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A qualified success in 2006 for the new train in the Valley

Article by Virginia McConnell Simmons

Transportation – February 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

AMID ENTHUSIASTIC PUBLICITY from railroad operators, chambers of commerce in Alamosa and La Veta, tourism promoters, and fans, the new Rio Grande Scenic Railroad excursion train hummed across the Sangre de Cristo Range on May 27, 2006, to open its first regular season. And it rolled to a smooth stop on October 15.

Whether or not this new enterprise will be successful can only be known in the future. Meanwhile, some minor changes are on the boards for the RGSRR’s 2007 season.

Someday, market research and corporate ledgers may reveal everything that curious onlookers would like to know about passenger numbers, profit, loss, operations, and the amount of money spent by railroad passengers at local hotels and restaurants — since Alamosa has hopes about becoming a hub for excursion trains. For now, however, the standard-gauged RGSRR states a total round number of 10,000 passengers in 2006, without categorizing the figure according to fares, and this number is what RGSRR train manager Bob Shank says was initially projected.

Meanwhile, the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, operating between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., carried 39,586 passengers during its last season, up from 30,000 in 2005 and twice the increase that the C&TSRR anticipated.

Neither Shank nor Leo Schmitz, who is executive director for the C&TSRR Commission, is ready to assess the benefit to each by having two scenic rail lines in the San Luis Valley.

Although die-hard rail fans relish the normal swaying, huffing, coal smoke, and unroofed gondolas found on narrow-gauge trains like the C&TSRR, standard-gauge trains offer a smoother, quieter, and cleaner ride for passengers. A coach on the RGSRR provides comfortable seats, and an open-air car has a roof as well as a tier of seats.

Luckily, neither train was directly involved in a major natural disaster this year. Despite the threat of forest fires, which hung over the entire region last summer, both lines escaped unscathed, although the RGSRR lost a few days of operation when a fire, a few miles away, led authorities to shut down U.S. Highway 160 and the RGSRR passenger train, too.

Later in the season, a collision with a potato truck, which had stalled on the tracks in the hamlet of Blanca, resulted in a coach being gouged and burned too severely for repair. But fortunately, this freak accident caused no major injuries to humans, not even to the truck driver who was released after a one-night hospital stay.

Next year, several changes will take place at RGSRR.

Whereas Bob Shank acknowledges that his operation expected its first season to lose money, he is confident that advertising will improve the picture in 2007. Both lines will be raising ticket prices next season, up $8 on the RGSRR and $3 to $4 on the C&TSRR (with larger hikes possible on special fares).

PROSPECTIVE RGSRR passengers were sometimes frustrated when they attempted to reach a web page or telephone number to make reservations during the railroad’s first season. But this problem should be overcome as the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad’s official name becomes more recognizable in advertising, as the Cumbres & Toltec has over the years.

Other changes on tap will find two separate trains: one the principal train between Alamosa and La Veta, and the other the train between Alamosa and Antonito which connects with the C&TSRR. Freights and slow orders on the Antonito leg resulted in late starts to La Veta on some occasions in 2006, Shank explains. Separate trains will eliminate that problem.

Another modification will find the departure from Alamosa to La Veta changed to 9 a.m. and the departure from La Veta changed to 2 p.m., thereby allowing more lunch time. This change comes about because lunch service was sometimes harried due to the simultaneous arrival of so many passengers who were worried about catching a train. However, since some passengers complained about a paucity of interesting activities to pursue in La Veta, additional time there may not be desirable for everyone — unless the town quickly develops more tourist attractions.

Equipment will also be upgraded before the next season. Shank reports that a private car may be acquired to offer first class accommodations and fares, and standard equipment will be improved, too. Due to the accident at Blanca (in which the coach containing the only restroom on the train was put out of commission), an old mail car was pressed into service under the title of “concession car.” It provided a restroom, albeit an inadequate one, which resulted in the most common complaint about the train during its first season. The operators are aware of this deficiency and will remedy the situation by next year.

WITH THREE DECADES of operation behind it, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s equipment has evolved from cut-down boxcars of the 1970s to era-appropriate coaches, and next year the line will see four operational steam locomotives, enough to schedule two trains a day.

Meanwhile, the perpetual problem of maintenance on the C&TSRR’s vintage road bed, which has frequently been plagued by washouts, is being vigorously addressed. This year alone 10,000 heavy, standard-gauge ties were laid on about five percent of the line, and installation of rock ballast was begun for the first time in the narrow-gauge’s 127-year existence.

The RGSRR has an advantage with its better road bed, which has been well maintained for heavy freight service.

Regardless of their shared concerns, the two operations are as unlike as apples and oranges, and defy close comparison. Conspicuous differences are diesel vs. steam, broad vs. narrow, newer vs. older. When ownership and administration are compared, the differences become even more complex, and these may affect the ultimate outcomes of the enterprises.

Jointly owned by two states — Colorado and New Mexico — and overseen by a two-state commission, the C&TSRR has been able to seek and receive public funding to augment its income. The picturesque antique train also benefits from a large constituency of Friends of the C&TS. This organization can apply for grants and it supplies a work force of avid volunteers to supplement the paid employees. (In 2006 the C&TS Management Corporation, the contracted operator, hired 60-65 of the latter.)

The RGSRR, on the other hand, has neither public funding nor volunteers, but it does have the advantage of being associated with a privately-owned company which holds several freight lines. Even with this advantage, the RGSRR presumably must show black ink eventually or quit operations in order to satisfy its investors, as frequently befalls unprofitable, privately- owned businesses.

The relationship between the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, the local San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad, and the latter’s parent Iowa Pacific Holdings, Inc., is a bit fuzzy to outsiders, and little wonder. Through a process called “sharing,” the nonprofit D&RG Historical Foundation operates the RGSRR, while Iowa Pacific owns most of the equipment and the road bed, and seems to provide some employees, like the important one up front in the cab.

The historical foundation’s president is Bob Shank’s brother Don Shank, who has plans to operate an excursion train between South Fork and Creede. The historical foundation has provided some equipment, like the mail car/concession car and a diesel locomotive that the SL&RG has used in its freight operation. The different components share employees, too, so it is hard to identify a total — roughly 12 or fewer at RGSRR. And they share the red ink incurred by the RGSRR. Ultimately and very importantly, they will also share the results of decisions made in faraway Chicago by Iowa Pacific Holdings, Inc.

Thus far, the initial year for the RGSRR looks like a qualified success, and the combined total of nearly 50,000 passengers for these scenic lines is promising news for the two railroads in south-central Colorado.

Virginia McConnel Simmons writes regional history, and many other things, from Del Norte on the Rio Grande del Norte.