Dino train

County commissioners and railroad should be clear about Animas Valley theme park

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is the linchpin of this area’s tourist industry, a valued member of the community and a continuing tie to Colorado’s colorful past. It does not follow, however, that the railroad can therefore do whatever it wants without question.

In particular, the La Plata County commissioners should look closely at the proposed “dinosaur train” and the associated events to be held north of town. Durango loves its train, but at least some of the prospective neighbors have markedly less enthusiasm for a theme park in the Animas Valley.

What is needed is a better understanding of exactly what the railroad wants to do in the valley, what the county will accept and some assurance that there are reasonable limits in place. None of that is yet clear.

According to the railroad, what it has planned is a three-day event during which two to four trains per day would go three miles north of Durango to a spur onto railroad property just east of U.S. Highway 550. The only public access would be by the train.

At the site, the railroad envisions blow-up dinosaurs, food vendors, a temporary tattoo parlor, archaeological dig activities and an inflatable bouncy house. There would also be portable restrooms, landscaping and an event tent.

The whole idea plays off a PBS Kids cartoon series called “Dinosaur Train.” Once at the site, kids and their families would have about 90 minutes to play and explore the dinosaur exhibits before boarding the train and returning to the depot.

At a neighborhood compatibility meeting hosted by county planners Monday night nearby residents expressed concern about pollution and noise. They also worry that the theme park could cheapen the experience and image of a truly historic railroad.

That last concern seems overwrought. The theme park location is quite a bit off the highway and well within railroad property. It would have nothing to do with regular service to Silverton. The railroad says there would be no permanent structures and everything would be removed at the end of each weekend event.

Pollution is more of a worry. Idling a stationary coal-fired locomotive for as long as six hours a day has to add to the pollution in the valley. The fact that the railroad has been less than clear on that also touches on another fear.

The railroad’s website and a D&SNG graphic both clearly indicate the Dino Train would use a diesel engine. At the Monday meeting, however, the railroad said it would be coal-fired. That makes critics wonder what else in the railroad’s plans might change.

That is the kind of thing the county needs to nail down, especially when it comes to the extent of the valley site will be used. The railroad wants to be able to use the theme park from May through August, although a spokesman said it has no plans to expand the event to more than nine days per season.

Perhaps an agreement could specify a nine-day limit, to be scheduled any time during the May through August window. Maybe the railroad would agree to a diesel to minimize pollution.

Nearby residents’ biggest worry is probably where this is going over time. The railroad already has it pumpkin patch trains, the Polar Express events and Thomas the Tank Engine. The idea that the valley site could end up being used on a daily basis, at least over the summer, is probably unrealistic. The concern, however, is understandable – particularly if the railroad is intent on idling coal-fired engines there for hours.

The Animas Valley is not about to be home to another Disneyland. Nonetheless, its residents worries should be taken seriously. The railroad and the county can go a long way toward assuaging those concerns by working together to set clear and reasonable limits to what might go on there.