ONE LAST GASP FOR MARLBORO COUNTRY

AMERICA'S LARGEST TOBACCO COMPANY WANTS TO RUN SMOKERS OUT OF DENVER ON A RAIL.

As the train pulls into Denver's Union Station, its massive, red locomotives are veiled in billows of smoke. Appropriately, the vaporous clouds increase rather than decrease as the engines chug to a halt and the passengers disembark. Welcome to Marlboro Country. And welcome to the "Marlboro Unlimited," a custom-built, luxury passenger train where smoking is not only allowed, it's mandatory.

The Unlimited is still a twinkle in the eye of Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes; the train's first-class cars are now under construction at Denver's Rader Rail Car company. But beginning late next year, the cherry-red, twenty-car train is scheduled to begin running between the Queen City and Billings, Montana, offering a free, five-day adventure for 2,000 lucky people and their guests.

There is a catch, though: Trips on the Unlimited, which is expected to travel through some of the most scenic country in the West, will be available only to winners of a Philip Morris promotional sweepstakes. And that contest is open only to certified smokers. To claim their prizes, winners must provide birth certificates to show they're 21 or older and sign affidavits swearing that they smoke like chimneys.

"Think what the railroad did for the West," enthuses Philip Morris spokeswoman Karen Daragan, whose company is already using the train as the centerpiece of a nationwide marketing campaign. "We're hoping the Marlboro Unlimited will do the same thing for our consumers." Riders will "see firsthand what Marlboro Country looks like and has to offer," adds Daragan. "The trips will include lots of different activities--white-water rafting, fly fishing, hot-air ballooning, sightseeing." Passengers also will be treated to private concerts by country-Western singing stars.

Marlboro Country, of course, is the mythical place where cowboys and other Western-type folks all smoke like fiends. According to legend, Marlboroites light up while saddling their horses and puff contentedly as they lasso dogies. And with the tobacco industry under fire from health officials and municipal no-smoking laws sprouting across the country, Philip Morris may be hoping the Unlimited will reignite the romantic luster of the lowly cigarette.

"Marlboro Country really isn't one particular place," Daragan explains patiently. "It's what one associates with the great American West. I think everyone has their own definition. When you think of the great American West, you think of Marlboro Country, of the beautiful country we've depicted in our advertising for forty years now."

For the sake of the Unlimited, however, Marlboro Country has been given more precise boundaries: carefully selected portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The train, which will be a third of a mile long, will take a meandering route north from Denver to Laramie, then along the west side of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park to Billings. During one 100-mile stretch in Montana, it will cross the Continental Divide four times.

Traveling to mythical places in "unparallelled luxury" doesn't come cheap, but Philip Morris has deep pockets. Trains magazine estimates it's going to cost the tobacco company $50 million to build the excursion train--give or take the two General Motors swept-front diesel locomotives being built just for the occasion.

Daragan won't comment on the total cost of the venture. But a great deal of the money about which she won't speak will be going to a low-profile manufacturing firm right here in Marlboro Country--albeit on a less-than-scenic stretch off Interstate 70 near the Denver County Jail.

Rader Rail Car Inc. sprung from the entrepreneurial mind of Tom Rader, the former owner of a company that ran rail trips through Alaska for Princess Cruises. In 1982 Rader set about building what he likes to call "cruise ships on steel wheels": bi-level "ultra dome" cars with glassed-in tops for viewing scenic areas. Princess Cruises signed on as a customer and liked the results so much that it ended up buying Rader's tour company.

Rader moved his manufacturing plant to Denver six years ago. The company now employs nearly 300 people, ranging from paper pushers to plumbers, mechanics and engineers. The workers still build custom cars for Princess Cruises; they're also constructing a "Florida Fun Train" for travel between Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.

Rader strips old railroad cars to the center sill (the beam that runs down the center of the car) and uses the existing wheel sets and suspension system. Except for that, the cars are built from the ground up--and contrary to a report in Trains, Rader says they will not be equipped with heavy-duty fans specially designed to blow out all the cigarette smoke.

The Unlimited's accommodations will, however, hark back to the golden age of railroading--with a modern twist. "Each stateroom has its own shower, bathroom facilities, television and VCR," says Rader spokeswoman Samantha Atkinson. The "suites" on the bottom part of the bi-level sleeper cars feature large picture windows. The rooms on the top half, says Rader, have domed glass roofs, allowing passengers to sleep under the stars.

The train will have a library, a sixteen-seat movie theater and dance floors. The sofas and chairs in the bi-level observation cars will be arranged "like a hotel lobby or a cruise ship," Atkinson says. "They're not in rows. They're in groupings. Keeping in mind, of course, that none of the chairs move."

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