Saturday, April 29, 2006

Future Tourist and Film Boom for Cumbres?

In 1988, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed in part on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. A young Indiana Jones escapes with the Cross of Coronado, chased by a band of ne'er-do-wells onto a Circus Train.

The chase sequences with the horse and cars were shot outside Antonito, Colorado, on the San Luis Valley floor. Most of the sequences on board the train were shot in the high country near Cumbres Pass. One sequence required Indiana Jones to grab onto a water spout used to fill the engine tenders and swing out and back onto the train. It was necessary to construct a set on the line in a valley near Lobato on the west end of the line above Chama. The set was left standing after filming had concluded.

The set has since decayed quite a bit. It is seen here in 2004.

The odds of more movies being shot in Colorado using backdrops like the C&TS has increased somewhat with the approval of $500,000 in the Colorado state budget to entice filmmakers to film in Colorado.

Perhaps the best investment of money is the $1.5 Million in the Colorado budget earmarked for track improvements to the Cumbres & Toltec, with matching funds from New Mexico. With the improvements, travel time for the length of the trip would be reduced from six hours to as little as three hours. The bus ride back to the originating station would still take an hour. Future tourists will still get to experience the grandeur and beauty of the Colorado and New Mexico high country behind authentic steam engines, but it will not take all day long to do it. This is important because the shorter schedule will work much better than the Thursday-only Cinder Bear Express in attracting families to ride the train. Besides, hugging children with a costumed character -- especially one without a single movie to his name -- only gets you so far.

This new infusion of cash, along with $750,000 over the next two years for operating expenses looks to rehabilitate the line, devastated by mismanagement, the constant change of ownership, and the effective cancellation of the 2002 season by the Federal government over fire safety concerns. The new management company, appropriately named the C&TS Management Corp., was appointed in March of this year. It has a former president of the Friends of the C&TS as one of its principals, along with a former vice president of marketing for the Durango & Silverton.

Still, with all this going for the beleaguered railroad, only time will tell if the development needed at both ends of the line in Antonito and Chama will materialize. Improving the destinations will help attract non-railfan families to the area and possibly improve the railroad's bottom line to the point of self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, the tenuous relationship between the State of Colorado and the C&TS has shown potential developers very little in terms of stability, something an investor seriously considers when looking at contingencies affecting their investment. Perhaps this latest legislation will be enough to show a change of heart in the State legislature. However, without a solid, long-term financial commitment towards making the line a first-class operation, the forecast for attracting new developers to these areas remains somewhat overcast.

The immediate future also has a bit of a cloud hanging over it. With the price of gasoline climbing, tourism will take a hit this year. American families who could afford the trip from outlying states will reconsider when they hear the prediction of gas costing nearly $4.00 a gallon. On the other hand, "local" tourism from Denver and Albuquerque may make up for the deficit as families look for other places to visit that are closer to home. Perhaps the C&TS Mgmt Corp should consider outside media like billboards in these cities as a means of boosting their immediate numbers.

Whatever this year brings, Colorado has helped stem the criticism that they aren't paying their share of the fare for the Cumbres & Toltec. They've spent smart money to build the economic health of the southern San Luis Valley.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Waiting On the UP

The Union Pacific has promised that they would release the other specially-painted locomotives for their heritage fleet honoring the railroads that they have assimilated. It's very un-Borg-like and I was looking forward to the monolith railroad putting out some feigned diversity. Three locomotives were released from the paint shops in 2005 honoring Western Pacific, Missouri Pacific, and MKT. The other three were promised "early 2006." Well, here it is, the second week of April and there is not even a rumble of when the other three units will appear.

Because the Rio Grande only bought standard or "spartan" cabs, I have often wondered what it would look like adapted to a wide-nose cab, which today is the standard. I more easily can picture an adaptation of the old F-unit paint scheme with the silver and tiger stripes. I still would put my money on UP adapting the familiar "grande gold" and black paint scheme of the 60's, 70's, and 80's.

Hurry up with the paint cans, Uncle Pete!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Losing Color: The Last Of the Grande Engines

Losing color is a bad thing. Ask any doctor and they'll tell you that seeing someone as white as a ghost is bad news. Being a conservative, I shy away from liberal buzzwords like "diversity," but diversity is exactly what we continue to lose in American railroading.

According to ND Holmes of, the last Denver and Rio Grande Western engine with it's original, non UP/SP road number, an SD40 T-2 unit numbered DRGW 5371, is likely going to be patched to a UP road number this month. This will mark the last of the all-Grande, non-Armour yellow-tainted units to pass into history.

Southern Pacific5371's sister unit SD40T-2 stands on the ready line at Denver's North Yard on a hot summer day in 1997. Photo (c) 1997 by the author.

Even though the unit is currently based in Utah, the significance of this for Colorado is that it is the last of the locomotives that called Colorado and Utah "home." With it's passing, American railroading will become much less colorful.

The Rio Grande was the last surviving railroad born in Denver. After buying up a larger but cash-strapped Southern Pacific in 1988, Rio Grande under the SP flag fell to the Union Pacific mega-corporation in 1996. Denver-based billionaire Phillip Anschutz sold out to the UP, which was responding to the Burlington Northern merging with the Santa Fe in 1995. This was the opposite direction of a mid-80's merger that was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission between the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe. The Burlington Northern would likely have been bought out by the Union Pacific, but the resulting chain of mergers would have created a monopoly of railroads in too many cities. Before the ICC denied the merger, however, the SP and SF planned to consolidate to one paint scheme of red and yellow, nicknamed Kodachrome after the film packaging of the same color combination. They were painted with letters SP or SF pre-positioned on the engines so that once the merger was official, they could paint the other two beside them to form SPSF. After the denial, SPSF was jokingly referred to "Shouldn't Paint So Fast."

Santa Fe
Southern Pacific
Photos from Wikipedia

After the merger of SP and UP in 1996, the remaining Class 1 (large, main line) roads shrank from five to four with the split-up of the eastern road Conrail. Today, there are two major Class 1 railroads in the east, CSX and Norfolk Southern, and two railroads in the west, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Over 20 years ago in the mid-80's, there were more than 30 Class 1 railroads. Each region of the country had it's own unique splash of color. Santa Fe warbonnets and bluebonnets plied the rails along with Southern Pacific black widows and Kodachromes and, in the east, Chessie's yellow and orange. Each locomotive livery was a source of corporate pride and lended itself to a colorful representation in railroad photography.

Today, unless you like BNSF orange, UP yellow, CSX grey or NS black, you're out of luck. A few regional railroads and a smattering of shortlines, which have gone through their own mergers offer the only reprieve from the big four, unless you count Amtrak, which is the eventual destiny of all railroads if these mergers continue.

Whenever a corporation merges, it loses unique and colorful aspects of their operation, sometimes with detrimental effects. For example, when UP took over SP's operations in 1997, California, Texas and numerous other western states suffered under a tremendous gridlock. SP's method of operations was completely incompatible with the UP's method and when UP attempted to apply it's method to the SP system, traffic ground to a crawl with trains on sidings abandoned by crews that had spent 12 hours waiting to get into a railroad yard. If trains were it's circulatory system, UP was literally having a heart attack. It's recovery from this ordeal took years. and not a few shippers were lost to other transportation companies, mostly over-the-road trucking.

Sometimes, more isn't always better. Sometimes more is just more. While the trend of business is to merge and become more powerful, the ability of clients to utilize competition to their advantage will dwindle. Local industries and businesses will suffer rising costs, passing them on in one form or another to the consumer. Likewise, local uniqueness and color will fade to globalization.

This is the way of things, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Argentine Central

Just found these pictures of the Argentine Central Railway from the Colorado State archives website. It was the railroad that joined up with the Georgetown Loop. It was a tourist railway for the most part that ran up to the top of Mt. McClellan, but never on Sundays. It was owned by a pastor and because he didn't want trains running over his railroad on the "Lord's Day," he took an enormous hit each week in revenue during the tourist season. As a result, the railway folded in a few years but kept opening under other names. There were some mining ventures, but the rails were eventually torn up by the 1920's in the places where nature didn't already remove the presence of a railroad.

Today, a jeep trail leads almost all the way up. To track it further, look up Tracking Ghost Railroads in Colorado by Robert Ormes.

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Telegram Era Ends

According to this report from the AP, Western Union, the last operator providing telegram service has discontinued it's communications operations after 150 years of service. Samuel Morse discovered the technology and used it to send a simple message in the code that would later be given his name, "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?" Even Morse understood that God was the creator of the laws around electromagnetism, and that he had merely harnessed it.

This is a technology that even into the 1970's found it's use in railroad communications. Speed and accuracy were the two qualities required for any agent manning a telegraph key. A mistake or delay in the transmission could be deadly. Train orders were tapped and clicked "down the line" to station agents to give to the engineer, sometimes "hooped up" to them on the fly. Interestingly, radio broadcasters today will talk to stations and use the same phrase to alert their agents "down the line."

In public use, telegrams were used to send all sorts of messages long distance. The senders would pay per word sent to advise of deaths, births, and emergencies. It was the cheapest way to send word quickly.

After more than ten years of the growing popularity of e-mail, the concept of paying per word has been lost in our information age. It is just as cheap to send a 5,000 word e-mail to everyone you know as it is to send a few words to a single person. It is easy--some would say too easy--to let everyone know the details of your life. Today's teens only know of Western Union as "the fastest way to send money." Some may not even know what a telegram was, let alone what it looked like or how they worked.

Our culture is changing. Even conventional radio is being phased out of certain portions of communications, like television and even Sirius-ly. Eventually, satellite communications will replace much of what we thought radio had taken forever. One wonders what this bodes for the future of railroads.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

BNSF C44-9W unit #5007 is southbound with a manifest train south of Colorado Springs at 1:40 PM on January 28th, 2006.

Colorado Reconsiders Funding the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Colorado is reconsidering funding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (CATS) line that runs from Antonito, Colorado to Chama, New Mexico during the summer and fall. Until now, Colorado has failed to offer funding to the line for two years, even though it has joint ownership with New Mexico. My knowledge of the nuances in legislative process is pretty slight, but I believe we are not remotely close to actually seeing any money for this historic railroad, despite announcements by both state's governors.

Shaky funding arrangements, which Colorado has failed to resolve, is partly why several management corporations have flown the coup. I'm not impressed by my own state's dealings with this. Until Colorado and New Mexico, as joint owners, work out a permanent solution to maintaining this railroad, we will jeopardize the future of this historic and scenic railroad. The states should either put up the money or get out of the way and let it be run privately.

Monday, January 30, 2006

This blog is just starting up, but in the meantime, I thought I'd point you to the Colorado Online Scanner (scroll down to the bottom to find Railroads).