Steam: Still whistling after all these years

Article by Steve Voynick

C&TS RR – September 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

I ADMIT THAT I ENVY Tom Atkinson’s job. He begins work by climbing into the cab of No. 497, a huge, black, 96-year-old Baldwin steam locomotive. Coupled to a six-car train, the K-37 Mikado-type locomotive has been building steam for two hours. At 10:30 a.m. sharp, Atkinson pulls an overhead cord and sends two wailing blasts of the steam whistle echoing across the little town of Chama, New Mexico. Then he nudges open the throttle and No. 497 pulls slowly away from the Chama station, accompanied by a cloud of black coal smoke and the rhythmical hiss of escaping steam.

For the next six hours, Tom Atkinson takes the locomotive on a round-trip journey over a 119-year-old, narrow-gauge rail line winding through the San Juan Mountains along the New Mexico-Colorado border. While passengers enjoy the grand scenery, Atkinson keeps close watch on boiler temperature, steam pressure, speed, journal boxes, throttle, and air brakes as No. 497 steams up steep mountain grades, skirts the rims of deep canyons, and crosses trestles high above white-water rivers. For Atkinson, it’s all part of a day’s work as a steam locomotive engineer on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Anyone who has seen the movies Missouri Breaks, White Buffalo, or Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade has seen the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR) in action. The C&TSRR is North America’s longest and highest narrow-gauge, steam-powered railroad.

The C&TSRR’s history began in 1880, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (later the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad) built west from Antonito, in the southern San Luis Valley, toward new silver-mining camps near Durango, Colorado. The 170-mile-long line connecting Antonito with Durango, known as the San Juan Extension, passed through the spectacular Toltec Gorge, over 10,015-foot Cumbres pass, and through Chama, New Mexico.

Like all Denver & Rio Grande original construction, the San Juan Extension used narrow-gauge track with rails only three feet apart. Narrow gauge offered many advantages, especially in rugged mountainous terrain. It was much cheaper and faster to construct, and could more easily negotiate tight mountain curves.

The San Juan Extension provided passenger and freight service to remote towns like Chama, carrying passengers as well as products and the needs of the mining, ranching, and logging industries. After World War II, most narrow-gauge railroads were scrapped, victims of improved highways and a declining mining industry. Although the San Juan Extension ended passenger service in 1951, oil and natural gas development in the Four Corners region kept it going as a freight line.

The Denver & Rio Grande Western filed to abandon the San Juan Extension in 1967. But groups of Colorado and New Mexico rail and history buffs saved the line from being scrapped by convincing the state of Colorado and New Mexico to acquire part of the San Juan Extension as a tourist attraction.

In 1968, a joint Colorado-New Mexico railroad commission purchased the most scenic section of the San Juan Extension — the 64 miles between Antonito and Chama. The cost was only $537,120 — the estimated scrap value of the track, structures, and equipment. In 1971, the line came back to life as the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

The C&TSRR now carries 80,000 passengers each year. All enjoy the mountain scenery and the sight and sounds of steam railroading, but not all appreciate the huge effort needed to keep an antiquated steam railroad operating.

All C&TSRR locomotives are 2-8-2s (2 pilot wheels, 8 driving wheels, and 2 trailing wheels) that were manufactured between 1903 and 1926 by the now-defunct, Philadelphia-based Baldwin Locomotive Works. Keeping them running is the job of Walter Rosenberger, the C&TSRR’s chief mechanical officer.

“There’s a big difference between maintaining steam-powered locomotives and modern diesel-electric equipment,” says Rosenberger, who holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. “Diesel-electric operators have ready access to parts and technical assistance. But steam locomotive parts are rarely available — even their patterns and drawings have disappeared over the years.

“Although the craftsmanship and quality of their original cast iron, steel, and bronze parts is remarkable, steam locomotives nevertheless represent an obsolete technology,” Rosenberger continues. “Maintaining and rebuilding them requires what I call a `low-tech–high art’ approach. So we rely on engineering that is more creative than sophisticated, especially in fabricating replacement parts.”

Rosenberger showed me through the C&TSRR’s Chama rail yards, past 100-year-old wooden boxcars and into the brick shop buildings. In the machine shop, part of it dating to 1880, and the adjacent locomotive shop — where everything is covered with a coal soot film and permeated with the smell of machine oil — we walked between heaps of locomotive parts and rows of mills, lathes, and shapers.

WORKING IN THE BRIGHT GLOW of an acetylene torch, machinist and boilermaker Donald Martinez was melting the worn babbitt-metal lining from a driving box — one of eight main drive axle bearings that support the brunt of a steam locomotive’s 230,000-pound weight. Like most steam locomotive parts, replacement bearings are unavailable through supply channels and must be continually rebuilt.

Rosenberger shows me a stack of gleaming, newly-machined, 20-inch-diameter bronze piston rings. “Each locomotive has two steam engines which power the four drive wheels on each side,” says Rosenberger. “Each engine has a single piston fitted with four compression rings — two of bronze and two of cast iron. We rebuild the engines right here, fabricating new piston rings and reboring the cylinder walls. When we’re finished, each engine is good for at least ten more years.”

Good shop men on the C&TSRR should ideally be welders, machinists, and boilermakers all at once. And they can’t be afraid of hard work, because steam locomotives have few parts that aren’t heavy. The C&TSRR shops operate all year, and most heavy maintenance and rebuilding is done in winter.

“The shops are what keeps this railroad operating,” Rosenberger says with pride. “Running a steam-powered railroad takes a year-round team effort from a lot of people.”

In the first 14 miles out of Chama, the C&TSRR locomotives must gain 2,200 feet in elevation to reach the summit of 10,015-foot-high Cumbres Pass. Under full steam, each locomotive produces about 2,000 horsepower — and needs all of it to handle the steep, four-percent grades. At the peak of tourist season, longer, fully-loaded trains are “double-headed” with 2 locomotives.

The old steam-railroading adage that says that firemen earn their pay going uphill and engineers earn theirs going downhill is certainly true on the C&TSRR. On the uphill, firemen manually shovel tons of coal into the firebox. But on the downhill grades, the engineer’s skillful use of the air brakes is critical.

“Good steam locomotive engineers always think ahead,” says Engineer Tom Atkinson, a former Burlington Northern Railroad diesel-electric locomotive engineer. “He anticipates and visually evaluates curves and grades, and understands the sounds and feel of the locomotive. That tells him how to work the throttle, firebox draft, cold water boiler injection, and the air brakes.”

CLIMBING STEEP GRADES demands more than simply opening the throttle. In order to avoid wasting water, engineers must know how to coax the maximum amount of power out of the least amount of steam.

In an average 60-mile run up and down the C&TSRR grades, each locomotive can burn as much as six tons of coal. Each ton of bituminous coal delivered to the Chama rail yard costs about $60. Each season, the C&TSRR’s locomotives burn about 3,000 tons of coal.

Steam locomotives also need a lot of water. C&TSRR locomotives evaporate as many as 7,000 gallons of water on each run and must stop twice to take on water.

Even moving a steam locomotive around the yards takes hours of preparation. “Cold starts,” where new fires must heat cold boilers, can require seven hours. Even regular morning “hot starts” — where hot fireboxes are stoked to build up operating steam pressure — take two hours.

During the height of tourist season, the C&TSRR keeps six locomotives “in steam” around the clock. And the work’s not done when the locomotives return to the yards. Each locomotive will need about 6 man-hours of work in cleaning the fires, lubing, and washing to get it ready for the next morning’s run.

“Railroads scrapped steam power long ago as economically inefficient,” says C&TSRR President George Bartholomew. “But our purpose is to preserve history, so by definition we’re saddled with a costly, obsolete technology.”

Old steam locomotives are the primary reason for ever-increasing operating costs. In its early years, the C&TSRR kept only two of its ten steam locomotives running, conveniently cannibalizing the others for parts.

TODAY, the railroad keeps six locomotives running and plans eventually to restore the others, thus ruling out further cannibalization as a source of cheap replacement parts. Over the next decade, each of the six operational locomotives will require $200,000 in capital improvements, work, and parts which does not include routine maintenance.

“Meeting those costs demands growth,” says Bartholomew, who took over as president of the C&TSRR in 1996. “Our three main concerns are promotion, wages, and upgrading equipment. More effective promotion has already increased ticket sales by 30 percent in just 3 years. By the year 2002, I expect to carry more than 100,000 passengers a year.

“Everything is interrelated,” Bartholomew explains. “More passengers generate more revenue, which allows us to increase wages. That attracts skilled tradesmen who can better maintain and upgrade equipment — which we need to carry more passengers.”

Future C&TSRR projects include construction of a replica roundhouse with a working, steam-powered turntable. The railroad is also developing an educational program to train fireman, engineers, and machinists to help keep the restoration, maintenance, and operation of narrow-gauge, steam railroad equipment from becoming a lost art.

After my behind-the-scenes look at the C&TSRR, I realized that running a steam railroad entails a lot more than just selling tickets, pulling whistle cords, and opening throttles. Nevertheless, I’ll envy Tom Atkinson every time he climbs into the cab of old No. 497 before another run up Cumbres Pass.

Steve Voynick lives near Leadville, where the narrow-gauge lasted until 1943, and the last steam locomotive went cold in 1962.