The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has debuted its first locomotive that runs on oil, a more environmentally friendly fuel source that holds less fire risk than a traditional coal-burning engine.
For the past two years, the D&SNG’s crews have worked to convert the No. 493, an early 1900s coal-burning locomotive, to be able to run off oil. It’s the first of what’s expected to be several conversions from coal-fired to oil-burning engines, as the city’s top tourist attraction braces itself for the future.
“We need to be prepared and just recognize the changing climate,” owner Al Harper said in an interview with The Durango Herald.
D&SNG has prepared for a couple of years to convert some locomotives to burn oil and turn away from coal. Coal-burning engines can emit small cinders from their smokestacks and can start fires.
Harper has said it’s important to have the option of running oil-powered locomotives during extreme drought.
This issue came to a head in summer 2018, when drought, high fire danger and the 416 Fire caused the D&SNG to shut down for more than 40 days. Since then, Harper has said the railroad would have to adapt.
“You’re talking to a guy who 15 years ago said I’ll never have anything beside coal engines,” Harper said. “But we have to evolve. We all have to evolve. That’s just part of life.”
Locomotive No. 493 was built in 1902 and ran for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad all over Colorado. But in the mid-1900s, it was taken out of service, and when the D&SNG bought the line in 1981, No. 493 was determined too big for its needs and was put on display at a museum in Silverton.
And there it sat for decades.
That is until around 2016, when the D&SNG decided to add a seventh locomotive to its fleet and looked to the coal-fired No. 493 as an engine that could be converted to burn oil. Crews got to work in winter 2018, breaking down and putting back together the historic locomotive.
After more than an estimated 7,500 work-hours and $625,000 in materials and labor, the No. 493 will make its official debut Saturday.
“It’s a pretty proud moment,” said Jeff Johnson, chief operating officer of American Heritage Railways, D&SNG’s parent company.
No. 493 is expected to join the railroad’s lineup this spring and work its way up and down the rails to Silverton.
Randy Babcock, D&SNG’s chief mechanical officer, said there’s not much of an operational difference, though No. 493 won’t require someone to shovel coal. Crews gained experience last year on an oil engine when the SP-18 locomotive was brought in on loan.
For passengers, the experience will be largely unchanged. Each locomotive billows iconic steam out its stack, blows its nostalgic whistle through town and provides riders with the same breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains.
But for a community that has continually called for the D&SNG to burn a cleaner fuel, especially after the 416 Fire, the conversion to oil has much bigger significance.
“I’m really pleased the train is rolling out a new oil-burning engine and is working to convert another as well,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “The train is an important part of our economic engine, and it’s critical that these new units be used to avoid future disasters.”
Nathan Morris says he is not against the D&SNG or trying to shut down the beloved train. But living just blocks from the train depot, Morris and his family have had their fair share of complaints.
“When trains come back to the yard, they run all night long because the coal boilers need to stay hot,” he said. “Then we get a nighttime inversion almost every night, and there’s this plume that covers most of the south side.”
Morris said he keeps his windows closed to keep smoke out of his house, but sometimes the floors or the blinds will still turn black. He can’t put out laundry to dry because it will become discolored. Plants in his garden usually have a layer of soot.
But neighbors’ complaints, for the most part, have been anecdotal, Morris said. So, after the 416 Fire, he and a few others installed air quality monitors at their houses, and the findings were shocking.
At night, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., Morris said the data show air quality on the south side of Durango is worse than Beijing’s.
“People over the years have always said the smoke is bad, but we’ve never had the data to see just how bad it is,” he said. “Now, we’ve had a full year of this air quality study.”
So, it’s welcome news that the D&SNG plans to convert locomotives to oil, which won’t create that plume at night.
“I think it’s a great first step in the right direction,” he said.
Morris is part of a local group called Sustain the Train, which wants D&SNG to find more eco-friendly ways of operating. He said the group has a mailing list of a couple hundred people.
“I think a lot of people who push back against us are under the assumption that any criticism of the train is aimed at shutting it down,” he said. “But we chose our name carefully. We’re supporting the train staying here, we just want the train to do so in a more sustainable way.”
More than a year after the 416 Fire, the U.S. Forest Service investigators last summer confirmed community speculation and announced that a cinder from a coal-fired D&SNG locomotive started the blaze north of Durango.
The D&SNG has denied it started the fire, which burned more than 54,000 acres, mostly in the Hermosa Creek watershed. And a lengthy court battle is ensuing as the U.S. government seeks to recoup an estimated $25 million from the railroad for firefighting costs and damages.
In many ways, though, the 416 Fire pushed the D&SNG to enter an era of more eco-friendly fuel sources.
For years, public sentiment favored coal-fired engines.
But Harper said about 80% of riders don’t come for a coal-fired locomotive, they come for the steam-engine experience, which oil will provide.
It’s unclear how many of D&SNG’s nine locomotives will convert to oil. Already, crews have started on a second conversion.
But for Harper, whose family has owned the railroad since 1998, the D&SNG will maintain a presence with coal-fired engines, if only to preserve the tradition of the 139-year-old railroad.
“Part of this evolution,” Harper said, “is to make sure the railroad has the equipment it needs for all conditions, at all times, so it can be here another 137 years.”