Imagine driving a real steam loco. It’s not cheap, but it is possible.
When I was a teenager back in the 1960s in Australia, I managed to have a couple of turns driving and a few shovelling coal. If you have never done it, stopping a loco at exactly the right spot on a platform, or balancing it on a manual turntable is simply near impossible.
There are a few places in the world where Railroads use driving schools to supplement their income and keep steam trains running.
Probably the most famous is the Wozniac Experience in Poland, where you can spend a week learning to drive and operate real passenger trains.
The UK also has quite a few tourist lines where you can get your hands o the throttle for a price.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the nation’s longest and highest narrow-gauge railway.
From USA today.
Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY 4:41 p.m. EDT July 2, 2015
The Cumbres & Toltec steam train connecting Colorado and New Mexico has a famous history, and you can ride the same rails as Indiana Jones, and even stay in his childood home. Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY
Locomotive 488 smokes and steams as it crests Cumbres Pass on the historic steam-powered Cumbres & Toltec Railroad.(Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY )
CHAMA, N.M.– Hands sweating in borrowed leather gloves, I slowly ease the oversized brass lever toward me with an odd-sounding combination of brute strength and finesse.
Ronnie Lopez nods encouragingly. “Just a little more,” he says, his own gloved hand ready to grab the hot metal control if I mess up.
But then, ever so slowly, the 130-ton locomotive attached to that lever begins to chug forward, great clouds of coal smoke puffing from its stack. Lopez relaxes slightly, his other hand never far from the brake.
Inside the cab of this 1920s-era locomotive is a bewildering tangle of hydraulic and steam lines, levers, spigots and valves. None are labeled. All look important. And all are too hot to touch with bare hands.
The boiler up front is sitting at nearly 200 psi, a trainee fireman is shoveling great hunks of coal into the already-roaring firebox to keep the pressure up, and there’s already all kinds of pressure on me.
I’m not nervous. Much.
The day before, this same locomotive, Locomotive 488, carried us on the 64-mile-long run from the farming community of Antonito, Colo., up and over Cumbres Pass and then down to the ranching town of Chama, N.M. Crossing Cumbres at 10,015 feet above sea level, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the nation’s longest and highest narrow-gauge railway.
Opened in 1880, the railroad carried silver ore, timber and livestock, along with passengers, on its 3-foot-wide tracks. Standard American train tracks are 4 feet, 8.5-inches wide, but narrower gauges allows trains to better climb in mountainous regions because the tracks can be more tightly curved in narrow areas.
The day I drive the train, professional engineers from the railroad are teaching a dozen men, most of them retirees, how to properly shovel coal into the firebox, make steam and then harness that power to drive the locomotive forward.
“They are not refined machines,” says Bill Hobbs, a retired securities industry executive from Little Rock who’s on his third four-day visit to the school. “The feeling of crude power is a big part of the attraction.”
Attraction is the wrong word. Obsession is a more accurate one. These guys — and it’s virtually all guys — are spending thousands of dollars to learn how to drive the trains owned jointly by a Colorado-New Mexico state trust and operated solely for excursions and education.
The railroad and its school are a significant economic driver for the two rural towns, but the small legion of devoted fans worry too few people know about the railway despite its pedigree. Instead, most people are are more familiar with the Durango & Silverton line, a few hours’ drive away but much more accessible to passing tourists.
The two railways used to be connected as part of the larger Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which limped out of the Great Depression and shut down in the 1950s. The Cumbres & Toltec line struggled on through a short oil boom but was nearly abandoned by the late 1960s.
Railroad enthusiasts who couldn’t bear the potential loss persuaded the governments of Colorado and New Mexico to take over, and a cadre of paid staff and devoted volunteers keep it running despite challenges that include the need to hand-make virtually every replacement part.
Neil Hague loves that idea. An aerospace engineer from Wichita, Hague is going through the engineer school for a fourth time, grinning widely as he takes the right-hand seat reserved for the train’s driver.
“One hundred years ago, this is what I would have been working on instead of airplanes,” he says.
The chugging locomotives draw fans most every day who chase them along the nearby road, pulling off at well-worn spots to snap photos as clouds of coal smoke and steam bellow from the stacks. Among the best-known amateur chasers are Fort Worth brothers Casey and Cody Akin, who a few years ago met the railway staff when they accidentally got their pickup stuck on a crossing.
On a recent day, the two, along with a friend and Casey’s wife, Rachel, spend hours driving up and down Cumbres Pass to take photos they’ve taken dozens of times previously. Their dad introduced them to trains as kids.
“We pulled onto the main street and I saw that train and I was hooked,” Casey Akin, 33, says.
The Akins, who run a trucking company, spend a week visiting the trains each year, not sure if that visit will be their last. They worry about the age of the men and women dedicated to operating the railroad, and fear it might one day just quit running.
“A lot of these older people, they were alive when steam was running for real,” Casey Akin says. “The younger people, they’ve probably never even seen one.”
That’s probably true — at least not in person. But millions of people have seen these trains before. They featured prominently in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in a sequence in which a young Indy fights baddies on a circus train.
That water spout he grabs onto? It’s real and just outside Chama. And that house he runs into, where Henry Jones is carefully examining his Grail diary? That’s real, too. The house in Antonito today is a family-run bed-and-breakfast where you can drift off to sleep in Indy’s bedroom and be awoken by roosters and the train’s steam whistle the next morning.
Sound is a major factor for steam enthusiasts. Russell Rawle, a Texan who dresses in period costume to ride, says you have to stand next to a steam train to fully appreciate it.
He’s right. In comparison to soulless modern cars with fake engine noise piped into the passenger compartment, steam trains carry their power, controls and history right where you can feel it.
“You can feel it breathing,” Rawle says. “It’s a living, breathing thing.”
If you go
Getting there: You can board the train from either Chama, N.M., or Antonito, Colo. Chama is about two hours north of Santa Fe, and about three hours north of Albuquerque, while Antonito is about a four-hour drive south of Denver. Many train enthusiasts ride the Cumbres & Toltec and then drive two hours northwest to Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge steam train. Lodging options in both Antonito and Chama are limited, but in Antonito include the Indiana Jones House Bed & Breakfast.
Railroad excursions: Plan on spending a full day on the train. You can board in either Antonito or Chama, ride over Cumbres Pass, and then return via motor coach. You can also ride the coach over the pass first and take the train back, or ride one train up to the lunch stop at Osier, switch trains as they pass, and return to your starting point. The railroad also offers special excursion trains, including sunset rides and John Denver-tribute concerts held at 10,000 feet above sea level. Prices start at $95 for adults and $49 for kids for full-day rides, rising to $179 for adults in the parlor car, where passengers are greeted with fresh fruit and treated to complimentary cake and drinks. Snacks are available for purchase on the train. For more information call 1-888-286-2737 or visit cumbrestoltec.com/schedule-fares.
Fireman and Engineer Steam School Classes: Classes are filled for the remainder of the year. The four-day classes start at $2,250 for fireman school, which must be completed before moving onto engineer school, which costs $2,750. Classes are limited to 12 students at a time. An advanced class teaches railroad operations and dealing with runaway trains. That class costs $4,000, and both fireman and engineer classes must be completed first. For more information about the schools, call 1-888-286-2737 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is the video behind the story.