For anyone interested in railroading, the West has two outstanding steam train rides. We are not talking about Amtrak, whose western trips can be a different kind of adventure. If you want to ride, it will pay you to check the websites on these railroads to be sure you have the latest schedule and fares. The lines are Durango & Silverton, and the Cumbres & Toltec.
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is entirely a steam narrow gauge railroad between Chama, NM and Antonita, CO from about May 30 to October 18. It is a 64-mile portion of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, constructed in 1880. The unique aspect of this railroad is it climbs a 4% grade (4-feet rise per 100-feet horizontal) from Chama at 7,863 feet MSL to Los Pinos at 10,015 feet, and descends a 2-1/2% grade from there to Antonita at 7,888 feet. The Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virgina climbs 11% switchbacks, but that line uses Shay geared steam engines which can climb steep grades. For conventional locomotives, 2% is considered steep. Our engine #463 was built before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk!
A variety of trips are offered: You can ride from either Chama or Antonita starting in the morning, stopping around noon for a fabulous meatloaf or turkey lunch at Osier, and arriving at around 5 PM, an eight hour trip. You can return to the start by a motor coach which takes just over an hour. Half-day trips are also offered. The scenery is unspoiled mountainous best.
We took the #5 trip from Chama to Antonita on the last day of the season and enjoyed it as much or more than a steam trip on the Durango & Silverton Railroad in 2002. We picked up our tickets at the train station in Chama at 5 PM the night before. The rail yard is full of old narrow gauge rolling stock — boxcars, cattle cars, gondolas, and a few tank cars. Passenger equipment is represented in old Pullman cars and coaches. There were work cars including a rotary snowplow. Two engines were quietly steaming since it takes many hours to get the boiler temperatures high enough for a full head of steam the next day. Firemen worked shoveling coal through the night. We stayed at nearby Twin Rivers Campground.
Around 9:30 AM scores of passengers arrived from everywhere and boarded their assigned cars and seats. A long and a short whistle followed by two long blasts signaled the start of the trip with the release of brakes. Rail fans rushed to the open air gondola cars for the best views. At road crossings rail fan photographers made still and video shots of our double header train belching smoke and rounding sharp bends. Narrow gauge railroads were cheaper to build than standard gauge (3′ vs. 4′ 8.5″ spread between rails) and narrow gauge can handle shorter 20° curves. The trip took us through two tunnels and we could review the geology from the PreCambrian through the recent eras in rocks and landscapes. We stopped to take on water several times. At one trestle we stopped while the first engine chugged across the trestle, followed by the whole train — a precaution because of the weight of two engines might exceed the capacity of the structure.
We could readily see why the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the prototype for many train hobbyists. Its scenery, authentic old-time rail equipment, infrastructure, and operating details would enhance any model railroad layout. Next time you encounter a model rail fan, tell them you've ridden — or intend to ride — the Cumbres & Toltec RR or Durango & Silverton RR, and they'll kiss your ring!