Al Harper, owner of the
In June and July, the railway did not run for more than 40 days, after the massive 416 Fire broke out June 1. Extreme drought gave rise to extreme fire danger, prompting La Plata County to enact restrictions that ban coal-fired engines. As the fire burned in the San Juan National Forest, Harper’s fleet of six coal-fired steam engines sat idle in a railyard, unable to infuse thousands of dollars into the Durango and Silverton economies.
The losses were so great that Harper had no choice but to adapt to ensure his company could operate during extreme droughts. So now, the railroad is spending as much as $6 million on oil- and diesel-powered engines that will stand in for the train’s traditional coal-fired engines, which are infamous for sending off cinders and starting fires.
In the future, the D&SNG plans to consult with the U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts and La Plata County to determine if weather conditions pose too high a fire risk to run coal-fired engines.
“This is a momentous task,” Harper said. “But we will never be shut down again for fires.”
Harper, who has owned the railroad since 1998, is investing the money to make good on this bold proclamation.
“It will be no different than a car driving on a gravel road through the forest,” Harper said of the decreased risk offered by oil and diesel engines.
The railroad suspended service to Silverton on June 1 after the start of the 416 Fire, which has so far burned more than 54,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest northwest of Durango and cost more than $31 million to fight.
As of Friday, the cause of the fire was listed as “unknown.” But witness accounts that the fire started along the railway’s tracks, right after a morning train passed by, has fueled speculation that a historic locomotive is at fault.
Harper, for his part, has acknowledged the possibility that one of his trains started the 416 Fire, now Colorado’s sixth largest wildfire, and said the train would take full responsibility. But, he has asked for patience as the investigation proceeds.
The railroad’s move to convert one of its coal-fired engines to run on oil, as well as the purchase of two diesel engines, is what many in the community called for in the days after the 416 Fire broke out.
Randy Babcock, the mechanical foreman who is leading the oil conversion, said these plans had been in place for the past few years but the fire sped-up the process.
“That’s why we’ve been able to pull the trigger so quickly,” Babcock said. “A lot of the legwork was already done.”
Babcock and his team have a self-imposed deadline to convert the 1902 boiler made for coal to be able to burn oil by May 1, the start of the next train season.
When coal-fired engines burn, they throw out hot cinders that fall to the ground and start small burns – so frequently in fact, that the train has its own firefighting tactics, such as having pop cars with water tankers follow a train to extinguish small fires and a helicopter to tackle fires from the air.
Engines that run on oil and diesel, however, burn liquid that vaporizes when ignited, so there is no solid material to send off sparks.
But it has been difficult to find oil and diesel engine options for the railroad’s narrow gauge rail line, which is a smaller track than standard gauge.
Right now, train crews are working in the downtown depot to convert an old coal-fired engine that last ran in the 1960s to run on oil. It is likely, also, that the railroad will add one or two more oil engines to its fleet over the next few years.
The cost to convert just one engine is about $1 million.
Beyond conversion efforts, the railroad just announced the purchase of two custom-built diesel locomotives: one to be called the “550” in reference to the highway that connects Durango and Silverton, and the other “416” in recognition of the wildfire.
The purchase of the two locomotives will cost more than $3 million and will require the company to build a new $500,000 facility to be able to work on diesel engines, a first for the historic railroad. (The railroad currently owns two smaller diesel engines that are not powerful enough to make the steep mountainous trek from Durango to Silverton.)
When done, Harper said the railroad will have a viable alternative when fire danger is too high to risk running coal-fired engines. The new diesel locomotives will have the same appearance as coal engines, which send off those iconic puffs of steam.
On a typical day, the D&SNG carries about 1,000 people on 30 to 40 train cars to Silverton. The new oil and diesel engines will be able to haul 28 cars. Trip times will be nearly identical, Harper said.
Oil and diesel engines require much less maintenance and are significantly cheaper to run than coal engines, but Harper said the railroad will always prefer to stick to its roots and use coal.
The D&SNG has exclusively used coal-fired steam engines throughout its 137-year history. The railroad, though built to serve as a lifeline for mining operations in Silverton, has also catered to tourists since as early as 1882.
Matt Cunningham, an executive assistant with the D&SNG, said there is a certain allure and nostalgia attached to coal-fired steam engines that cannot be replaced.
“Everything we offer is a step back in time,” Cunningham said. “And preservation of that history is what we stand for.”
Aaron Isaacs, magazine editor for the HeritageRail Alliance, a trade association for tourist railroads, said there are only about 200 railways left in North America that use coal as a fuel source.
It may be easy for local residents to recognize or to forget, Isaacs said, but the D&SNG is one of the top tourist railways in the country. The preservation and history the train offers are rare, he said.
“It has a national following,” he said. “The terrific scenery, the ride itself and its destination to Silverton really just makes it unique.”
It is true, Isaacs said, that there is a certain charm associated with coal-fired steam trains and the feeling they invoke of the American West. But most people are pretty oblivious to what is powering the train.
“There is a great deal of American romance and history on steam locomotives,” Isaacs said. “But as far as what’s powering it, that’s the sort of thing only a small number of people would even know about.”
In 2007, the Mount Washington COG Railway in New Hampshire underwent a conversion similar to what the D&SNG is doing now. Fear that switching from coal to diesel would hurt tourist numbers never materialized, said Becky Metcalf, director of marketing for Mount Washington.
In fact, numbers increased.
“Ownership did all kinds of surveys and questionnaires with concerns people wouldn’t come anymore,” Metcalf said. “Actually, what happened is that it increased business dramatically.”
The Mount Washington railway had been running coal since the early 1900s to take tourists up the Northeast’s highest mountain, in a three-hour round-trip with the space for 70 passengers.
But vast amounts of smoke emitted from the coal engine earned the locomotive the moniker “Cog Smog” and prompted the Mount Washington community to put more pressure on the railway to find environmentally friendly alternatives to coal.
“That was a huge impetus for us to make the change,” Metcalf said.
The railroad still runs two coal-fired engines, but the majority of its fleet – 11 trains – runs on diesel, of which 20 percent is fueled with biodiesel. The move pleased the community, and it made the operation more reliable and less expensive to run.
“We had breakdowns all the time (with coal),” Metcalf said. “The biodiesel is just a lot quicker on its feet, runs stronger and is a lot less temperamental.”
Ridership is strong too, she said. The move to a cleaner source of energy has even attracted new clientele, such as hikers and mountain bikers.
“There are a group of people that are (coal) steam buffs,” she said. “But the general public are really there for the experience and the train ride itself.”
The D&SNG has not evaded criticism for its use of coal over the years.
In the mid-2000s, a group of residents east of the depot on the south end of Main Avenue created a task force to work with the train to reduce emissions from engines that idle overnight and emit soot that is carried into adjacent neighborhoods.
Harper spent $1 million to help mitigate the problem but not all problems were fixed. Nathan Morris, who has lived on the 400 block of East Second Avenue for almost 20 years, called the task force’s efforts ultimately “fruitless.”
At a public hearing in July for La Plata County commissioners to discuss fire restrictions, Morris said he and his family still wake up most mornings with red eyes and sore throats, even with their windows closed. They cannot hang laundry outside to dry, because it turns black from soot.
“There’s a large portion of this community ... who are furious and hurt,” Morris said. “If the train cannot be a good community partner with its current ownership, we’re going to have a big fight and it’s not going to be good for the community.”
The 416 Fire finally began to die down in early July, but service on the D&SNG was again interrupted when mudslides, a result of heavy rain on the fire’s burn scar, knocked out a portion of track north of Durango.
Since then, the train has offered limited service, bringing passengers by bus from Durango to the Rockwood station where they board the train to Silverton. Repairs are expected to take weeks and cost thousands of dollars.
Already, the D&SNG is down 50 percent, about 44,368 passengers, compared with last year. And even with the limited service, the train is bringing only about 500 passengers to Silverton a day, about half the normal ridership.
The train’s closure has had reverberating effects on the economy in Southwest Colorado, the full extent of which is not yet known. It’s a situation that Harper hopes to never run into again.
“After this, we will be prepared for the future, and never have to shut down,” he said.