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Train Day 2013 was a hoot and toot

Lots of Railroad Excitement with Floods

By Forrest Whitman

Train Day this year was especially fun. All sorts of events from an informal wedding to a big political meeting were going on along with the usual railroad tours. The “day” was stretched out for two weekends just to fit all the events in. Guthrie and Cathy celebrated by getting married, so we went down by the lake so I could officiate a little ceremony. The roundhouse in Como was open for inspection and the owners were on hand just to open things up. Next weekend it was off to Pueblo for more rail events. Everything was happening!

An interesting display happened in Como. On one of the Bad Order tracks was an old box car which was last seen in Cardinal, Colorado. The owners of that car said it had been used as railroad express stock (among other things) and ended up in sad shape up above Nederland. The new owners rescued it and got it down to Como where it will be repaired. The old passenger depot in Como doesn’t look like much now, but much of the interior is unchanged. Repair is under way there too. There were other attractions in Como including a spinning demonstration where wool from Marino sheep was being spun just like in the old days. An old hot lead printing press was fired up so you could see how they once put each letter in backwards. The pressman there could read text backwards, a skill he’d learned a few decades ago. That kind of press was routinely used by the Register-Call in Central City not all that long ago. To top it all off, Governor John Hickenlooper stopped in to chat one day.

The State Rail Plan and the Big Floods

  Floods affect railroads too. Our familiar Union Pacific main line through the Rockies was stopped dead. It’s formerly the Denver and Rio Grande Western with trackage rights to the BNSF. The water knocked out long sections of track and left the continuous rail hanging there. AMTRAK customers waiting for their seat on the California Zephyr in Denver were sad to hear they’d have to take a bus west (free and with complimentary lunch). Fortunately the UP put train loads of rock into bottom dump cars and filled in the wash outs. Things were back to normal in two weeks. AMTRAK and UP both lost money. That event reminded us of how stretched thin the rail lines are these days.

Gov. Hickenlooper is a patient listener. I reminded him that the state rail plan still includes the old main line of the D&RGW, the line from Pueblo to Minturn over Tennessee Pass. The UP put that line into limbo (technically “out of service”) soon after they got it. UP depends on the line through Gilpin County and into the Moffat tunnel. Now that the D&RGW is out of service there’s no alternative route through the mountains when another big flood comes along. I reminded our governor of that. He replied that he knew it well. He patted me on the back (literally) and allowed as how some of the groups and authorities I was once involved in did a good job on the state rail plan. But, as he reminded, the U.P. probably has no legal obligation to keep an alternative route going.

From a business point of view the UP would hurt itself by selling off the Pueblo-Minturn line. The BNSF would love to buy it and have a safe route east. The old D&RGW main line offers easy grades and avoids the Moffat tunnel. That would provide a competitive rate advantage on freight, and especially west slope coal, to BNSF. Not only that, upgrading the rails on a line not used since 1997 would be a headache for the UP Railroad. The state does have some jawbone ability on the state rail plan. Hick has a lot on his plate these days, but his CDOT works on rail issues. He’s on board.

As I write this the U. S. Forest service is shut down due to the big stand-off in Washington D. C. That’s especially bad because the USFS plans to do some exciting railroad restoration above Como and all the way to Breckenridge. There’s a large water tank there they are working on. Also, the old station house at the summit is being brought up to snuff. This is all part of the forest service’s mission to promote local economies and they still have some stimulus money to do that. These projects all are being done “before the now flies.” In theory the tourist can go from Breckenridge all the way to Como looking at rail sites. That could come, as they say, “Before the snow flies,” but we’ll see. Much of the road follows the old Denver and South Park road bed so it’s a natural. We can only hope for movement in D.C.

Still more railroad excitement in Pueblo

Around seventy five people interested in the Super Chief passenger train crowded into the old D. & R. G. W. express barn in Pueblo to see what could be done to save the Chief.  AMTRAK runs the Southwest Chief and wants to keep it running. However, there are some real problems with keeping those tracks open. The BNSF runs little or no freight on much of the line through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. They are willing to pay part of the cost of upgrading that track, but only part. They feel the three states involved, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have an obligation to chip in along with AMTRAK. Negotiations go slowly. In the meantime that track continues to deteriorate. Some segments, which once ran trains 79 mph are now cut down to 50 mph. The packed meeting held a number of legislators from all three states as well as just plain rail riders. Everyone left with a renewed determination to contact state legislatures and governors.

Train Day in Pueblo was fun too. I’d recommend anyone traveling through there on the weekend to go down near the beautifully kept up Union Station and check out the crew dining car. This is open Saturdays even in winter, though the first Saturday of the month is your best bet for a full meal. It’s fun just to sit in the only operating crew dining car anyone knows about. They serve a basic meal for $10. That means a hamburger, homemade fries, salad, and apple cobbler. It’s a bargain and the kids especially enjoyed it. What a good way to top off Train Day.

Record Passenger Boardings

  It’s clear that Americans like their trains. The Southwest Chief was fully booked many days last summer and the California Zephyr was nearly booked even during the floods. Attendance was good at Train Days too. Next year Train Day will happen again and we’ll have more news about keeping the nation on track.

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