Ski Train Hunting

For about sixty years, the Rio Grande railroad and its corporate successors (i.e. Ansco) operated a ski train between Denver and the Winter Park resort near Fraser, on the far side of the continental divide. This was typically run only on weekends, sometimes only on Saturday, so it was something of a railfanning event to go out to photograph it.

The train went through several phases of equipment. Prior to 1960 it was made up of whatever the railroad could cobble together that day, more or less.  From 1960 to 1987 it was equipped with a matched set of eight heavyweight coaches purchased from the Northern Pacific railroad.  And from 1988 through its final season in 2007 it ran with a beautiful set of aluminum coaches bought from VIA Rail in Canada.

My introduction to the Ansco Ski Train came in 1993.  I’d been aware of the train for much longer, of course– since 1982, to be exact (see here for examples).  But I had been unaware of the re-equipping of it until about 1990. My first real exposure was on March 14, 1993;  we scheduled a trip from New Mexico to Denver to ride the train.  It was everything I’d hoped for, and turned us into regular customers.

Precisely because we don’t live very close to Denver, I made surprisingly few outings just to photograph the train.  Few, but not none!  Here are some of the results of those trips, all of which date from the 1990’s.

Click the images to see a larger rendering

First, though, the introductory trip.  Although it’s hard to consider riding a train to be chasing the same train, these photos are from the ground (i.e. outside), so they qualify on a technicality…

As I said, we took this ride on 3/14/1993.  The kids were still too young to endure a daylong trip like this, so it was just my wife and I who showed up at Union Station before 7:00 AM.  Our coach turned out to be the second one on the train, MOUNT BIERSTADT.  I remember being disappointed that the power was a pair of Southern Pacific GP40M’s.  (I learned later that this was a recent situation– earlier in the season, Rio Grande power was the norm.  Unbeknownst to me, big internal changes were happening inside the Southern Pacific organization, leading ultimately to the dissolution of the Rio Grande identity.)

I took only a couple of photos on the ride up to Winter Park, and they didn’t turn out well.  Once at Winter Park, we caught the shuttle down to the now-defunct Idlewild cross-country area, where we had a great time skiing, falling down, and getting charged by a momma moose.  Yeah, that’s right. Moose.  Ticked-off moose.  Good thing the snow was too deep for her to get much footing.

Back at the resort (don’t want to miss the train, you know), we had some extra time, and I took the following photos.

ST-1993-0314-01 Here’s a look at the head end, waiting to board and return to Denver.  Southern Pacific GP40M’s No. 7297 and 7129 have the honors.  No. 7129 wears the early version of the SP – D&RGW merger paint scheme. The train used a power car to generate electricity, seen here.  At the time it wore the name MOFFAT TUNNEL, and contained a pair of Caterpillar diesel generators.  This unit was built by Alco in 1946 as a PB-1 locomotive; used on the California Zephyr, it was later gutted and converted to a steam generator car in the mid-1960s, and served in that capacity on the CZ, the Rio Grande Zephyr, and the earlier Ski Train before conversion in 1987.
ST-1993-0314-02 Here’s our car, MOUNT BIERSTADT.  All of the cars were
named after places in Colorado (see here for more of
an explanation).
ST-1993-0314-03 Intrigued by the three cars on the tail end, I walked back
and took this photo of the dome car CALIFORNIA.  This car entered service on the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle railroad, and was acquired by Ansco in 1985.  This car and the two behind it comprise the “private car” section of the train, and are inaccessible to regular Ski Train passengers.Anecdote: on one occasion, in April 1989, I saw these three
cars running as a westbound special, behind a pair of D&RGW GP40’s, at Coal Creek canyon.  It was the last time I ever went train-watching without a camera. Ever.
ST-1993-0314-04 Here’s the vestibule of our car, MOUNT BIERSTADT.  Note those weird-looking disc brakes on the trucks.
SP7297-930314b Back in Denver, here’s the front end.  The viaduct above the train has since been demolished.

We rode the train on President’s Day weekend, 1996 (February 17th).  As part of the experience, we were videoing the trip for our daughter’s 3rd Grade class.

In order to have some exterior views, we went out to photograph and video the train’s return trip the following day, February 18th.  This counts as the first outing per se during the Ansco era.  Here are a few shots– from Colo. 72 and from the pullout at Rocky (near the Colo. 93 overpass).

SkiTrainAtRocky-96-02-01 The train is descending the tangent below the upper Big Ten curve.  It’s a long ways without a telephoto lens, but you can really see the nature of the topography that the railroad has to contend with.
SkiTrain-Rocky-1996-02 The light wasn’t good, but the train was pretty.  No snow down here today, but plenty up in the mountains.
SkiTrainAtRocky-96-02-03 A bit closer now.  All 14 of the (ex-VIA Rail) Hawker-Siddeley cars are visible.
SSW9673 This weekend’s power was a Cotton Belt GP60 and a Southern Pacific sister.  This was the last season of red-and-gray power, though no-one knew that at the time.
SkiTrainAtRocky-1996-02-04 Car 7, PYRAMID PEAK, rolls past.  This was the car we’d
ridden the previous day.  Somebody has the Dutch door open in the vestibule, an unusual occurrence which would usually get you in trouble with the train crew…
SkiTrainAtRocky-1996-02-05 Here’s the tail end of KANSAS, as the train curves under the
Hwy 93 overpass.

On with the chasing!  Fast-forward a couple of years, to the winter immediately following the Union Pacific – Southern Pacific merger.  For the entire 1996-1997 Ski Train season, a pair of Rio Grande- painted GP60 locomotives was used for power.  This was a much better color match than the red-and-gray SP units that had been used in the interim.  Although I didn’t get a chance to ride the train that year, I went out twice to photograph it.

Second Outing: December 29, 1996

Light is in short supply in December, so I went as far west as I dared to intercept the train.  We settled for Pinecliffe.  Considering how long we ended up waiting, maybe Rollins or Tolland would have been a better bet.  At any rate, we walked down past the siding’s east switch to wait for the train.

 Until this moment, I didn’t know that they had Rio Grande power on the train.  Unbelievable– here we were, eight years and two mergers after the “end” of the D&RGW, and we had a passenger train with Rio Grande locomotives, and cars in Rio Grande paint, running on historical Rio Grande tracks.  Whose railroad was this, anyway? Pinecliffe-1996-12-01
Told ‘dja the light was getting dim…  Here’s an artsy photo of the lead unit, No. 3155. Pinecliffe-1996-12-02
Going-away shot.  It really was too dim for photos from this distance, but I had to try.  This shot looks down the canyon towards the narrows where the tracks cross the creek
and enter tunnel 29.
Looking back west as the private cars come into view.  Note the signal’s reflection on the side of the train. Pinecliffe-1996-12-06
The tail car KANSAS rolls by on its way back to the barn.  The lighted drumhead and tail lights show up well in this shot.  My wife got a good video roll-by of the whole train.  Sadly, I wiggled a bit too much taking the photo… Pinecliffe-1996-12-07

We actually got pretty good video of this roll-by.  Eventually I’ll get that up on Youtube.

Third Outing: January 4th, 1997

Exactly one week later, in the morning, we went up to Plainview to watch the westbound train.  Right on schedule, it came up the hill and past our position on the cut south of the grade crossing.  I should have paid more attention to the light and shadows, but it worked out OK.

ST_Jan97_02 Running on the main line, past the east switch of Plain siding, the train shines in the early morning sun.
ST_Jan97_03 Closer now.  The pair of GP60’s, the same ones as the previous week, are having no trouble moving the long train up the grade.
ST_Jan97_05 One more look at the power.  No. 3156 would be repainted in Union Pacific colors about two years later, and No. 3155
received a yellow patch with a UP number in 2002.
ST_Jan97_06 Coach PYRAMID PEAK, the 7th car on the train, passes through sunlight and shadow simultaneously.
ST_Jan97_007 OK, that’s better.  The train is proceeding up the line towards the tunnel district and Winter Park.  The Flatirons are shown to good advantage in this view. By the way, that’s an old D&RGW Fairmont track speeder parked on the house track.  Once common, they’re now extinct.

Fourth Outing: January 2nd, 1998

The following year I made a solo trip to Plainview.  We had ridden the train the previous week, but I hadn’t gotten my fix yet, so out I went before dawn to take photos.

I wanted plenty of time to get in position up at the Rainbow cut, so I arrived before dawn.  This was fortuitous, as things turned out.  When I arrived, there was a westbound UP coal train (empty) stopped just short of the grade crossing.  (This practice has a long history here, where a WB train will wait with its tail hanging out of the siding until just prior to a meet with an eastbound train.  This avoids blocking the crossing for more than a short time.)  I hiked up to the cut and set up.  Before long, the empty coal train moved forward until it was fully in the siding, then reset brakes. As it was banging to a stop, I saw lights coming down the hill, blinking in and out of the tunnels along the Front Range.  It turned out to be an eastbound manifest freight, with three GP60’s for power– two Rio Grande and one Southern Pacific. (See the video link above!)  Finally, after the freight cleared to the east, the coal train moved out and up the hill.

My location offered a view of the Big Ten loops, so I had lots of warning when the Ski Train was approaching.  I set the video on the tripod and shot the pictures below freehand.  The sun was up by now, but the day was cloudy and the light scant.

ST_Jan98_01 Here’s a nice overall look at the train.  As you can see, the Rio Grande locomotives are now a thing of the past, and Ansco had leased a pair of Amtrak F40PH’s to do the duty.  As had been the case when we rode the previous week, the dome car CALIFORNIA was not in the consist.  (The small hill directly above the parked maintenance-of-way train was the location where I stood to take the photos in the previous section.)
ST_Jan98_03 Looking down at the sixth car, MOUNT EVANS.  We’ve ridden it twice.

Here’s the front half of the train as it snakes through the reverse curves at the west end of Plain siding.  Note the absence of the power car.  These Amtrak locos have onboard electrical generators (Head-end power, or HEP).  However, it turns out that two units were insufficient for traction and generation, and performance problems became common later in the season.  Thereafter, Ansco used three units on the train.
ST_Jan98_05 Most of the train has passed.  The three lounge cars are visible directly ahead of the private dining car UTAH, at left.
ST_Jan98_06 Here’s the tail end.  Business car KANSAS brings up the markers.  This car is the former D&RGW business car WILSON McCARTHY.
ST_Jan98_07 Looking across the valley as the head end approaches tunnel 2.  The first car of the train is crossing the west switch of the siding.  Sure wish I’d had a second tripod!

Those familiar with the train will recognize that all of these photos predate the final paint scheme .  In 1999 the car names were removed from the large nameboards below the windows, replaced with the words “The Ski Train” in a Birch font.  The private cars were also repainted and given back their “Rio Grande” heralds in place of the “Southern Pacific” lettering that they’d worn since 1992.

The most noticeable difference, though, was in the locomotives.  In 2000, Ansco acquired three F40PH locos and had them repainted into colors that matched the train.  After that there was no guesswork as to what would pull the train, unless one of the F40’s broke down.  Power car No. 253 saw no service after summer 2000, and was later sold to Canada.  The generators onboard the F40PH’s eliminated the need for it.

The Ski Train’s cars continued to serve faithfully, with only minor cosmetic changes.  The train itself was remarkably consistent from 1988 until its sale in 2009.

Other than a few more rides, the only other time I saw the train from the ground was one snowbound morning at Union Station, on a day when the train was annulled.  These photos above were the last of my fan outings.


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