Train-tour outfit follows challenging tracks |

Train-tour outfit follows challenging tracks

John Seelmeyer

During the past two decades,Trains Unlimited Tours chartered 825 trains in 29 countries sending rail fans across tracks everywhere from the back country of China to the mountains of Patagonia at the tip of South America.

The most challenging program that coowner Chris Skow has put together, however, came much closer to home: A fourday return of the original California Zephyr to Reno in the middle of this month.

For the event on April 15-18, his company scouted the nation to find nine of the original passenger cars from the California Zephyr and negotiated with their owners over the past two years to bring them to Reno.

It’s the first time that an entire California Zephyr train will have been assembled since the legendary service made its last run in 1970s.

Given the cost of the project, Skow guesses it probably will be the last time as well.

During the four-day event, California Zephyr trains will make a round-trip excursion from Oakland to Reno and will make excursion runs to Truckee and Donner Summit.

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The complicated arrangements are nothing new to Skow, a former Western Pacific conductor who launched the tours company in 1985.

Before he retired, he spent his vacations in a single-minded pursuit: “I went looking for the as many spectacular train rides as I could find.” Friends asked to tag along.

By the time that 15 friends were joining Skow on his trips, he decided he needed to charge for his services.

The business launched by Skow and his wife bumped along part hobby, part business until his retirement from the railroad in 1995.

As Skow paid full-time attention to the business, it became solidly profitable only to crash deep into the red during the recession that began in 2001.

But this year, he says,Trains Unlimited Tours is poised to bounce back strongly with a schedule of rail tours ranging from the Yukon to Peru and China.

“We’re going to break all records this year,” Skow says.

“It’s phenomenal how Americans are coming back.”

The company employs 10 tour guides, many of them retired railroaders, from around the United States.

Skow and a three-person reservation office make up its operation in Reno.

Now that tour guides oversee the individual trips, much of Skow’s work is creative: Dreaming up trips that will draw rail fans the folks who appreciate every bolt on an old steam engine as well as ordinary tourists who enjoy traveling by rail.

Once he has an idea, Skow contracts with tour operators in each country who negotiate everything from the charter of a entire train to meal service on the route.

Then Skow relies heavily on direct-mail marketing, using a list of 300,000 names built by his company in its two-decade history.

A Web site has drawn a million hits in four years.

Only a tiny handful of companies across the world provide a similar variety of trips, Skow says, and his company seldom has trouble filling trains for one- and two-week treks that can cost nearly $4,000 a person in far-flung locations.

And Skow whets his customers’ appetite with new offerings.

In 2002 and 2003, for instance,Trains Unlimited Tours ran trips through Cuba after spending five years convincing the U.S.

officials that the tours would be educational.