Friday, July 28, 2006

Beat the Denver Heat - Go Hunting For Ghost Railroads

Brian Metzler, in a special to the Rocky Mountain News, covers several former rail routes within an easy drive from Denver and the Front Range. Rollins Pass, the Switzerland Trail, and the Alpine Tunnel earn top honors. The Alpine Tunnel may dissapoint some, as the entrance has caved in. Still, efforts are underway to restore several historic structures in what would surely be the highest railroad museum in the country, if completed.

Greeley Tribune writer Tom Adams also gives a trip report of his venture up to Rollins Pass. This is a great trip from either side and you can certainly appreciate the views and avoiding the summer heat in Denver. Approaching the pass from the west side, however, gives one the chance to explore Rifle Sight Notch, a place where the rails looped over themselves by use of a trestle over a tunnel.

If you want to get up to the mountains for the day or even the weekend, there are few things better than exploring some Colorado Railroad history.

San Luis & Rio Grande Train Collides With Potato Truck

A San Luis & Rio Grande train was slammed into by a tractor-trailer rig in Blanca, Colorado on Wednesday, July 26th at about 4:30 in the afternoon after returning from it's daily trip to La Veta. The crossing was not signalized or gated, but it's assumed the crossing was marked. Most injuries were minor, but the passengers were shaken. Busses to return the passengers to Alamosa arrived only 2 hours later, which seems to be quick work on short notice. KUSA, NBCs Denver affiliate, has more. (HT: Colorado50)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Things To Do In Denver When You're...a Railfan - This Weekend

According to Trains Unlimited Tours and the Rocky Mountain Railroad Club, historic domeliners once used on the California Zephyr will once again run on the rails that once carried them across the Rockies as part of the Rocky Mountain Express. They will be making a round trip out from California arriving in Denver on Sunday July 23, and then going back again to the left coast, leaving Denver on Tuesday the 25th.

Also, after a 25 year absence, the Lionel Collectors Club of America will hold it's 36th annual national convention in Denver the same weekend. Excursions and tours are planned for the entire week of the 23rd through the 29th. The trading hall will only be open to the public on Saturday the 29th from 9 AM to 4 PM. Admission is $5, and children 12 and under are free.

Finally, also on Saturday the 22nd, the Cheyenne Frontier Days special will be running from Denver to Cheyenne and back again in what has become an annual tradition. Union Pacific's never-retired steam engine #844 is planned to pull the heritage fleet cars. For the attendees of the Lionel convention, a separate run on Monday of the same equipment is planned.

Heritage Unit Chasers

It's been a few weeks since the unveiling of the Rio Grande Heritage unit by the Union Pacific. Three Rio Grande railfans have posted excellent pictures of the unit from out there on the line.

First, ND Holmes of went out and chased the unit to Milliken on an Operation Lifesaver special and took plenty of photos, as he displays on his trip report. Though this may be the first time for the unit to leave "native" rails, it still looks nice. Bob Sobol also took some pictures on the same trip. It may be the shadows, but that gray now looks almost blue.

Finally, Kevin Morgan drove up to the bottom of the tunnel route on the front range and took some great pictures of the first run of the heritage unit on the Moffat Route. History? Well that may be taking it too seriously. Still, I have waited for 23 years to see that color of gold on the rails again. It does a Grande fan good to see it again.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Steal This Banner

Time for some shameless self-promotion. If you'd like to help promote this blog, please feel free to copy this banner and use it. Please include a link back to this blog, just so folks don't get lost. Thanks!

Lax Security Prompts Concern From Industry

On one hand, one has to wonder about the wisdom of broadcasting something like this on On the other hand, hazardous chemicals roll through Colorado each day. Making sure they're safe is paramount to airport baggage checks and port scanning. It would take more than a .22 to puncture one of those tanks, but how much shielding is there on those tank cars? Particularly chilling is this remark, taken from the article:
"It's loaded, it's got graffiti painted all over the side of it. What does that tell you about security? It tells me that nobody's around to shoo them off," Smith said. "And if they've got time to paint their pictures, a terrorist's got plenty of time to plant a stack of C-4's on the side of the car and blow it up."
I know someone could easily duck in and out of a yard even while a train is waiting for a green signal and approach it with time to do something less than benevolent, given the right location and timing. Of course, this isn't the first time railroads have had to work to protect their assets. Train robberies have been around almost as long as trains themselves. The question is, what kind of solutions are railroads willing to implement? Stronger, safer cars? More cameras? I'm not willing to bet my life on such measures. It's clear by the amount of graffiti on the cars I saw the other day that these solutions aren't foolproof. Here are more recommendations, none of which the railroad industry will take seriously because it involves spending money on "Might possibly's." Railroads hate to do that.
  • Bring back the caboose - There was a reason railroads needed an extra pair of eyes on the cargo, and that reason has surfaced again. Railroads need a pair of eyes in a different location, or even two extra locations, on trains with hazardous cargo.
  • Stepped up patrols of yards - a few "No Tresspassing" signs aren't going to frighten a suicide bomber away. More patrols at every interchange, no matter how small, with larger and more accurate weapons.
  • Track inspection trucks - Run them no more than 5-10 minutes ahead of each freight carrying hazardous matierial.
  • Remove graffiti - Graffiti undermines the public's belief that the railroads are doing their job to protect their content. Getting it taken off as soon as it's found is needed to encourage the public's confidence.
Spending money on these solutions are something railroads are loathe to do. After all, "who needs brakes from that George Westinghouse character?" "Automatic couplers? They would be incompatible with our link-pin design. So our brakemen are missing a few fingers. We've never needed such things before."

It chills me to the bone to know that the railroads have threat analysis guys who actually can figure the odds of a chlorine leak and how many people it would kill. Betting the farm that such an act of terrorism isn't going to happen is inviting disaster. Clearly, the current efforts aren't enough and railroads need to do something about this before it's too late. If 9/11 threw our markets into a tizzy, imagine what 100,000 dead would do.

Friday, July 7, 2006

The Current Rail Boom: Too Much of a Good Thing?

The rise in rail traffic over the past few years has been blowing out all the stops. Freight traffic is booming. Western railroads like BNSF and UP can't hire engineers and crew fast enough. As a result, you get situations like that of a UP engineer in Texas who two years ago had been working 37 out of 55 hours and fell asleep at the controls. Compounded by his conductor's state of inebriation, he slept through two signals and collided with a BNSF train and caused a chlorine tank to rupture. In all, 3 people died and 30 were injured by the chlorine gas. The engineer lives to regret his mistakes.

Should he have even been in the cab? It's clear his conductor shouldn't have been. But such things are overlooked when you're scraping the bottom of the barrel for crews to head trains over a booming railroad. You work with what you have and you hope nothing goes wrong. Yet, in Texas, something did go wrong. Someone got caught "hoping."

Hattip: John Barnhill,

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Gold Camp Road

Tracking ghost railroads in Colorado is a great pastime. There's even a book about it that is probably the best source for finding them, if you can find the book itself.

One road that's not-so-hidden but a fantastic drive outside of Colorado Springs is Gold Camp Road. Founded in 1899, the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District reached from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek on March 23, 1901. Nicknamed "The Short Line," it became the third railroad to reach "the richest square mile on earth," but it did so with a direct approach from Colorado Springs. The rugged mountains west of Colorado Springs gave passengers very scenic views, drawing President Theodore Roosevelt to exclaim that the trip "bankrupted the English language." Tunnels, trestles, cuts, and fills were all used in driving westward into the mining town. The trestles have been replaced by high fills, but many of the tunnels and cuts still remain today. Scenic points along this route include St. Peter's Dome, Cathedral Park, and Devil's Slide.

Cathedral Park as photographed by W. H. Jackson shortly after the line opened.

To get there...
For the lower portion of Gold Camp and a hike to Helen Hunt Falls (no, not the Mad About You actress), you can follow the signs from US 24 in Old Colorado City in Colorado Springs. The trip is short because a few miles up, the road has been closed to all but foot traffic. The debate in the Colorado Springs city council to reopen this portion of the road to cars is often stirred, but little is done. If you're short on time, or you don't like hiking, skip the lower portion.

To reach the upper, more scenic portion, you have two options. The first is taking US 24 to Hwy 67 in Divide and follow the route of the Midland Terminal south until you almost reach the gambling town of Cripple Creek. Just before you decend into town, you'll pass the Molly Kathleen mine. County Road 82, Gold Camp Loop Road splits off from the highway there. The Loop road connects with Gold Camp Road proper at the other side of the loop of highway connecting Victor, Cripple Creek and Anaconda. Bring a map! From there, Gold Camp Road heads on it's scenic decent towards Colorado Springs, meeting up with Old Stage Rd for the final drop.

The other, more dramatic option is to approach it from the Springs. From the Broadmoor Hotel, head south toward the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, following the signs. You will reach a fork in the road where the road to the zoo continues to the left (south). Instead, bear right and follow Old Stage Road uphill. You will climb out of the houses and begin a long, steep, twisty and washboarded ascent to it's junction with Gold Camp Road, with plenty of scenic views of the city and plains below. Once you reach Gold Camp Road, turning right will bring you to St. Peter's Dome and the road closure. Turning left will take you towards Cathedral Park, Devil's Slide, and Cripple Creek.

Be advised: Although the trip along the upper Gold Camp Road looks like a short one, the winding road and blind curves will slow your progress. Trips making the loop from the Broadmoor area, over Gold Camp to Cripple Creek and thence up to Divide, Woodland Park, and down to Colorado Springs have been known to take an entire afternoon if you have a "foamer" railfan aboard, or, regrettably, behind the wheel.

One final note: this drive is absolutely gorgeous when the aspens are turning. A side trip for a picnic in Mueller State Park is hard to beat, too.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Northern Mountains

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the passenger train opportunities in Colorado for the summer 2006 season. Part one focused on the Northern Front Range and part two addressed the Southern Front Range, both served by the I-25 corridor. Part three looked at the venerable narrow gauge opportunities in the Southern Mountains. Part four will go into the

Northern Mountains
In the mountains west of Denver, there was a gold rush that began in 1859 and a silver rush soon followed. Railroads like the Colorado Central and the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific drove deep into the heart of the mountains, using narrow and standard gauges to reach the gold and silver ore that came by the ton out of the Rockies. Today, remnants large and small make up the lines that showcase Colorado's beautiful and majestic mountains of north central and northwestern Colorado.

Amtrak's California Zephyr - In the late 1940s, traveling aboard a sleek, streamlined train was exciting, a premier mode of travel when air travel was a novelty and jet liners were still on the drawing boards. In 1949, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Western Pacific began combined service over the three railroads between Chicago, Illinois, and Oakland California. Passengers aboard the new California Zephyr discovered the scenic Riders aboard the California Zephyr in April 1951 - Courtesy WHD Denver Public Librarywonders of places like the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the vast Utah deserts and the California Sierras. Riders departing Denver in the morning would ride in comfort on the Rio Grande, climbing the Front Range through the Tunnel District, thought the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel and down the western slope though Gore, Byers, Glenwood, and Ruby Canyons. By the evening they would reach Salt Lake City. It was stylish, beautiful, and comfortable. However, by the late 60s, the age of jet travel was in full swing and ridership dwindled. In 1970, the ICC (predecessor to the Federal Surface Transportation Board) finally allowed the Western Pacific to drop it's portion of the passenger route after WP repeadedly said it could no longer afford to continue service. The CB&Q continued to run their portion under the name California Service, although the train never approached the west coast, terminating as the Rio Grande Zephyr in Salt Lake.Image Copyright Colorado Conservative 2006 In 1971, Amtrak took over the nations remaining passenger service, dropping the majority of trains, never to be resumed. One route that was selected was the California Zephyr. Yet the Rio Grande opted not to join Amtrak because of the fees. As a result, Amtrak ran a San Francisco Zephyr over the UP, and the Rio Grande continued to run it's RGZ service 6 times a week, alternating daily East-West runs so that only one trainset needed to be used. This author rode the last trip of the RGZ in 1983 aboard a Vista Dome. That year, the Rio Grande entered Amtrak, which began an undistinguished era of service over much of the original route, with a few exceptions in California.

Today, passengers can ride aboard the Amtrak version and take in the scenery aboard a coach, sleeper, diner or "Sightseer Observation Lounge," Amtrak's successor to the dome cars. Board early in Denver and grab a seat -- first come, first served -- in the lounge car on the right side of the train to enjoy a spectacular view. A popular trip is from Denver to Glenwood Springs for a few days, soaking in the mineral springs. Fares for adults, seniors, and children vary with the season and other factors that impact intercity travel. Trains depart Union Station in Denver daily, with stops in Fraser (Winter Park), Granby (Grand Lake & Hot Sulphur Springs), Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction. A route guide (pdf) is available.

Georgetown Loop Railroad - A short, 45 minute drive up I-70 west of Denver brings you Georgetown, a former mining town and home of the Hotel de Paris, where a cranky chef named Louis Depuy once produced world-famous cuisine for customers that fell under his good graces. It is also home to a recreation of a stretch of the narrow gauge Colorado Central Railroad, which was then under the influence of Jay Gould and the Union Pacific, who used it to access the rich silver ores coming from the mines along Clear Creek. In order to drive the track from Georgetown to Silver Plume in 1884, a system of curves, bridges and a high trestle had to be built in order to ease the proposed grade from 6% to a more negotiable 4%. In the process the railroad crossed over itself nearly 100 feet above the lower grade, forming the Georgetown Loop. Promoted in flyers across America and worldwide, tourists flocked to ride the famous loop and ride the neighboring Argentine Central to the top of Mt. McClellan. After the Great Depression, the line was abandoned and in World War II, the trestle was dismantled for scrap iron to fight the war. When I-70 was being constructed, the route was intentionally diverted above the route of this historic railroad on the insistance of the Colorado Historic Society in order to preserve the possibility of restoring the famed loop to operation. In 1973, the Colorado Historic Society, partnering with the UP, began reconstructing the loop from Devil's Gate, a short distance west of Georgetown, up to Silver Plume. In 1984, a century after the loop was originally built, construction was complete and service, complete with steam engines, resumed. In 2004, the operator's lease was not renewed and for a brief time, it looked as if the railroad would cease operations. A new operator, Railstar, stepped up and secured the engines and equipment in time for the new season and once again the whistle of a steam engine echoes down the Clear Creek valley. On a side note, the domain is owned by the previous operator of the line and, as a symptom of the bad relations between them and the Colorado Historical Society, has not sold the domain name to either the CHS or Railstar, using it instead to divert ridership from the Georgetown Loop and promote their other railroad, the Royal Gorge Route.

Visitors can board the train in either Georgetown or Silver Plume for a ride over the loop. Seating is unreserved, with covered and open gondolas for riders to take in the beauty. A slow pass over the high trestle is obviously the best part of the trip, but riders will also be pleasantly surprised to find the refreshing river crossings and ride through quiet glades of pine and aspen to be very enjoyable. Tickets are $17.50 for adults and $12.00 for children. With four or five departure times per day at one station or the other, it's hard to find a time not to ride. Riders can also purchase a ticket to the Lebanon Mine, accessible only by the train, for and additional $8.00 and $5.50 respectively. On a final note, if there is one train trip in Colorado for families with small children, this is it. The short trip length, open seating, affordability, and convenience to the Front Range make this a winner.
Railroad Adventures visit to this location in 2004 and 1992. (Note that both trips are with the previous operator.)

Leadville, Colorado & Southern - Under the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, a narrow gauge line was driven over Boreas Pass south of Breckenridge, down into Dillon, and then through Frisco and over Fremont Pass and down into Leadville. By reaching Leadville in 1884, the DSP&P had made itself a target of Jay Gould and the Union Pacific, who were eager to taste the profits of the Leadville mines. Once Gould acquired the railroad, he had no need to drive the Colorado Central further west and the line of the Georgetown Loop stopped at Graymont (now Bakerville) below Loveland Pass. Both the CC and DSP&P lines would find freedom from Gould's control in the reorganization of 1899 into the Colorado & Southern. Eventually, the C&S came under the control of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1908, later the Burlington Northern. In 1938, much of the C&S narrow gauge system was abandoned, leaving the narrow gauge line from Leadville to Climax isolated. Still, narrow gauge trains soldiered on, serving the mine at Climax until 1943 when the line was standardized. America needed Climax's molybdenum to harden steel for World War II, and a streamlined transfer process was necessary. Thus the line to Climax was standard gauged. Steam, however, continued to serve until 1962. Since the Union Pacific closed the former Rio Grande Tennessee Pass route in 1997, the line has been entirely cut off from the railroad world.

Today, one of the last steam engines to serve on the line sits on static display outside the Leadville, Colorado & Southern depot. Sold to a local couple in 1987 by the Burlington Northern for the whopping sum of $10, the line has been slowly and lovingly rehabilitated on a limited budget. Like the Georgetown Loop, open seating is in covered and open gondolas, but unlike the Loop, the LC&S is standard gauge, meaning wider cars and a larger and, well, dieselized feel to the trip. The line up the valley to Climax isn't especially scenic, but it is pretty, nonetheless. Riders coming from I-70 over Fremont Pass will find that they already traveled the route to get to Leadville. A GP-9 diesel backs the train up the pass and then comes back down with little fanfare. When last ridden in the late 90s, the concession car bathrooms were unfortunately an unpleasant. Once you reach a certain point, the rails seem to wither and the train halts about a half-mile short of the pass summit. Technically, the rails do continue up to the mine, but the poor condition of the track leaves it at high risk for derailment, something unpopular with tourists and railroaders alike. The diesel engine, the lack of exclusive scenery (no other way to see it), and the "on-the-cheap" condition of the equipment all make it difficult to justify the fares of $26.50 for adults and $15.00 for children. Even paying an extra $35.00 for a ride in the cab or an extra $25.00 for a ride in the caboose seems too much. For the railfan, this is a good ride, not a great one.
Railroad Adventures visit to this location in 2003.

Glenwood Railroad Museum
- The Western Colorado chapter of the NRHS has created a railroad museum in the east side of the depot in Glenwood Springs, about 150 miles west of Denver on I-70. A large scale model railroad, photos, and dining car china are all on display there. Specialized history is also featured, including a display devoted to the South Canyon Coal tram, Marble Tram, Treasury Mountain, Crystal River and the Crystal River & San Juan. No rolling stock is stored there, but they do have a D&RGW Fairmont A-6 speeder. A number of their patrons are riders of the California Zephyr, stopping there twice daily. Their hours are 12 - 4 PM, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, although they may close on Monday during July and part of August due to the Union Pacific rail replacement projects, which will divert the Zephyr through Wyoming. Fare is a requested $1.00 adult donation, with all children under 12 free.

Other posts in this series:

Mato Vega Fire at 85% Containment

Just heard last night that the Mato Vega fire is 85% contained, which means the direct threat to the SL&RG La Veta Pass line is negligable at this point.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Mato Vega Fire Still North Of Highway

An update from Friday: The Mato Vega wildfire on the north side of La Veta Pass has charred an estimated 13,153 acres. Crews are working to contain the fire, and they have it 45% contained. They are not on top of it yet. They are planning a spot burn, lighting it with a helicopter mounted heli-torch to keep it north of Highway 160 and out of a subdivision. The highway is open, but they are using a pilot car to guard against accidents from smoke and firefighter traffic.

Arkansas Students Write About the Durango & Silverton

I just found an interesting article from some college students from Arkansas taking a journey across the American Southwest. They took a ride on the Durango & Silverton. Their article illustrates why it is so important for future generations to get to experience these tourist lines. Clearly, these kids are learning in a way they will never forget.