Iowa Pacific: No Ski Train this year

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DENVER — The Denver to Winter Park, Colo., Ski Train won't run this year and may never run again due to an ongoing dispute between Amtrak and proposed operator Iowa Pacific Holdings. Iowa Pacific announced its decision to cancel the 2009-2010 season last night, and company president Ed Ellis told TRAINS News Wire that unless Amtrak changes its position, no train will run in future years.

Ellis said his company pursued the standard course with Amtrak charters: The two sides put together a contract, and Iowa Pacific began selling tickets even though the contract wasn't yet signed. He said that's standard procedure, and charter operators almost never have a contract in place until a few days before operations begin. Amtrak, for its part, continues to maintain it's unfair that it be held to a contract it never signed.

"Amtrak's claim that they didn't have a signed contract is pretty spurious, because they never have a signed contract until a few days before you run the train," Ellis said.

Amtrak cites a litany of reasons for not running the train: The cars weren't certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, the locomotives didn't have adequate brakes, there weren't enough crews to handle the trains, and Iowa Pacific had insufficient liability insurance.

But Ellis said these were all issues that could have been dealt with. He said the dispute stems from Amtrak's poor planning: that it thought it could provide crews, realized at the last minute it couldn't, and found ways to object on other grounds. In particular, he said, the passenger railroad raised the liability cap from $2 million to $200 million on Nov. 2. That amount of insurance corresponds with what railroads charge commuter train operators, not excursion operators. Coverage at that level is simply too expensive to enable the train to run at a profit.

Iowa Pacific last week asked a judge to order Amtrak to operate the train, but on Wednesday, the judge declined. Now the company is asking the court to require Amtrak to pay the expenses incurred in getting the train ready to go, which Ellis estimates at $750,000 to $1 million.

As for future years, Ellis said the train won't operate unless Amtrak agrees to lower its liability cap, something the passenger railroad said it's not willing to do. Thus it appears that after 69 years of continuous operation, the Ski Train may not return to the rails of the Front Range.

Anyone who bought tickets for this year's train can contact the reservations center at skitrainservice@iowapacific.com or call 877-726-RAIL to receive a full refund. — Andy Cummings, Associate Editor

Read more about the ski train on Trains.com.
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