The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad pulled out of the station in Durango headed for Silverton on Friday, marking the first full trip since track damage caused by floods hamstrung the train almost two months ago.
“You know, I used to be considered a tough businessman,” said owner Al Harper. “But as I’ve gotten older, there must have been a change in my chemistry because I was very emotional seeing it leave.”
It has been a tough year for the train and the community, Harper said.
The D&SNG was first sidelined June 1 after the 416 Fire broke out north of Durango, suspending service for about 40 days during peak tourist season as the wildfire chewed through 54,129 acres and conditions were too hot and dry to safely run.
The train resumed full service from Durango to Silverton in mid-July, after the 416 Fire started to burn out and fire danger across Southwest Colorado began to subside with the arrival of modest rainfall.
But then, mudslides and debris flows caused by heavy rains on the 416 Fire burn scar washed out part of a mountain slope where the train runs north of Hermosa, requiring an extensive rebuild of the hillside and tracks.
The D&SNG’s trains have been trapped above the mudslide area, unable to return to Durango. For the past two months, the train has offered rides from the Rockwood station to Silverton, but ridership has been down.
The economic toll on the D&SNG – and the communities of Durango and Silverton – are not yet fully understood.
Harper said in a normal year, the D&SNG brings in about $20 million from rides and gift shop sales. This year, the train is trending at about half that, he said.
Christian Robbins, a spokesman for the D&SNG, said the train lost about 60,000 riders from June to August. It will be difficult, but possible, to bring ridership back on track for the season, which ends late October.
“We have a shot,” Robbins said. “But it will be a challenge.”
And that doesn’t take into account the money the railroad has spent on repairs and intends to spend investing in diesel and oil-burning locomotives to run in the future when fire danger is too high to risk running coal.
Harper estimates it will cost about $8 million to make that investment. He also said it will cost about $1 million to make the necessary repairs on the tracks north of Hermosa – work that will likely continue over the next few months.
“It has been the toughest summer you can imagine,” Harper said.
Nearly five months after the start of the 416 Fire, the U.S. Forest Service has still not named a cause. Gretchen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said Friday a cause should be released in the late fall or early winter.
Witness accounts, however, peg the D&SNG as the culprit. Neighbors near the origin of the fire say the fire broke out minutes after a train – known for sending off cinders and starting fires – passed by the Meadowridge subdivision.
Harper said the D&SNG is taking the immediate steps of investing in diesel and oil-burning locomotives to make sure the train is never shut down again as a result of high fire danger conditions.
Harper said he is confident the improvements made to areas where floods wiped out the tracks will prevent damage so severe that the railroad suspends service. For the long term, Harper said: “If anything, the lesson we need to take home is that we need to review every single thing we’re doing.
“This railroad ran the same way for 130 years. ... It’s not going to be a revolution, it’s going to be an evolution.”
With the train season winding down, Robbins said the D&SNG is looking forward to the holiday season and the Polar Express, which books about 34,000 riders. The railroad is also focused on next year.
The D&SNG had its largest ridership in history in 2001, with 210,000 boarding the train for the mountainous trip from Durango to Silverton. The next year, the Missionary Ridge Fire broke out. Robbins said it took nearly 10 years for ridership numbers to recover from the fire.
This time around, however, Robbins said he doesn’t expect the 416 Fire to hurt ridership. He said the train is planning, and fully expects, to hit 200,000 passengers in 2019.
“All we can do is plan for what we are going to do next summer,” Robbins said. “The train can’t afford it, the town of Durango can’t afford it, Silverton can’t afford it for us to shut down next summer.”
The absence of the region’s largest draw, responsible for an economic jolt of an estimated $200 million, caused intense reflection for the communities of Durango and Silverton this summer.
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said conversations have picked up about how the small mountain town of about 600 people can make itself economically diverse so it doesn’t have to rely solely on the train.
The possible answer? Promoting outdoor recreation and trying to bring in more year-round residents.
“We want to be the extreme-sport base camp of Colorado,” she said. “We need to go more toward outdoor recreation. Our number one asset is the San Juan Mountains.”
Gallegos said businesses in Silverton made it through summer strong, in large part because of people in Durango coming up to eat and shop.
“Durango has shown its allegiance and love for Silverton, and we’re truly grateful,” Gallegos said.
The return of the train, she said, will help give the town a boost before winter.
“I’m so excited,” Gallegos said Friday morning as she awaited the train’s arrival. “I won’t believe it until I see it.”
In Durango, too, there has been a sort of sea change happening, with calls to diversify the economy and efforts to make the train a better steward of the community going forward.
A new group, called “Save the City, Green the Train,” seeks a middle ground between two camps that formed this summer: those who support the train no matter what and those who want to shut it down in the wake of the 416 Fire, said Rachel Landis, director of The Good Food Collective and a board member for La Plata Electric Association.
“We are a group of concerned citizens and business owners and professionals who would like to see our train thrive in our community but do so in a way that doesn’t impact air quality, health and present a fire hazard,” she said.
Save the City, Green the Train meets every two weeks. Landis said the group won’t approach Harper until it develops a clear vision and goal to present.
Harper, for his part, said his door is always open, and he welcomes hearing any ideas.
Friday, however, was all about the return of the D&SNG. At the station, many people came out to see the train off as it blew short whistles, a missing sight and sound from this summer.
It was a moment Harper had been waiting for.
“To hear those whistles blowing, that made me feel really good,” Harper said. “Our family loves this railroad and this community. We’re not going to let one crisis say we give up.”