Tuesday, May 16, 2006

RGS Goose No. 5 to Cumbres & Toltec in June

According to a flyer, Rio Grande Southern Goose No. 5 will return to the Cumbres and Toltec on June 7-13, 2006. Reservations and information can be had by calling 888-CUMBRES.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Southern Front Range

This is the second in a series of posts about the recreational opportunities in Colorado for railroad enthusiasts. This section will focus on the...

Southern Front Range
The southern Front Range of Colorado extends south of Monument hill and roughly parallels I-25 all the way to Raton Pass. The mountains viewed along this spectacular piece of highway include the Rampart Range,
Pikes Peak -- also known as "America's Mountain" because Katherine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful after journeying to the summit -- and the Spanish Peaks, twin mountains rising abruptly from the plains.

Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow-Gauge Railroad - Cross between a mining train and it's "bigger" narrow-gauge cousins that has grown from relative obscurity thanks in large part to the casino gambling district in neighboring Cripple Creek. A grade, re-gauged from 3 feet to 2 feet allows diminutive trains pulled by mostly German engines to roll along a two-mile section of track just outside of Cripple Creek. This railroad could be called "touristy" and even a little "kitschy." Those looking to spend an hour aboard a "colorful" train listenting to a tour guide with a narrative will not be disappointed. Adults are $10.50, children ages 3-12 are $6.00 and seniors (65+) are given a whole dollar discount off the adult fare.
Railroad Adventures visit to this location in 1984.

Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway - Sighted by Zebulon Pike 200 years ago in 1806, Pikes Peak became a landmark for settlers travelling westward across the plains. Less than a century after it's sighting, Spencer Penrose had financed a railway to the top of the mountain that Pike believed to be unclimbable. Because most railroads lose adhesion above grades between 4% and 7%, the railway was built as a cog railway. A third rail was spiked down with stagge
red teeth that would be gripped by a cog wheel mounted on the engine's axle. The result was a railroad that was able to shove a carload of tourists to the top of the 14,110 foot mountain in half the time it took by donkey, the other popular mode of transportation up to the top.

Today, the motive power has switched from oil-fired steam engin
es to Swiss-built rail diesel cars, although steam engine #4 is still fired up for the occasional special. The train is scheduled to run all year long, but trips between November and May could be canceled due to snow or other reasons. The line is kept open using a large plow with a snowblower-type impeller. The experience is much more favorable in the summer. Click here for rates Those making the journey from out of state may wish to take note that the altitude change is significant for a few hours of travel and some have been known to experience altitude sickness. Giving yourself a day in Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs before going up, along with plenty of water and rest, will help fight it off. My own experience with altitude sickness during my first trip as a boy up this route was not a pleasant one. Take your time to make sure you enjoy it.

Off-peak rates are $29 for adults and children ages 3-12 are $16. Peak season rates (July 1 - August 20) are adults at $31 and children at $16.50. Printing an online coupon will reduce your rate nicely. The depot is located in Manitou Springs up Ruxton Ave in Ruxton Canyon.
Railroad Adventures visit to this location in 2003.

Pueblo Railway Museum - Static display museum. Like the Boulder County Railway Historical Society to the north, the Pueblo Railway Foundation has accumulated a decent collection of cars and engines and stored them in a historic railroad location, in this case the Pueblo Depot. The depot itself is largely untouched by time. Combine with this the other historic railway structures, as well as the Riverwalk and a prime location on the UP-BNSF Joint Line, and this a hidden gem for railfans and their families. Best of all, it's free.

Royal Gorge Route Railroad - When the UP bought out the Rio Grande (Southern Pacific), the merger favored the Moffat Tunnel Route over the parallel crossing of the Continental Divide at Tennesee Pass, which was "rail banked" or mothballed. The Rio Grande's hard won route through the Royal Gorge would sit unused by freight traffic after experiencing a boom when the Rio Grande acquired rights from Pueblo to Kansas City. Montana Rail Link was interested in acquiring the route, but the deal never materialized. The owners of the corporation running the trains on the Georgetown Loop Railroad were interested in running trains through the Royal Gorge. It would be the first passenger traffic this stretch of historic rail would see since the Rio Grande discontinued the Scenic Limited (Rio Grande trains 1 and 2) 30 years before.

Building on the Rio Grande's heritage, the Royal Gorge Route has former Canadian F-units painted in a scheme similar to the Rio Grande's although they haven't gotten the color exactly right. Additionally, they have a GP-7 and an SD-9, both painted in the Rio Grande's gold-and-black freight unit scheme, currently sitting in the yard at Canon City (pronounced "Canyon City). Since beginning service, the Royal Gorge Route has slowly grown, adding classes and services like dinner trains and themed excursions. New this year, they've added three full-length dome cars to the roster, purchased from Holland America Lines. Passengers will have the ability to view the suspension bridge 1,000 feet above them while sitting in their seats for the first time in decades.

Trains depart the old Santa Fe depot at Canon City weekends at 12:30 PM for a trip through the Gorge to Parkdale and back, reversing direction but not the train.
It seems the summer schedule, while scaling for demand, is difficult for the rail tourist to reckon without his calendar.

Beginning next weekend (May 21st), they will begin their summer schedule with trains every day at 9:30 am, 12:30, and 3:30. Their dinner train will run at 7:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays and select Thursdays through the summer (click here for details). The mid-afternoon train at 3:30 PM will drop from the schedule August 20th except on Saturdays through the rest of the summer. Rates are $29.95 for adults and $19.50 for children ages 3 - 12 in coach. Upgrades are done a la carte. It's $10 extra for adults and children to upgrade to first class, and $25 above the coach fare for dome class. Lunch on board the train is roughly $40 above the coach fare and dinner is $79.95 total per person. Cab rides for those 13 and older are $99. It's a great experience for a railfan to ride in the cab with the engineer. They might even let you toot the horn for that price.
Railroad Aventures visit to this location in 2003.

Other posts in this series:

Monday, May 8, 2006

Silver Vista II

Back in 1953, the only domed observation car built for the narrow gauge, the Silver Vista, was lost due to a fire. This after only 6 years of service. For years, there has been talk about re-creating this car as a means of keeping the historical theme of the railroad but also allowing riders to enjoy the scenery in a 180 degree panorama. Today, this car is a reality.

Begun back in March, Durango & Silverton employees contructed a reasonable facsimilie of the Silver Vista and it made it's test runs last weekend. Durango & Silverton is already promoting it. They even have a button designed for riders who reserve their tickets aboard the new car.

The new car also sports a flying "Durango & Silverton" logo on the side. The flying "S" is awkward looking, but it still looks fine.

The Silver Vista is a good strike at keeping the railroad true to it's roots while looking to provied a new seperience for riders. Reservations are made by visiting www.durangotrain.com/ or by calling 877-TRAIN-07.

A special tip of the hat for ND Holmes of DRGW.net for his coverage of this story!

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Northern Front Range

Summer is practically upon us. So, in addition to the links at right, I figure it's only helpful for folks to see a good majority of the railroad opportunities that exist in Colorado. I've grouped them by region. We'll start with the...

Northern Front Range

Boulder County Railway Historical Society - Aging equipment in static, open air display on the northeast outskirts of Boulder. Web site has extensive photography of restoration efforts. Various Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, Colorado & Southern, Great Western, and Rio Grande rolling stock along with Great Western engine #296 and PSC engine #14. Free.
Railroad Adventures visit to this site on June 11, 2006.

Colorado Railroad Museum - Largest collection of Colorado railroading history located on the west side of the Denver metropolis, just east of Golden and north of the mammoth Coors Brewery complex. Large collection of static equipment displays is augmented by a loop of track completed in the late 1990s as well as an armstrong turntable and roundhouse used for extensive restoration projects. The Richardson Library is on the grounds, offering a boon to railroad historians. Their gift shop is a dangerous place for a railfan.

Steam-ups are:
  • May 13-14 for Mother's Day
  • June 17-18 for Father's Day
  • July 14 (the Wine and Cheese Train)
  • July 15-16 for Armed Forces Day
  • August 19-20
  • October 29 (the Ghost Train)
  • December 2-3 (the Santa Claus Special)
The very popular Day Out With Thomas will be consecutive weekends on September 16-17 (Sat-Sun) and 22-24 (Fri-Sun). Special tickets that go on sale in June are required to ride the train those weekends.

June 24 and October 7, the museum will have a free day, where no admission is charged. This is because the museum receives funds as a Tier II member of Denver's SCFD tax district. All other days, admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors $5 for children ages 2-15. We typically take advantage of the family rate of $18 that includes 2 adults and their children under 16.

Denver Union Station - Purchased by Denver's Regional Transportation District and intended to be the hub for their FasTracks project, this historic site is the departure point for Amtrak's California Zephyr, ANSCO's Ski Train, and the occasional American Orient Express (now rebranded as Grandeluxe Rail Journeys), along with RTD's C-line Light Rail route. It's facilities remain mostly unchanged, with the exception of a few bus ramps and light rail pads. Future changes include underground Light Rail access. A gift shop sells railroad schedules from decades past and other railroadiana. Admission is free.

Forney Museum - Formerly occupying a factory warehouse built over 100 years ago, the Forney Transportation Museum relocated to a new facility on Brighton Blvd in Denver after expenses of maintaining the building outpaced their budget. Now in better digs, the museum hosts all sorts of conveyances, not just railcars and engines, on static display. Of particular importance about the new facility is the ability to shield Union Pacific Big Boy (4-8-8-4) engine #4005 and other equipment from the elements outside. Admission is...*deep breath* adults for $7, seniors $6, youth (ages 11-15) $4.50, children (ages 5-10) $3.50, and children under 5 are free.
Railroad Adventures visit to the Forney Museum on November 16, 2001.

Ft. Collins Municipal Railway - A restored trolley line that runs along Mountain Ave. in Ft. Collins. It opened for the summer season on Saturday, May 6th. Half-hour roundtrip fares for adults are $1, seniors are 75 cents, and children ages 3 -12 are 50 cents...refreshments are extra.

Platte Valley Trolley - The PVT runs south from Denver's REI flagship store (formerly the Forney Museum) along the Platte River past Six Flags Elitch Gardens and the Denver aquarium. Not exactly an authentic trolley, as it's diesel powered, it gives riders a chance to view the Denver skyline and several LoDo attractions. Fares are $3 per adult and $2 for children and seniors (ages 4-12 and 65 and over, respectively) for the short, 25 minute excursion. Fares for the hour-long"Route 84" excursion are $6 and $4 for children and seniors.

Ski Train - The final descendant of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, the Ski Train has been carrying passengers up to Denver-owned Winter Park Ski Area for over 50 years, first under the Rio Grande and then under the ownership of Ansco, investment arm of Denver billionaire Phillip Anschutz, who purchased the Rio Grande in 1984, the Southern Pacific in 1988, and will finish his term with the Union Pacific as Vice-Chairman this year in 2006. Remaining outside the Union Pacific merger, the Ski Train continues to generate revenue by hauling skiers from Denver Union Station up to Winter Park each winter. In the last several years, however, the Ski Train has made summer runs up to the high country, mostly to Winter Park for its summer attractions, although runs to Glenwood Springs have also been made.
The destination is comfortable and fairly laid back, with activities such as mountain biking, miniature golf, wall climbing, hiking and a well-designed alpine slide. There are occasional specials run to Glenwood Springs.

photo by Kent Meireis provided by SkiTrain.com

The motive power for the train used to include a Rio Grande lashup, but now leases Amtrak F40s painted in a modified Rio Grande F-unit (full cowl) design. Ansco has shown that they value the past while keeping a good eye for business.

Riders on the Ski Train will enjoy the same scenery enjoyed by the riders of the California Zephyr up to Winter Park. Coach seats are reserved for $44 for adults and $39 for seniors and children 2-13. Seating is 2-and-2 across, while Club seating is $69 per person, with wider seats, situated 2-and-1, and a catered continental breakfast on the way up and beverages and snacks on the way down. Perhaps the only thing better is realizing that you're not going to have to drive over Berthoud Pass and I-70 to get home. If you're looking to relax in the mountains for a day and live near Denver, you can't beat the experience.

Rio Grande style Ski Train logo -- click here to visit the Ski Train

Future entries for other regions of Colorado will be forthcoming.

For an exhaustive list of railroad locations in Colorado, visit the database at DenverRails.com.

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 DRGW.net, 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 car...radio. 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.