Who would have thought that our iconic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad would cause such a stink?
But things have gotten really stinky up in Rockwood.
The railroad has instituted three daily departures out of the village north of Durango this season, and residents fear a reprise of last year’s troubles, which they blame on the increased tourist traffic in their small, forested enclave.
Last year, D&SNGR moved departures from downtown Durango to Rockwood when COVID-19 public health restrictions reduced train capacity to 50%. The shorter routes offered the only way the company could cover its costs.
Residents were not happy. They say the frequent departures brought with them more, often speeding traffic on narrow, winding, two-lane County Road 200; more trash; more trespassing on private property; and more fire danger.
County officials, along with residents, assumed the shift to Rockwood would be a one-year event, and thus weren’t too concerned about impacts.
Instead, COVID-19 capacity restrictions persisted into 2021, and D&SNGR management decided to continue the Rockwood-Cascade roundtrips. They also discovered that the shorter trips were popular, allowing tourists to engage in more activities during their stays in the area.
Last week railroad officials met with Rockwood residents.
“We came to the meeting with an expectation to discuss how to better control the logistics to make it easier on the residents,” said Jeff Johnson, D&SNGR general manager, in an interview this week. “We were very sincere. What we found is there is a very pointed campaign to ask us to not operate our trains out of Rockwood, period.”
Johnson said the railroad is looking at ways to mitigate any problems, such as setting up the parking lot in a different configuration and monitoring it for trash.
“We learned from the community things we need to keep a close eye on,” he said.
The obvious solution to traffic troubles – to use buses to shuttle patrons to and from Rockwood – isn’t possible, also due to COVID-19 capacity restrictions. And the buses the company owns are actually too big to navigate CR 200, he said.
The company is now considering ways to expand its Silverton service, which would reduce departures from Rockwood.
County officials are considering what their role is – if any – in resolving the situation. Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said this week an announcement will be made soon.
One issue some residents have raised is potential loss of income to downtown businesses as a result of the departures from Rockwood (one daily train will continue to depart from the downtown depot).
But business leaders said they’ve heard no concerns from downtown business owners.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District, said in an interview, “Yes, we want the train downtown. And I feel for the Rockwood residents; this has changed their quality of life.”
But tourists will still come to the downtown area to dine shop regardless of the site of departures, he said.
While we sympathize with Rockwood residents’ concerns, we must note that the train station has been there longer than any of us has been alive – 139 years. In fact, CR 200 was built to connect the main road (now U.S. Highway 550) to the station. The Rockwood route will likely outlive us all.
Hopefully residents and railroad management can work together to mitigate nuisances like trash, and serious threats, especially wildfire evacuation issues. Perhaps the county could step up and help with traffic calming efforts. And how about D&SNGR suggesting that ticket-buyers drive slowly and be respectful of private property in Rockwood?
Wouldn’t everybody prefer to resolve these problems and get on the “Love Train,” as the O’Jays sang?
“Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board/And let this train keep on riding, riding on through ….”