Our first trip on SLRG was on May 24, 2008, which happened to be opening day of
the 2008 season. It also happened to be the inaugural run of the dome cars
in SLRG service. We took the full Alamosa-to-La Veta round trip, and it was
Our power was No, 18, a consolidation of LS&I heritage, lately of
the Grand Canyon Railway. This locomotive is oil-fired, so there was no
coal grit to trouble the eyes. Our train had two dome cars, Nos. 554 and
551, plus a single "observation" car, No. 5060, gutted of its interior except a
single lavatory and with wooden church pews (no kidding) arranged lengthwise
down the middle. That car was basically empty all day. The dome
cars, by contrast, are in great condition inside, very comfortable and spacious.
||Here's our steed for the day. Nice green boiler
jacket, tender lettered "Rio Grande Scenic Railroad". This oil-burner
is somewhat out of place in the Rockies, but who's complaining?
||Passengers waiting to board the train in Alamosa. All
seats today were dome seats. A rail buff group from Nebraska was
well-represented, in addition to SLRG brass and prospective charter clients.
There were also a few families such as ours.
Not having ridden the La Veta route before, the whole experience was new. The
first hour-ish is pretty uneventful, since there's not a single curve between
Alamosa and Fort Garland, where they took on water from a fire hydrant. After
that it got more interesting. One thing we did notice was a slight bucking
motion when running at speed on the flats. I had never been behind
standard-gauge steam before, and this fairly small one was running flat-out,
so maybe that was causing it.
||Crossing the railroad's namesake river
in Alamosa. The water was pretty high on this day.
||Some time later in Fort Garland, the
crew hooks up a fire hose to a hydrant and tops off the tender. The
guy holding the coffee cup is Ed Ellis, president of IPH and thereby de
facto boss of the whole operation.
||Crew on top of the tender, tending to
business, which tends to make things go better... You get a really
close-up view from the dome.
After the line diverges from the highway alignment near Sierra, the scenery
is spectacularly beautiful. Snow was in the air, and many snow-covered
peaks were visible from time to time, especially Mt. Blanca to the west.
For the most part the rails are located high on the hillside, with plentiful
sharp curvature and rock work. Elk were rumored to be in the area, but we
saw none. However, we did see one wild turkey down by the stream.
There was a bunch of hoppers and CORX tanks on the siding at Sierra siding,
so it was unavailable for meets.
||The backside of the tender,
viewed from the vestibule of our car. The railroad has no issue with
passengers riding with the dutch doors open, but this view is straight out
the end of the vestibule. Pretty amazing sight...
||Here's an interior view of
the dome, looking forward (relative to our direction of travel). There
is a small snack station in the middle, staffed by a railroad employee
selling drinks and chips, etc. Prices were reasonable, which was quite
a surprise. Basically, everything is a buck.
||After passing through the
Trinchera area, the rails rejoin the highway briefly before diverging for
good at the Forbes Ranch entrance. Here is a forward look rounding the
prominent S-curves as we meet up with highway 160.
||Rotate 180 degrees and we
see the tail end of the train. Nothing like an open-vestibule ride,
||After passing the Forbes
entrance, we're approaching Sierra siding. You can see a substantial
cut of freight cars spotted on the siding track.
||Beyond Sierra, looking
back we get a good look at the character of the railroad west of the summit.
The tracks are high on the hillside, and the views are often spectacular.
Here we see Blanca Peak (or Mt. Blanca, if you prefer) dominating the view
to the west. This is the fourth-highest mountain in Colorado.
When we reached the horseshoe curve below the summit, I paid close attention
to the turnaround track here. I confirmed that both switches have been
removed and the track is isolated. I can see applications for
bringing this track back into service, but time will tell.
Approaching the horseshoe, we had spotted a westbound passenger train waiting
for us up at Fir This was the new daily train originating at La Veta,
and consisted of a single dome car behind the last remaining F40. When we
reached the siding, we stopped briefly and some passengers switched trains.
The crew also set retainers, then we carried on.
||Rounding the horseshoe, which is a
very tight curve. We're looking out the front dome window, which
is something I really miss on most modern trains.
||We've now changed directions entirely,
and the westward end of the horseshoe is visible ahead. In the
foreground is the turnaround track, or shoo-fly, or balloon track (pick a
term you like). This used to cut across the inside of the horseshoe
and make it possible to turn equipment.
||Here's the lower, western end of the
turnaround track. As you can see, the switch is long gone, as is the
one on the other end.
||Cresting the summit, we come to Fir
siding, where the westbound train from La Veta awaits us. It had a
single F40M-2F for power-- the
only one left on the railroad, as it turns out-- and a single dome car for
the paying customers.
||Here's a look at car No. 510 as we
pull away, sporting its high-tech end-of-train device.
The east side of the pass is considerably steeper (about 3% as opposed to 2%)
and winds back and forth so much that you're continually surprised to look up
and see the tracks above you where you've just been. There is also a pair
of tunnels to make things more interesting. The steep grade also caused
us some trouble! Evidently there was a problem with a brake valve on the
other dome car, and before long our brakes were smoking. We had to stop for a
while to cool them down. Considering we had just passed a wreck site (2006
freight train accident), if the crew wanted a safety stop, we were willing to
allow them all the time they wanted...
||While we waited for the brakes to
cool, we explored the rest of the train. Here's the interior of the
obs car. There is a lav just over my right shoulder; other than that,
the only thing in the car is these benches. A family with small twins
was making use of the open space to exercise the kiddos.
||After getting in motion again, I
noticed across the gulch a cylindrical hopper car down the slope from the
tracks. Yet another wreck site?
||Here's the lower of the two tunnels,
as the front of our car emerges into the light.
||And, looking back at the east portal.
Both tunnels have metal snowsheds at the portals, though I suspect they keep
a lot of rocks off the track as well.
||Here's the remains of the major wreck
from 2006, at Occidental siding (just west).
There was a disturbing amount of wreckage on
the east side of the mountain. You
can identify many large parts of freight cars in this photo. Remember
what I said about making sure the brakes work?
When we reached La Veta, the crews replaced brake parts while we ate lunch.
Then they wyed the loco and coupled onto the other end of the cars (which was
nice for us since now we were the last car on the train). This process was
much to the enjoyment of the throng of railfans on board (and chasing us from
||Here's the crew, working on the valves
on car No. 551.
||The loco was topped off with fuel and
water before the return trip.
||The process of turning the train was a
little complicated, due to the layout of the wye. The west leg comes
out on the main, but the east leg joins the siding. So, the train was
first backed up and moved onto the siding. Here, it's backing past the
||The train is paused on the main while
the switch gets thrown to the siding.
||Now, the train moves onto the siding,
advancing far enough to clear the wye switch.
||The cars are uncoupled from the
locomotive. Here the brake hose is stretched tight, a fraction of a
second before the pop as the connection was broken.
||Now the locomotive is backing onto the
east leg of the wye.
||A nice broadside portrait of No. 18 as
she backs around the wye.
||After switching on the tail track, No.
18 moves around the west leg of the wye. I found a good spot in a
stand of trees where I wouldn't foul anyone else's photo, yet still had the
best view in the house... er, yard.
My batteries died at this point, so the rest of my
photos for the day were taken on slide film.
Going back up, I spent a lot of time standing in the open vestibule. Did you
know that tunnels get really humid when there's a steamer pulling the train?
That was a new experience for this diesel-era person. The exhaust also
blows grit off of the ceiling, which got in my eyes a bit.
Vestibule + Last Car on Train = Pretty Good Photo Ops. Here we're
looking back as the train passes through the first tunnel above Occidental.
At the summit,
we met the same train we'd seen there on the way over. They had also
turned, of course. Our train, with more cars and the steam power, kept
to the main track on both occasions.
By the way, remember the wild turkey mentioned earlier? Well, on the
way back, in the same area we saw a trio of coyotes scouting around. We
wondered if perhaps Thanksgiving was going to come early for them!
Planning on "packing" it in, so to speak...