To be a passenger on this train is to be part of an exclusive club of time travelers, sharing the magic of the moment.
What is it about trains that fills us with excitement and a sense of childlike wonder? These impressions are etched into our American DNA. That mournful whistle in the middle of the night slips into our dreams with promises of faraway lands. The unmistakable click-clack rumble of steel on steel is the heartbeat of a nation. In this fast-paced world of instant gratification, these impressions can instantly take us back to simpler times, which is just one reason why passenger-rail concept enterprise Sky Railway has become such a hot ticket in Santa Fe and beyond.
Since March 4, 2022, the colorful consist (pronounced CONsist: “train speak” for the engine and all the cars) has been officially reconnecting Santa Fe with the town of Lamy, some 18 miles to the south. But reviving the old Santa Fe Southern line was just the beginning. It took the combined talents of founders George R.R. Martin, Bill Banowsky, and Catherine Oppenheimer, along with Sky Railway Director of Entertainment Steven Wilson and Director of Operations Bryan Deutsch, to create a uniquely stimulating experience, different from any other short-line railroad in the country.
The concept is simple: an engine, three passenger cars, and a flatcar. Attendants are on hand to offer first-class service and answer any questions. Local musicians perform and interact with the passengers in each car. There’s a cash bar in case you fancy a drink. The flatcar is easily accessible and bordered by a four-foot rail so that passengers can safely go out and enjoy the sights while feeling the wind in their hair and experiencing the genuine elation that a train ride brings. It’s a concept that’s catching on quickly!
“Our Stargazer train is a huge hit,” says Steven. Even when it started as a simple run out into the desert with an onboard astronomer to point out the celestial sights, it was clear the partners were onto something. “On our first Stargazer train, we had a woman who came down from Canada specifically to do that train. We had a gentleman who flew over from London, just to do that train. We’re kind of blown away by that. Our little train is being recognized all over the world and people are making a point to come here just to do this. It’s an experience they can’t get anywhere else.”
Sure, other historic train rides do exist in the area, each offering its own brand of excitement. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad — operating since 1974 — has a 64-mile run between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. The Silverton Steam Train runs between Durango and Silverton, both in Colorado, while the Cascade Canyon Express features daily runs between Durango and Cascade Canyon. All are seasonal and straightforward train rides, offering outstanding scenery and the excitement that can only be experienced while riding the rails.
What sets Sky Railway apart is twofold. First, it’s a year-round venture, and second, it isn’t the origin or the destination that’s important so much as the adventure unfolding while onboard. While gorgeous sunsets, spectacular night skies, and a convenient bar are big draws, it’s the themed experiences that are creating a stir.
One of the first themed experiences was the Murder Mystery train, presenting a classic whodunnit in which passengers become embroiled in the search for a killer before he can strike again. Another favorite is the Theater Train, featuring Exodus Ensemble, a local theater troupe rapidly becoming a leader in the immersive entertainment field.
“They’ve created something like 17 different sketches, which I like to refer to as a cross between Saturday Night Live and The Twilight Zone,” Steven says. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”
Then there’s the Speakeasy train, for which passengers are given a password to board and must evade a 1920s-era cop patrolling the platform. Once inside, they are met with a jazz band playing music from the era, and attendants dressed in period attire help them get settled with era-appropriate drinks. Just seconds before the train is to leave the platform, the cop catches on and tries to stop it. The engineer makes a run for it and the party continues out into the desert.
“The show really begins the minute guests arrive on the platform,” Steven says. “The entire experience is meant to be a show, from start to finish.”
In May, the group added a Wild West train that puts passengers into the heart of the action as an outlaw gang on horseback attempts to rob the train. After a daring escape, passengers are treated to a Wild West stunt show in Lamy, complete with a barbecue cookout and cowboy music.
Plans for the future include an art train, from which light artists will do projections onto rocks and cliff faces. “That’s one we hope will come sooner rather than later,” Steven says. “We’re hoping to have a full version coming out sometime next spring.”
But what’s it like to actually ride this train? As Agatha Christie once said, “Trains are wonderful . . . To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life.” It’s true. As the train rolls out of town, passing art galleries and gaily graffitied buildings, children wave from backyards, cars honk cheerfully, and patrons raise glasses and toast from rail-side patios. Nobody can resist a train.
Once out in the desert, enchantment rules. A constant tumble of light and shadow paints shifting patterns across cliff faces and rocks. Revelers breathe in clean air and creosote as the rattle and clack of the wheels vibrate up their spines. Overhead, hawks wheel lazily in the cloudless sky. There’s a sense of going back in time. The magic is palpable.
Older couples become giddy teenagers again, caught up in the romance of the moment. Young sensation seekers pause in their revelry to marvel at the shifting colors, entranced by the living desert. Everywhere there is laughter and camaraderie as strangers become friends, telling stories and sharing exploits. To be a passenger on this train is to be part of an exclusive club of time travelers, sharing the magic of the moment.
Ultimately, it’s imagination that fuels this train. From the colorful exterior depicting Pablo the Dragon — the work of acclaimed Texas visual artist Joerael Numina — to the ever-growing slate of “experiences” constantly being dreamed up by George R.R. Martin and his staff, no ride is ever the same twice. What started as a game of “what if,” in which the founders came up with ideas involving sunset rides, rolling speakeasies, and Wild West train robberies, has become the stuff of dreams no longer.
Riding the rails is like stepping back into another time. A less hectic time. A reminder of where we came from, where we’re going, and those ever-present urges to explore. That’s where the magic begins. Combined with a kaleidoscope of thematic adventures courtesy of Sky Railway, riding the rails becomes so much more than that. It becomes an entertaining journey that transcends expectation and transports passengers into the realm of enchantment.
To paraphrase Johnny Cash, everybody oughta ride this train.
Story by David Salcido
Photos courtesy Sky Railway
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2022