It's taken more than half a century, but the notion of traveling to ski country by train is starting to shift from archaic to retro chic.
"Snow trains" were once the backbone of New England skiing, when rail service from metropolitan areas was responsible for the sport's initial popularity. Then a decades-long shift to vehicle dependence triggered a widespread phaseout.
But now, in isolated pockets of the Northeast, riding the rails is reemerging as a desirable, even practical, option for hitting the slopes. With a twinge of nostalgia and renewed focus on energy-efficient commuting, could limited train service to ski resorts come back into vogue?
"I think people are trying to do the right thing with travel in terms of being more green," said Bonnie MacPherson, director of public relations at Okemo Mountain Resort. "In fact, part of our master plan includes the potential for a railroad station here."
It's difficult not to have trains on the brain at Okemo, where one ski run includes a bridge that spans active Green Mountain Railroad tracks. "We're unique in that you can actually ski over a moving train here," MacPherson said. "It bisects the property two times a day."
At present, those tracks are strictly for freight cars. But Okemo has benefited from a shuttle bus that started operating this winter to meet the Ethan Allen Express from New York when it makes its Vermont stop 25 miles away in Rutland. MacPherson said the free shuttle is subsidized by local businesses, and makes a loop that includes lodging, restaurant, and bar stops.
"That was sort of the missing link for us," MacPherson said. "Rutland is kind of halfway between us and Killington, and I know Killington has always done really well [by courting rail passengers from New York]. Before the shuttle, our customers were kind of on their own with transportation out and back. The ridership is definitely increasing."
America's first dedicated snow train debuted on Jan. 11, 1931, when the Boston & Maine Railroad's "Sunday Winter Snow Sports Train" took 197 passengers from North Station to Warner, N.H. By the end of the season, the railroad had ferried 8,000 day-trippers into the hills.
A branch to Conway, N.H., was added in 1932, and lines from New York, New Haven, and Hartford implemented service to other northern outposts. In 1935, the first run from New York to the Berkshires carried 500 skiers and twice as many onlookers; the snow trains were so popular that non-skiing passengers clambered aboard just for the novelty of it.
A front-page Globe headline on Feb. 22, 1936, boomed "250,000 Going Into The Hills" and warned that "there was such a crush between 4 and 4:30 p.m. at North Station yesterday that commuters had hard work getting to their trains." The platform was an impenetrable mass of skis and poles, as "thousands of sports fans jammed two 12-car snow trains until all standing room was gone."
Each week a network of northerners telegraphed snow reports so railroad officials could customize snow train schedules that ran in all the Boston papers on Thursdays. Trains started rolling north on Friday nights ($4.35 round trip), and B&M even hired onboard instructors to give tips to newcomers. If you didn't own boots or skis you could rent them for a buck per pair in a converted baggage car ($1.25 if you splurged on metal instead of leather bindings).
World War II drained enthusiasm from ski train excursions, and poor snow years in 1948 and '49 led to prolonged decline. B&M ended snow train service on the Conway branch in 1950, and as the interstate system expanded, New England's new wave of ski resorts opened closer to major highways.
The fuel crisis of 1973 sparked a mini-revival of snow trains out of New York (including one called the Schaefer Beer Wagon, designed like a rustic barn and advertised as a "nonstop party to Vermont"). But the rail beds had so badly deteriorated that the trip took an hour longer than it did in the 1940s, and ridership plummeted.
In 1993, Sunday River purchased a private train and ran it between Portland and Bethel, Maine, banking on a future link from Boston to Portland. Sunday River operated the service for four years and lost a reported $750,000 while waiting for the connection; it would have needed to hang on for another four years to see the Downeaster Line finally become a reality in 2001.
Currently, railroads to the west and north of New England are reporting strong ridership with snow train experiments. In upstate New York this winter, Saratoga & North Creek Railway expanded to twice-daily weekend snow train service, offering onboard ski and snowboard handling, plus packages that include a lift ticket to Gore Mountain. In Quebec, a weekend ski train makes stops at a number of resorts in the Charlevoix region of the province.
Boston skiers can take the commuter rail from North Station to Fitchburg on Saturdays and Sundays, where Wachusett meets them with a free shuttle to the mountain, approximately 20 minutes away.
"The ski train was something that we had for years, but only in the past five years has it become popular," said David Crowley, general manager at Wachusett. "Just this past weekend, we had 40 people ride the train."
Crowley said the intriguing thing is that out of those 40 customers, a dozen decided to book lodging at Wachusett Village Inn for an extra day of skiing before taking the Sunday train out. "It was kind of spontaneous," he said. "They weren't people who had booked beforehand. I think we're probably going to put together some sort of package."
In the Granite State, a nonprofit organization called the New Hampshire Railroad Revitalization Association has floated an initiative to bring back "passenger opportunities along Route 16 in the Conway area."
In Vermont, MacPherson said Okemo's master plan that includes a slopeside train station "is not something that we would be able to spearhead alone" without public or private assistance.
"It would be fun to bring back the old ski trains," MacPherson said. "Now with gas prices what they are, [train service] would have to be comparable in terms of cost and convenience, and would have to work to people's schedules."