Rebuilding a railroad above the clouds: Pikes Peak's cog

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, August 19, 2020

 

PIKES PEAK, Colo. — We have driven in a pickup up the dirt road that for 128 years has been The Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway. We have reached a spot approximately 11,000 feet above sea level. The spot is below Windy Point, just below milepost 6. Here, the road ends and construction crews are rebuilding the cog railroad on the original right of way in a $100 million project that is designed to keep the cog, a Colorado landmark and a national treasure in extreme railroading, running for the next century.

 

Here, my host, Assistant General Manager Ted Johnston and I set out on foot. The going is tough on account of the grade. Even in sturdy work boots, the grades, which average 12% and range as high as 26%, make walking difficult in the loose ballast. We pause to admire the skill of one of the equipment operators, who picks up a pile of steel crossties with a grapple attached to an excavator and moves them about with the dexterity of a baton twirler. Then we resume the trek.

 

In a few paces, we reach the point where heavy-duty trucks with rotating dump beds, stop and discharge their ballast (which, incidentally, comes from a quarry in Southwest Colorado and begins its journey on the Rock N Rail line that shares track with the Royal Gorge Route tourist railroad on the former Rio Grande Tennessee Pass line).

 

Onward we go until we reach the leading edge of construction, where ties are set in the ballast and two 65-pound rails (larger than the old 40-pound rails on the railroad) gleam proudly in the Colorado sun. We turn to admire the vista. Below us, the railroad’s base camp at Manitou Springs and nearby Colorado Springs are hidden below a white blanket. They are building a railroad above the clouds.

 

Here, the walking gets easier. Stepping from one tie to another is a dramatic improvement from walking in the ballast. But the grade and the thin air are just the same. The energetic, excited at this once-in-a-lifetime experience inner 30-year-old in me struggles to remind my out-of-shape 59-year-old body that we can still do this. I pause, thankful that one of the workers, Jared, is on his way to pick us up in a motorized rubber-wheeled cart. He will ferry us the last stretch where contractor Stacy & Witbeck’s construction crew is installing new Strub cog rails, the most technologically advanced and least maintenance intensive system from Switzerland. It’s replacing the cog’s old Abt rack system. The work is precise, and the steel ties are made with grooves, where the outer rails and the cog rail are placed. Again, a machine operator picks up a section of cog rail and places it with the utmost care.

 

The work at the 8.9-mile-long cog is on schedule. Begun mid-May just below the summit so that material can be brought up from the bottom to meet the work face, track construction should be completed by the end of the year. That schedule works for General Manager Spencer Wren, who notes that new trains, a locomotive pushing three passenger coaches, manufactured by Stadler in Switzerland will arrive about the same time to begin testing. He and Johnston have no worries about testing in winter. They’ve ordered a new rotary snowplow.

 

In addition to building the railroad anew from the roadbed up, the railroad has refurbished its fleet of Swiss Locomotive Works Bhm 4/8 units, a DMU type railcar, changing their cog system from Abt to Strub. Along with being retrofitted with new cog wheels, the units are also receiving upgraded customer amenities. The railroad is also renovating the classic depot and campus at Maintou Springs to enhance the customer experience.

 

Next May, the renewed cog will resume operations. The spectacular views at the top of Pikes Peak  will be available to those who don’t care to drive or hike the 14,115-tall mountain that inspired the “America, the Beautiful” anthem. The red cog-wheel trains will run as they should, a part of Colorado’s rich history and a unique part of the U.S. railroad landscape.

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