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Recreational Shortline Railroads Get You on the Right Track This Summer

By Michael Henningsen

MAY 22, 2000:  Two of my great grandfathers were railroad men who worked on the tracks their whole lives, each eventually conducting passenger and freight trains in the East and South. And, like any kid, I was fascinated early on with the behemoth locomotives that pulled cars across the nation. An HO scale train set given by my paternal grandmother one Christmas was a favorite gift that inspired my brother and I to create complex dioramas on sheets of plywood, an activity that probably ate up an entire year of our childhood. Trains were cool.

They still are. Especially the ones you can actually ride for no other purpose than to soak up God's dioramas in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Albuquerqueans enjoy close proximity to three shortline railroads, all powered by the coal-burning steam engines of more than 100 years ago. Booking passage on any of them is money well spent on a summertime activity whose memories are bound to last a lifetime.

For those who require more stimulation than that of simply sitting on a train staring out at nature, all three railroads profiled here offer plenty of extracurricular activities at the station houses, on the trains themselves and at the end of the lines--from cool cocktails in an open-air car to chuckwagon dinners served on tin plates in a barn to gift stores and plenty of photo opportunities. A trip along the tracks is the perfect mini-vacation for adults and children and, if planned in advance, your train ride can coincide with plenty of special events and town celebrations along the way. Shortline railroads offer a reasonably-priced way to get out of town and take a ride into America's past while providing plenty of options and add-ons that can personalize your adventure.

Once you've ridden one of the trains, chances are good that you'll be addicted. To that end, you'll find full summer schedules, special events calendars and price lists for each of the three lines profiled: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Santa Fe Southern Railway. Keep in mind that dates and prices are subject to change and that departure and arrival times are approximate. In other words, make a quick phone call before pulling on your conductor's cap and striped overalls.

Weather can be a factor when booking passage on any of the trains, so be sure to pack a light jacket and rain gear just in case. Enjoy a summer excursion with a little slice of history.

479 Main Avenue
Durango, CO 81301
(970) 247-2733 or (888) 872-4607 [(888) TRAIN-07]
fax (970) 259-3570
Operating season: year-round

Like the Cumbres & Toltec, the Durango & Silverton was once part of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which arrived in Durango in the summer of 1881. By the summer of 1882, tracks had been laid from Durango to Silverton and trains were hauling passengers and freight between the towns. Although the trains primarily hauled silver and gold ore from the San Juan Mountains, the Durango-Silverton line was promoted as a scenic route for travelers from the beginning. And scenic it is: The Durango & Silverton winds through spectacular scenery, offering breathtaking canyon views in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest.

Coaches are heated during winter months, and more luxurious parlor cars (passengers must be 21 or over) are also available. Concessions and restrooms are available on all cars. Service dogs are allowed when accompanied by their master.

Round trip train/bus and bus train service is available at an additional cost of $5 per ticket. There is no trip time difference between the bus/train and train/train services, but the train/bus service (train to Silverton, bus back to Durango) shortens the trip by an hour and a half. Since bus seating is limited, early reservations are recommended.

Box 789
Chama, NM 87520
(888) 286-2737 [(888) CUMBRES]
Operating season: May 27-October 15

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is one of two remnants of the post-Civil War Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, an empire established by General William H. Palmer in 1871. The original plans called for a rail line from Denver to Mexico City with stops in Santa Fe and El Paso. By 1876, Palmer's railway had established Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colo., as it extended south from Denver, but the original plan to build the line through Mexico City was derailed when silver was struck in southwestern Colorado. Palmer diverted his railroad toward Silverton, Colo., via Cumbres Pass and Durango.

The original narrow-gauge track (rails laid roughly three feet apart) was eventually converted to standard gauge (rails laid roughly five feet apart) as the line grew, and the only narrow-gauge section that remains today is a stretch of trackage from Antonito, Colo., through Chama, west through Durango and north to Silverton.

In 1970, New Mexico and Colorado purchased the Antonito-Chama section to create the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The Durango-Silverton line also continued to operate, although no longer connected to the Cumbres & Toltec section. In 1981, the latter section was sold to a private owner, thus establishing the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. During operating season, daily trains leave Antonito and Chama, meeting at a lunch stop in Osier, Colo. Connecting bus service allows passengers to ride numerous itineraries including one or both trains. Regular service features rides in open and closed cars, and luxury and rustic cabooses can be chartered. Large groups can charter their own train and customize their schedule.

410 South Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, NM 87501
(888) 989-8600 or (505) 989-8600
Operating season: April-October with year-round day trains

The Santa Fe Southern Railway is a remnant of the gargantuan Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad that once stretched between Atchison, Kan. and, by 1887, Littleton Colo. with major depots in Atchison, Topeka and, of course, Santa Fe. The 120-year-old stretch that exists today as the SFSR is a piece of history preserved--its quaint Mission-style depot still stands and operates at its original location, an irreplaceable link to Santa Fe's past. Even today, the line carries freight to the community of Santa Fe, but also serves as a thrilling passenger line. Guests are treated to a scenic wonderland as they wind through the Pecos Wilderness and Glorieta Mesa. And dozens of special-event trains throughout the summer virtually guarantee numerous unforgettable rides.

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