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Last stop seen for Denver ski train


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POSTED: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

DENVER » Through 69 years of service, since the days of lace-up ski-boots and leather straps, the ski train from Denver to the Winter Park ski area carved out a deep tradition in the psyche of Colorado's winter landscape. On weekends from the city's Union Station, and through the sunburned apres-ski parties on the way back down, the train evoked an alpine culture before the interstate, and the mega-resort, and the high-season traffic jam.

But now the train might have chugged its last.

Its new operators, who took over this year after a previous operator had said the money-losing enterprise was unsustainable, abruptly canceled the season on Monday night and said that thousands of tickets purchased in advance would be refunded.

The villain was not recession, said Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, a private company in Chicago that operates excursion and tourism trains in six states and in England, but insurance and legal uncertainty in a dispute with Amtrak, the publicly supported passenger rail provider.

Amtrak provides engine crews for the line, and has been saying for weeks that Iowa Pacific had not prepared properly for the season and that train safety could not be guaranteed. As a result, Ellis said, advance bookings had fallen.

Ellis said Amtrak had in effect scuttled the ski train by insisting on inordinate liability insurance levels that made operation unviable.

“;The ski train is heavily reliant on advance bookings, which came to a complete halt last week,”; Ellis said in a statement. “;In addition to losing the revenue from the initial runs, it became clear that this delay will result in market uncertainty, resulting in insufficient sales for the train to be self-sustaining for this season.”;

Amtrak, which has been vilified here in Denver in recent days for its stance about the ski train — including an excoriating editorial in the Denver Post on Sunday — said in a statement that it was “;willing to bring the ski train back,”; but that Iowa Pacific had been selling tickets before all the contractual arrangements with Amtrak were settled.

Ellis, asked if he might try again, said provisions had already been made to have the ski trains' cars moved to Iowa Pacific's other tourism lines, and that 13,000 tickets purchased in advanced would be refunded by the end of the week.

“;You're asking the guy who's lying on the mat after the sucker punch if he wants to go at it again,”; Ellis said in a telephone interview. “;If circumstances changed and it became possible for us to reasonably look at again, sure,”; he added. “;But at this point we're looking at other opportunities.”;