A slow train to the slopes

The history of the ski resort is inextricably bound up with the expansion of the railways, says Stephen Wood - and trains are still the best way to climb a mountain

The drive between Chile's leading ski resorts is a long one: it takes the best part of five hours. The descent from Valle Nevado, 3,200m up in the Andes, negotiates 39 hairpin bends and 62 kilometres before it reaches Santiago's ring road down in the valley; the 145km ascent to Portillo begins with a long traverse before turning up the Pan-American highway, which - just beyond the resort - crosses the 3,810m Uspallata Pass into Argentina.

The drive between Chile's leading ski resorts is a long one: it takes the best part of five hours. The descent from Valle Nevado, 3,200m up in the Andes, negotiates 39 hairpin bends and 62 kilometres before it reaches Santiago's ring road down in the valley; the 145km ascent to Portillo begins with a long traverse before turning up the Pan-American highway, which - just beyond the resort - crosses the 3,810m Uspallata Pass into Argentina.

Halfway along the northerly traverse I cracked, and opened up a special case carried for emergencies, when boredom and gloom reach danger levels. It contains a CD of recordings of the radio comedy series, Hancock's Half Hour. It seemed that a single episode would prove sufficient, because as the road headed into the mountains a single-track railway appeared on the right-hand side. Set in the same narrow valley, the road and railway - the latter seemingly still viable - paralleled one another until the gradient became too steep for the railway, which set off on a broad zig-zag journey through tunnels and along ledges.

Everybody hates resort transfers. Nobody enjoys a long coach ride along busy, winding roads, particularly after a flight: without a good CD or tape to entertain you, it's just dead time - and all the more so at night. But travelling on a train is different, because you can read, work, snack, take a stroll and go to the lavatory during a journey that is smoother, swifter and environmentally sounder than a coach ride. So the sight of the Chilean railway lifted my spirits. Perhaps I could return to the valley by train? (That's what happened a couple of weeks ago at Trysil, in Norway: having moaned to the Neilson rep during the road transfer, I was rewarded with a train ticket from Hamar to Oslo airport for the return trip.)

But up in the Andes it soon became apparent that my plan wasn't feasible. There, the Transandine Railway was clearly defunct. The last passenger train ran in 1978, and although the rails have remained, the sleepers have not. In the Hotel Portillo - whose corridors are lined with splendid old photographs of the railway - I was told that soon after the track was pillaged, at least one bar down in the town of Los Andes was extensively remodelled, its interior done out in dark, thick timbers.

Despite the parlous state of the track, however, there are plans afoot to restore the railway - or so Portillo's general manager Miguel Purcell told me. But with the restoration still firmly in the planning stage, I would have to travel back by road.

As is the case with many ski resorts, the railway line was the raison d'etre of Portillo: inaugurated in 1910, it provided the sole means of transport across the pass - and, originally, the closest thing the area had to a ski lift. (A metalled road arrived just prior to Portillo's 1966 World Championship ski races, and the foundations of the ski-lift infrastructure were laid in 1949.) Zermatt, where the rack railway was built at the turn of the 19th century, and Wengen, whose dramatic Jungfraujoch route through the Eiger was completed in 1912, are other, better-known resorts popularised by railways. At Wengen the train still serves as a lift, drawing a dedicated ski-wagon up to the 2,320m Eigergletscher.

The quintessential railway resort - more typical even than Banff in Alberta - is Sun Valley, Idaho. It was created by the Union Pacific railroad in the mid-1930s to attract passengers from east-coast America to its trains in winter. The fact that Union Pacific was also a shipping line proved instrumental in its development of the first chairlift, based on a device used for unloading banana-boats. Sun Valley still has chairlifts, now made to a more advanced specification, but it is no longer served by trains. Where once there were rail tracks there is now a jogging track - the sort of sight that usually makes me reach for Hancock's Half Hour.

In that respect, Riksgransen is much better off: a railway still runs through the resort, set on Sweden's border with Norway 150 miles inside the Arctic Circle. The track was built in 1902 to carry iron ore from Swedish mines to the Atlantic port of Narvik, but it carried passengers, too, and they were greeted at Riksgransen by a station second only in size to Stockholm's, an all-enveloping wooden structure with three classes of waiting room and doors across the tracks to keep the cold out. That station has, regrettably, been replaced by a long, open-sided shelter, but the train ride - from the Baltic port of Lulea and then past Kiruna, near the Ice Hotel - remains an awesome experience in daylight, the long Arctic traverse putting other resort transfers to shame.

So that covers the past and present. But what about the future? Surprisingly, the railway still has a part to play in the development of a resort in Colorado now managed by the most eminent company in the business. Set only 67 miles from Denver, and right beside the tracks on which the long-haul California Zephyr runs from Chicago to the West Coast, the resort of Winter Park has long been served by a ski train. Launched before the Second World War, the train became a regular winter-weekend feature from 1947, when the Rio Grande Railroad's day-return schedule promised tersely that passengers departing from Denver at 7.40am would, "Arrive Winter Park, energy intact" at 10am and, "After a full day of skiing, arrive Denver rested and relaxed" at 6.30pm.

Though not quite on the same scale as in 1966 (when it had 22 carriages), the ski train still runs every Saturday and Sunday in the season, with a Friday service added in February/March. According to a Winter Park spokeswoman, the train is usually full, carrying up to 600 skiers, and the resort - controlled by the giant Intrawest corporation - hopes to increase the service to four or five times a week. For this season, $1.1m has been invested in the West Portal base, which now has a theme that "reflects Winter Park's rich railroad history", says the resort; in the long term, a railway to take skiers from the car parks to the lift base is under consideration. Despite Amtrak's long flirtation with bankruptcy, Intrawest - which usually gets its marketing right - obviously reckons that skiers are as keen as snowboarders to "ride the rails".

And how is the skiing at Winter Park? Watch this space. I am in the resort today, and will report back in a couple of weeks' time.

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