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The Caboose – Just the Facts about Passenger Trains

by Forrest Whitman

If you got on a train in Colorado Central country in 1920, you could go to almost any point in the nation by rail. The Denver and Rio Grande Western would be your line from Salida. You could cover 2,560 miles on that line alone. If you got on in Salida, you’d see two roundhouses comprising the most turntable tracks operating in the state (one narrow gauge, three feet, and one standard at four feet 8 1/2 inches). This would be tied in bays available with Pueblo roundhouse. Add in your miles (probably from Buena Vista) on the Denver South Park and Pacific, and you’d have another 335 miles of possible travel. Colorado Midland (opened 1883) would book you another 161.1 miles. During that golden age of railroading, you could see an estimated 32,395 miles within Colorado alone. Only about a third of those miles exist now.
Colorado railroads still offer some spectacular rides today. The Royal Gorge tourist route takes you from Cañon City through the famous gorge and back. Also special is the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad from Alamosa to La Veta. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes you to the highest Colorado rail point at 14,115 feet. If you take AMTRAK west on the California Zephyr, you’ll go through the longest tunnel, the Moffat, at 6.2 miles.
While the Rio Grande Southern no longer operates along the Dolores River and over Lizard Head Pass, you can still ride some of that line’s nine “galloping goose” self-propelled cars. These were built between 1931 and 1936 on a truck chassis with a school bus-type passenger and freight car placed on top. From time to time you can still board one of them on the Cumbres and Toltec, a scenic line running from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado, using steam power. That’s the nation’s highest and longest narrow gauge, running over its 63.4-mile route. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad still operates, just as it has since 1882, using steam power. It has been known to put on a galloping goose. Let’s not forget the little Cripple Creek and Victor with its open cars.
[InContentAdTwo]Today your long-distance rail options are a lot more limited than they were in 1920. You can board the Southwest Chief in Trinidad, Colorado. That line spans 2,265 miles, all the way to Chicago or Los Angeles. 227 of those miles will be in Colorado. If you decide to take the bus to Denver Union Station (the state’s oldest operating station, 1881), you’d get on the AMTRAK California Zephyr. You might want to go to Emeryville, California or Chicago. That’s a long line, some 2,438 miles with 728 in Colorado. At Union Station you’d be operating on possibly some of the first right-of-way in the state. In 1863, that line was built to join the Transcontinental Railroad in Wyoming.

In 1920, your fare covered your mileage cost. Today AMTRAK is still the least subsidized form of travel. Your ticket pays for more of the fare than you pay for your road mile or airline mile traveled. The U.S. spends $1.64 a year per capita on rail, while the world average is $21.85. Switzerland is the highest at $228.29, and the U.S. ranks between Bolivia and Turkey.
Today’s passenger trains are subject to delay for freight trains. This accounts for all but 0.1 percent of late arriving trains. The Southwest Chief arrived on time 67% of the time in October, and the California Zephyr arrived on time for 53.2 percent of its runs.
Facts about our passenger railroads are interesting, but there is vision for the future, too. Colorado Rail Passenger Association has a map out with future rails lines in Colorado that could happen. Getting aboard a train is a lot more fun than reading about facts. All aboard!