during the WPE’s first year of operation, and it is hoped that such services will be a part of the 2nd season. But what about an enhanced F&B, especially for those who patronize the WPE for its scenic attraction rather than its recreational purpose?

ColoRail is not shy about throwing out wild proposals, such as in ColoRail Passenger Issue #76 (see where it was suggested that Amtrak would be a likely operator of a renewed Ski Train. We know how that wild proposal went.

ColoRail is under no illusions that it would be an easy or even practical task to bring 39971 back to life, but could it do for the Winter Park Express what its sister parlour cars are still doing for the Coast Starlight? Would it make the journey to Winter Park just that much more of a special experience?

Last Winter Park Express ski run for 2017 comes home

The first season of the Winter Park Express was a big success. ColoRail leaders traveled on the last trip on March 26. They honored Gary DeFrange, the outgoing CEO of Winter Park ski resort with a custom train host parka, poster and letter of thanks.

Gary, a ColoRail member, played a crucial role in getting the train going. Amtrak has committed to continuing the WPE in 2018.  ColoRail coordinated the train host program and presented passengers with a special postcard and pen on the return trips March 25th and 26th.

New media coverage of the Winter Park Express

We’ve seen some excellent new stories in local media about the Winter Park Express. On Wed., March 22, Amtrak announced that 18,000 passengers rode the train this season, considerably more than their expectations.

Denver Business Journal published this video about the train: DBJ video page on WPE

Westword on March 23 ran a short piece by Alan Pendergast about the success of the train: Winter Park, Amtrak Beaming Over Ski Train’s Sellout Success. But the best story to read came in Westword’s pages the day before the success announcement. On Tuesday they published How Denver Created Winter Park — and Almost Lost It, also by Prendergast. It is an in-depth article about the history of the Winter Park ski area, with considerable attention devoted to outgoing president Gary DeFrange, the ski train, and the nature of the City of Denver’s ownership of the area.

Passenger Rail Update; March, 2017

Story and photos by Bob Brewster

March, 2017

ColoRail’s multi-modal campaign, launched in 2016, states: “Colorado Needs Transportation Choices.” Well, the new “Choices” keep coming! On top of 2016’s strides in RTD FasTracks corridor openings, more will follow in 2017. And we surely hope that the crossing gate signaling issues bedeviling commuter rail get resolved soon so as to not dampen the momentum being celebrated. The A-Line has been plagued with “new technology” gremlins since opening over 10 months ago. Yet the line is popular, with ridership exceeding expectations. The power of the rail mode!

And the short, one-stop B-Line between Denver Union Station and Westminster is well over ridership expectations! Plus, the passengers don’t appear to be siphoning off the Westminster Flatiron Flyer bus station. We wonder where they’re coming from. Could it be the power of the rail mode?!

But the return of a celebrated icon in local railroading may be stealing the rail show at the start of 2017: the famed Ski Train is back under the Amtrak banner as the Winter Park Express, sponsored by CenturyLink. The eight-car Superliner train is easy to spot, with two regular Amtrak P42 locomotives at one end and a de-motored F40 loco serving as a cab-control unit at the other, permitting push-pull operation, negating the need to turn the train at either end of its journey. The cab unit and 3 cars are wrapped in striking graphics featuring CenturyLink, the train’s sponsor, and skiing the slopes. The sponsorship will certainly help make the WPE a financial success, much to everyone’s relief!

Winter Park Express engine painted in Century Link colors and logo

The Winter Park Express waits for its skier passengers.

A number of ColoRail members serve as car hosts on the Winter Park Express, volunteering their time to assist with the handling of skis and snowboards, as well as handing out trail maps and other items while answering passengers’ questions. ColoRail purchased the blue WPE jackets for easy identification and the hosts purchased their own gray monogrammed vests. Hosts report extremely enthusiastic passengers who relish the avoidance of Berthoud Pass and I-70! We urge all ColoRail followers to give the WPE a try! But hurry – trains are selling out, as expected! This reporter even encountered a young couple who flew all the way from Houston to ride the WPE and spend a 3-day weekend here. Trains DO have an economic impact!

The Feb. 10 (Weekend Edition) of USA Today carries a great story, with photos, of the WPE. Updates on the WPE will be part of ColoRail’s Winter Membership meeting, now in the planning stages. Stay tuned……

ColoRail wishes to thank ALL who have helped make this Colorado tradition the great success that it is. We look forward to next season! The power of the rail mode?!

photo of R-Line cars and tracks at sunset

The R-Line at 13th Ave.

Meanwhile, on February 24, RTD commenced operation of the long-awaited R-Line, an Aurora-centric line largely following the I-225 corridor and turning south along I-25 to the Lincoln Avenue terminus of the SE corridor E and F Lines, similar to the former G-Line. At the north end, connections can be made to the A-Line, although observed connections to date have been largely “just-misses.” We hope RTD will make these important connections more secure.

Eight of the 16 R-Line stops are brand new, two of which will be shared with the current H-Line as it gets extended to the Illif and Florida Ave. stations, hopefully reducing parking pressure on the packed Nine Mile Station. However, the Iliff Station is an Aurora endeavor which charges $3 daily to all – no 24-hour freebie for RTD area residents, which may meet resistance from commuters. Opening week of the R-Line and H-Line extension witnessed light ridership. Let’s hope it catches on with the public – the line meanders and some traffic light delays can be extreme, so it’s not necessarily a fast route. But those riding appear to be happy!

Unfortunately, on hold is the opening of the 11-mile G-Line commuter rail service between Denver Union Station and Ward Rd., serving Arvada and Wheat Ridge. The same signaling issues plaguing the A and B Lines are preventing train testing and the opening of the G Line. Maybe it will blossom in Spring, along with the tulips!

Also in the works, the N-Line from DUS to 124th Ave, serving Commerce City, Thornton, and Northglenn, featuring the longest bridge span in the state, in order to bypass vast swaths of industrial land obstacles. Simultaneously, the 3-mile extension of the SE light rail corridor to Lone Tree has been scratching the earth.

And dare we wonder if the FasTracks bond refinancing will cough up some cash for the stressed-out NW Rail line to Boulder and Longmont? Tax receipts from the DUS development have so exceeded expectations that about $134M in savings could be realized with the refinancing plan. US. House Representative Jared Polis has urged RTD to spend the savings on the Northwest line. 

Another important note is an experiment by our friends at Bustang: SnowStang. On Feb. 11 & 25, CDOT operated its Bustang coaches to 6 different ski resorts, originating at the RTD Federal Center park and ride. Roundtrip fares start at $45. This is yet another transportation choice offered to the public and ColoRail endorses the effort enthusiastically! For more details visit: ColoRail hopes to feature an assessment presentation of the SnowStang experiment at our next membership meeting.

Cheyenne, WY depot and flowers

the Cheyenne, WY rail depot

One final note: there may be a charter bus excursion to Cheyenne Depot Days on Saturday, May 20. If you haven’t experienced this beautiful station complex, mark the date. Included is a tour of the Union Pacific steam shops and the Big Boy 4014 steam locomotive restoration. A model train event is also available.

Speaking of which, the famed TCA model train show was held at the Denver Mart at 58th and I-25 on March 4 and 5. ColoRail manned a display and made a presentation on the WPE and its roots prior to the 2009 demise of the original Ski Train.