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Polar Express rings in the holiday season, but wide-ranging themes power Colorado tourist trains year round

From weddings to murder mysteries, day trips to overnight excursions, rail with a special touch helps rev rural Colorado’s engine

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad's Polar Express train gets ready to leave the depot. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Nostalgia for trains years ago launched a scenic railroad industry across North America and savvy train owners now are adding themed excursions to extend the business season and bring in new customers

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Colorado, where specialty trains have boosted revenues to maintain the rail lines that once served miners and cross-country travel. Those efforts, in turn, have added millions of dollars to local economies.

“Our mission is to preserve and save historical railroads,” said Al Harper, CEO of American Heritage Railways and owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. “The old way of just getting a ride into the mountains and back is not sustainable.

“We’ve got to create interesting things that attract young people and families. We started that about 10 years ago and it’s paid off.”

Especially when Santa and the Polar Express trains are running.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s Polar Express train pulls into the North Pole, set up in the events area north of Durango. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

About 98,000 passengers are expected to ride a holiday train in Colorado this year. That’s nearly 19% of the annual total ridership of about 520,000 on the three railroads that offer the specialty trains from mid-November until early January. Ticket prices range from about $20 to $85, depending on the train, class of service and the date. Adult tickets are generally $10 to $15 higher than those for children.

“With our Santa Express we will haul 30,000 people from mid-November to December,” said Rich Millard, general manager of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City. “A decade ago we didn’t have anything going on this time of year.”

The Georgetown Loop Railroad also has converted the off season into a boom time with its Santa’s North Pole Adventure (daytime) and Santa’s Lighted Forest (after dark) trains, said Bryan Galke, director of business operations. He expects 34,000 riders for the holiday season.

After-Christmas trains, running Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, will be a bit different. In the past, Santa has been “on vacation” during that period, or appeared on the trains wearing a Hawaiian shirt. This year, the trains will be themed as a Victorian Holiday Celebration featuring characters from “A Christmas Carol” handing out treats and bells, Galke said.

He and Millard said they keep enhancing the excursions to keep riders coming back, and many families have made the trains an annual tradition. Georgetown Loop has 200,000 lights along its route this year, and Royal Gorge Route added a laser light show to imitate the Northern Lights in the gorge.

Recreating a page out of “The Polar Express”

Model trains have long been associated with Christmas, but the publication in 1985 of Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express,” and the release of the movie in 2004 took that up a notch.  

The Durango train’s sister company, Rail Events Inc. licensed the children’s story for use on trains in 2005, and now runs The Polar Express trains in more than 50 locations in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom. About 5 million people have ridden those trains, which are usually sold out weeks or months in advance, according to Rail Events’ website.

It wasn’t easy, Harper said, noting that it took two years and three trips to Warner Bros. by Rail Events representatives before anyone even spoke to them. The studio demanded $250,000 up front and Harper was willing to risk it.

The Polar Express also runs trains at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden and might add a third at a non-tourist rail line in the state next year, Harper said. Increasingly, the holiday trains are run on freight lines that acquire a few passenger cars to offer The Polar Express where tourists trains don’t exist, he said.

Passengers wait to board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Polar Express train at the depot in Durango. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Durango train runs The Polar Express, using the movie soundtrack on board, showing the movie in its adjacent Railroad Museum and packing its gift shop with Polar Express pajamas, photo frames and other souvenirs. It has about 34,000 passengers a year on those trains, Harper said.

“It’s huge to our economy here,” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce. “It’s fun to see families headed to The Polar Express in their pajamas. It’s magical.”

That magic seems to happen whether the train carries the licensed name or not. Many passengers in Cañon City and Georgetown also wear pajamas and leave the train with the signature tinkling bell.

The trains also boost the economy in their regions, too, filling restaurants, gift shops and holiday markets, train managers and local leaders say.

Beyond the holiday magic

While the holiday trains draw the largest numbers, other specialty trains also are popular and, in some cases, have significantly lengthened the tourist railroad season. Fall color season is a huge draw, but even then you can find pumpkin patches and Halloween or Oktoberfest rides to spice things up. Other themed rides include concerts, murder mysteries, wine tastings and even rides into the forest to cut a Christmas tree.

Royal Gorge Route, which focuses on recreating the golden era of 1950s train travel with gourmet dining, went year-round in 2018, running its 12:30 p.m. flagship lunch train nearly every day of the year, Millard said. It features Colorado distillery tastings on Sundays in January and February on its Spirits Through the Gorge trains, and Colorado breweries on the Ales on Rails trains in March and April.

Excursion trains, like the Royal Gorge Route, have added amenities and themed trains to lure travelers back again and again. Here, passengers are seated on an open air car. (Provided by Royal Gorge Route)

Even in the regular summer tourist season, trains have gone to themes to keep people coming back.

The Georgetown and Royal Gorge Route railroads are close enough to draw Front Range residents for a day trip, but most people don’t return to take the scenic routes repeatedly. They will return for something new, such as the Wild West Days runs that include bank robbery and shoot-out performances, Galke said.

Georgetown Loop is owned by History Colorado and traditionally ran a train and mine tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In 2009, a new management team came in with the intent to expand the season and increase ridership to help pay for upkeep and improvement of the facilities, Galke said.

The extended season has helped Georgetown as well, said Galke, who owns a gift shop with his wife. “We depend heavily on the train for our business. We just don’t get guests when the train isn’t running.”

In fact, he said, many businesses have reduced hours from early January until late April, when the train is closed.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, on the other hand, would find it difficult to extend its season because of the lack of lodging and restaurants during the winter months, General Manager John Bush said.

The remote scenic railroad, jointly owned by Colorado and New Mexico and operated as a nonprofit by a commission, has such things as wildflower and geology excursions during the summer and expects to be self-sustaining by 2023, he said. Its focus is on preserving the “authentic West” experience.

“We like to call this place 64 miles of 1880, because that’s when it was built,” he said, noting that the train will celebrate its 50th year of operation in 2020.

It also has a twist on the holiday trains, offering free Santa train rides to children in the region, which has some of the highest poverty rates in both states. Parents can ride for $10, to cover the cost of hot chocolate and treats. Participants are asked to donate a nonperishable food item or a new toy.

“We really do feel that we can do the most good by providing kids an opportunity to do that stuff and help instill in them the concept of not just receiving, but also giving,” Bush said. “All bring something to share, even though a lot of those kids’ families will be getting food boxes from food banks.”

The railroad also gets cash donations from supporters to offset the cost of running the holiday trains.

Economic impact

No one has tallied the overall economic impact of Colorado’s tourist trains, but the few studies available indicate it’s large. An estimated 10% of all visitors to the state ride on the trains, according to a 2018 Colorado Department of Transportation report on freight and passenger rail.

The report said Cumbres & Toltec contributes about $15 million annually to the surrounding five-county area in Colorado and New Mexico, and the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad contributed more than $3.4 million annually to the San Luis Valley economy. In receivership since September, the Rio Grande railroad filed for bankruptcy and, according to the Valley Courier in Alamosa, shut down the excursion train. The newspaper reported counties in the region are trying to intervene; the railroad owes Rio Grande County $2 million in back taxes.

Kale Mortensen, executive director for the Alamosa Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his offices are housed with the Colorado Welcome Center in Alamosa and they know when one of the valley trains is running by the number of people stopping in. Most people who come to ride a train stay at least one night in the area and are likely to visit other area attractions, especially the Great Sand Dunes National Park, he said.

The CDOT report cited a Fort Lewis College study that said the Durango train added $140 million to the Four Corners economy, and Llewellyn estimated that has risen to about $190 million annually.

“The train is a definite anchor to the community,” he said. “If it didn’t exist, Durango would be just another Colorado mountain town.”

Train owners say they board train-loving passengers from throughout the world, and businesses near the attractions say they know when trains are running by the foot traffic they see.

The Royal Gorge Route’s Santa Express train. (Provided by Royal Gorge Route)

But there are key differences.

The Cumbres & Toltec and Durango trains’ signature scenic rides are all-day affairs in remote locations that ensure at least one overnight stay, while the Royal Gorge Route and Georgetown trains’ proximity to the Front Range and shorter excursions mean that many riders come on a day trip.

The scenic rides on the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad also are shorter, but its distance from major population centers also makes it an overnight destination.

Ryan Stevens, economic development director for Cañon City, said the various attractions in the Royal Gorge region work together to try to bring visitors for longer stays. That includes cross promotion and package deals on activities such as rafting, zip lining and the train.

He said he would like to see more partnerships, especially between area hotels and the train.

The train had leased its depot from the city for years until the city sold it to Royal Gorge Route last summer, he said. The train also purchased the nearby Robison mansion, which it is converting into an events center that is set to open in 2020.

“We’re very proud and very happy to have them in our community,” he said, noting that the sale of the depot will help ensure “they stay here for a very long time.” 

Millard has no doubt about the longevity of the train and believes the company has worked to create “the perfect storm of Mother Nature’s glory and then what we have to offer.

“You’re constantly reinventing yourself and asking how you can remain relevant,” he added. “We have to look at the trends and see what else can we offer.”

JerrPassengers board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Polar Express train at the depot in Durango. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Like most operators, Millard said his motivation is preservation of the historical rail lines, which are plentiful in Colorado and tend to have stunning scenery. That means there’s a market for such things as charter trains and wedding trains, which are increasing in popularity, according to train managers. 

The smaller Leadville train often does such events, including barbeque trains, said Justin Jimenez, a spokesman for the train.

“We’re preservationists and educators, yes, but we’re also entertainers,” said Harper, the Durango train owner. “We’re entertainers, big time.”

As for the future, he and others are ever watchful of tourist trends. Might there be a Hogwarts Express in Colorado’s future? Harper said he’s working on that, although JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, so far has preferred theme parks to theme trains.

But then, it took time with Warner Bros., too.


Colorado’s excursion railways trade on the stunning scenery along their lines. But some have added themed trains and special events to lure travelers back again. (Provided by Royal Gorge Route)

Colorado tourist trains

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

  • Route: 64 miles from Antonito, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico
  • Season: Memorial Day-October
  • Annual passengers: 43,000
  • Santa train passengers (benefit; free for area children): a few hundred

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

  • Route: 45 miles from Durango to Silverton; various shorter rides offered
  • Season: May-October; Polar Express, Nov.-Dec.; selected weekends Jan.-May
  • Annual passengers: 195,000
  • Polar Express passengers: 34,000

Georgetown Loop Railroad

  • Route: 3 miles from Georgetown to Silverton (roundtrips from either station)
  • Season: April-September; themed trains October-early January
  • Annual passengers: 174,000
  • Holiday train passengers: 34,000

Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

  • Route: 9.5 miles from Leadville to French Gulch (19 miles roundtrip)
  • Season: Late May-October
  • Annual passengers: not available

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

  • Route: 12 miles from Cañon City, through Royal Gorge to Parkdale (24 miles roundtrip)
  • Season: Year round
  • Annual passengers: 150,000
  • Santa Express passengers: 30,000