The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has received nearly $2 million from a federal rail safety program to help pay for the replacement of a bridge over the Animas River, just south of Silverton.
The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the money through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements program, which “funds projects that improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of intercity passenger freight and rail.”
In a joint letter of support to award the grant, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner said the D&SNG provides “a direct connection between the two vibrant communities of Durango and Silverton.”
“The railroad has an estimated annual economic impact of nearly $200 million and transported 270,000 travelers in 2019,” the letter says. “A vital part of this connection is a 242-foot bridge that crosses the Animas River that is currently in a state of overstress and in need of replacement.”
Requests for comment from Bennet’s and Gardner’s offices were not returned.
The D&SNG is a tourist and heritage line, though it appears it was eligible for the grant. A request for comment from a Department of Transportation spokesperson was not returned late Tuesday.
Jeff Johnson, D&SNG general manager, said the wooden bridge is functional and passes biannual inspections for safety, but will eventually need to be replaced. The bridge was likely constructed in the 1910s or 1920s, he said.
“That’s one we’ve had an eye on for a while,” he said.
Johnson said it’s likely the grant won’t cover the complete cost of replacing the bridge. An estimate of cost and expected start time for construction are being determined.
“We were just notified about the grant, and now we can start (planning) how we want to do it,” he said.
The replacement is not expected to help alleviate issues the current bridge poses with boating the Upper Animas River, which causes rafters to have to either portage or get out of the boat and walk the raft under the bridge.
“That would be a major engineering change in the grading of how you approach the river,” Johnson said. “And I don’t believe we’re in a position to make significant changes.”
In other good news for one of Durango’s top tourist attractions, a recent inspection of the Elk Creek bridge and adjacent track farther south of Silverton has proved that damage is not as extensive as previously thought.
A massive rainstorm in June created a significant logjam at the D&SNG’s bridge at Elk Creek, which in turn, caused about 30 to 40 feet of track north of the bridge to wash out, effectively cutting off trains from Silverton.
D&SNG officials estimated it could take up to 16 weeks to repair, which was further complicated by the fact the U.S. Forest Service on July 2 ordered the railroad to stop any repair work, saying plans needed to first be approved by the agency.
Later that month, the Forest Service gave the D&SNG the green light to go ahead with repairs. Johnson said a more thorough inspection of damages showed the Elk Creek bridge did not need to be replaced.
“Because the integrity of the bridge was good, that was a huge step in saving time and money on this project,” he said.
Instead, most of the work will be focused on repairing the washed out track. Johnson said the D&SNG hopes to start work in the next week or so and have repairs completed by the end of this fall.
“It’s our great hope to have it done in that timeline,” he said.
As for the possibility of a locomotive making it to Silverton this year, which hasn’t happened in months, Johnson said, “If we have the ability to get back up there, I think it’s promising ... we could get a train back up to Silverton.”
“We’d personally love to do that, actually,” he said.
As for the D&SNG’s fire mitigation project, that’s still on hold, Johnson said.
The D&SNG this spring started an extensive vegetation removal project to reduce potential fire hazards on the 100-foot right of way on each side of the railroad’s tracks from the Cascade station to Silverton, which cuts through the San Juan National Forest.
The D&SNG completed 8 miles of the project before the Forest Service sent the railroad a cease-and-desist order, saying the railroad needed the project approved by the agency.
The D&SNG, for its part, says it does not need Forest Service approval to work on its own right of way. Johnson said those issues have not been resolved, and in the meantime, rail crews have been cleaning up slash piles in the 8 miles or so that were mitigated.