Durango & Silverton on steam, diesels, and the future

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is arguably one of the best and highest profile steam tourist railroads in the country. The remnant of the Rio Grande’s famed Silverton Branch through the spectacular Animas River Canyon. It’s a railroad in the process of making major changes to its locomotive fleet, converting some locomotives to oil firing and buying diesels. To learn more about the railroad’s motive power, we posed 17 questions by email to General Manager Jeff Johnson and Chief Mechanical Officer Randy Babcock. Here’s what they told us.


1. The D&S is home to one of the largest fleets of operating steam locomotives in the country. What’s the current status of the roster of steam locomotives? Babcock: Our original intent prior to COVID19, and generally still our direction for 2020 is: 473 returning to service late in the season as an oil burner having received significant firebox work; 476 currently in service; 480 receiving running gear overhaul; 481 in service having received a 5 year cap inspection and other work; 482 in service; 486 out of service for all of 2020 for running gear and some firebox work, and 493 in service as our sole current oil burner. The 478 will remain on display in our museum for an undetermined amount of time.


2. What’s the vision for the steam fleet? Babcock: A very timely question! Steam locomotive rebuilds and maintenance in the 21st century is often thought about in the manner of spending a significant amount of money one time, and then it’s good for 15 years or the life of the 1,472-day form 4. It’s obviously another story when you utilize a vintage fleet of locomotives with regular use while pushing them to their full capacity. Our 5- to 7-year vision has been to get into a seven-locomotive cycle with one generally being out of service for a year to 18 months at a time for heavier maintenance. With this, the obvious goal is to maintain a year around rebuild cycle for the fleet instead of the traditional “run them in the summer and work on them in the winter” model. Adding the 7th locomotive also allows us to reduce our per locomotive service day count so we can achieve close to a full 15 years on their respective 1,472 cycles.


3. Can you two talk about the evolution of motive power there given the conversion to oil firing for two engines and the arrival of two White Pass units as well as the construction of two new diesels? Johnson: This is a very pertinent point, because this evolution is going on to another level before our eyes. When the D&SNG first began, our resolve seemed firm that diesels would never ply the rails to Silverton. But by the late ‘80s we were “experimenting” for a few seasons with non-steam transportation from Rockwood northward. By the early 2000s after our owner Al Harper and American Heritage Railways had already been operating the Silverton branch for four seasons, conditions warranted that we absolutely needed to have back up power that could be utilized in short order during the peak seasons. We then began to bring on multiple classes of industrial units that were available at the time. In addition to being an obvious alternative, they were a great help to augment power for smaller special event trains, to serve as back up to get trains back to town if delays occurred, and notably to serve as switchers in Durango, drastically reducing smoke in the evening hours as trains arrived and switched the consists each evening. Fast forward many years, and multiple issues have brought us to a time where we realized that having alternatives to coal must be part of our offerings in the years ahead. Obtaining reliable diesel road power is just one of the choices as we watch the aging fleet of small industrial units struggle to handle growing demands. Many long conversations over the last year we have joined with Al Harper and AHR General Manager John Harper to forecast next steps that will serve us well. Because the Silverton branch owes its legacy to the years of carrying our passengers behind vintage steam locomotives, there has never been any thought but to continue that tradition along with the understanding that changing conditions mandate that we must also utilize alternatives when needed. Beginning the conversion of our D&RGW locomotives to burn oil is how we wish to maintain the integrity of our history, while being a viable and evolving entity in our community. Babcock: Specific to repowering of the units (Nos. 1201 and 1202) at Motive Power and Equipment Solutions, we have been actively working with MP&ES to wrap them up. The work MP&ES has done so far looks great, and we are excited to get them here and in service. The trucks and traction motors have really been what has delayed the project. Currently we are awaiting completion of the traction motors upon which time they can be fitted to the truck assemblies and installed. Currently things are on pace to have them in Durango later this fall.


4. How do you envision the use of the diesels? Johnson: It is anticipated that the diesels may well play their strongest role early on as we determine what additional steam locomotives will be needed for oil conversion through the next few years. The ability to move trains in the peak season with up to 1,200 passengers each day necessitates that we have reliable alternatives when the traffic is heavy. We also look to continue with expanding the dieselized Cascade Canyon runs from Rockwood, as they started out last year strong with much more than a modicum of patronage. The ability to use these units on those trains while expanding the tonnage is appealing as we have found a strong audience of walk up and “close in” bookings from passengers who were not interested in the day long journey. As Durango as a visitor and tourist destination grows, we are finding year by year that having alternatives for shorter yet engaging excursions appeal to those who would not have otherwise joined us. Likewise, the opportunity to have diesels as an economical option for off-season service is appealing while our steam fleet undergoes heavy winter work. Additionally, in the past year we have expanded our maintenance of way equipment roster to the point that our aging industrial units often cannot handle full tonnage work trains. The larger power will also allow us to stage unit work trains at various locations to increase and expedite our track maintenance program. Beyond all these scenarios, it is also imperative that we have functional power that can be called upon for last minute duty when service interruptions occur with our passengers on board in order to move them to their destination in short order.


5. Same question about the oil burning steam locomotives? Johnson: In a sense you could say that they will continue to be another steam locomotive in the stable. We don’t intend to treat them differently or use them in a unique fashion. While having its own set of challenges, one of the more unique components of the D&SNG has been the constant use of vintage locomotives in heavy service over decades of operating seasons, and we don’t wish to see this change over the long haul.


6. To those worried that D&S will become dieselized, what do you say? Babcock: In the past two years we have brought back two long out of service locomotives with the 476 and 493, and in the process increased our active fleet from five to seven steam engines. As mentioned, by reducing each locomotive’s individual use, the overall cost of maintaining them is able to be spread out even longer, keeping them viable for longer. Most importantly, steam power is our brand at the D&SNG.


7. How important are the steam locomotives to the visitor experience at D&SNG? Johnson: It’s important to note that we believe our steam engines are a cornerstone of our appeal, and one of the experiences that send our guests home with that special memory of Durango and our history. We realize that there are growing numbers of visitors each year to the region who are looking for opportunities to experience wilderness and scenic locations by rail without steam being a must. We don’t see this as being a change in the mindset of the vast majority of our visitors who have always wanted to experience steam, but moreover as us recognizing a growing opportunity for adding alternative services in addition to our steam service.


8. How problematic is it to source steam locomotive coal in 2020? Babcock: We’re lucky that our long-time supplier at the King Coal Mine is only 14 miles away, so for us it isn’t a big problem, assuming we can always get it from them. We have tried other coal products in the fairly recent past to develop a second supplier and because of differences in the coal quality as well as substantially higher trucking costs, it becomes problematic. The short answer is it’s been easy and will be so until the day it isn’t, but we do have concern that coal sourcing will evolve into more problematic issues in the years ahead.


9. Are there steam parts or supplies that are more difficult to acquire than others? Babcock: In one way or another it’s all challenging. Once common material types and lubricants have gradually started to become obsolete, and the modern replacements often have a lesser lifespan or are not quite as well suited in the applications we need. Large superheater flues and arch tube materials are a couple of key items that come to mind that are just not out there in the quantities or specific styles we would want. We’re fortunate in that we use enough of most things that we can order in bulk if necessary and don’t have to sit on it forever. Specific to the oil conversions, we have had to create our own CAD drawings and patterns for parts such as fire doors, dampers, firing handles, quadrants, and so much more.


10. What have you learned from the 493 restoration and oil conversion that you will use on the other 470 class that you are converting to oil? Babcock: The biggest thing has been burner sizing and how much firebox air flow to have (and where) at altitude. The SP18 really helped us get a head start on the air question. We did some adjustments to it after its first couple of runs that really improved its firing and have translated well to the 493. The challenge on the Mikado class is the trailing truck being in the way of your firepan and restricting where your damper can fit. It took some good thinking from our mechanical engineer Larry to get a workable solution. Also, since our initial runs we have stepped down our burner size on the 493, and it’s performing even better.


11. How are the crews adjusting from coal firing to oil? Babcock: The crews are doing a great job in considering the new ways of approaching the job of firing as they adapt skill sets. Unfortunately, since it has entered service, we haven’t been able to operate the 493 with too many typical train consists (and only once to Silverton), so we anticipate more practical experience and comfort for everyone to be still in the immediate future. We expect to use the 493 regularly this summer at the point in time we can resume operations.


12. Is the K-37 as powerful, or more powerful than the K-36 engines? Babcock and Johnson: Technically it’s a little more powerful, interestingly enough about one additional coach worth on our grades to Silverton. However, one of the things we decided early on was to consider K-37 power the same as our K-36s as far as tonnage ratings are concerned. Many years ago, when No. 497 operated regularly in Durango, there was always one consist that only the K-37 could handle. With only No. 497 in service it had to be running constantly, which made it really hard to keep up on maintenance. There has rarely been a time during our peak season where we didn’t press virtually every available coach into service.


13. Is there another K-36 or K-28 that could be converted to oil firing next? Babcock: How we approach which locomotives are converted is based on what other mechanical needs a given locomotive is scheduled for. For example, Nos. 473 was previously scheduled for firebox work however, it has fairly good driver and running gear life remaining, and both of these factors played nicely into it being chosen for conversion. As far as K-36s go, we do intend to proceed with the ultimate conversion of Nos. 480 and 486 at this point.


14. Do you plan to leave any steam locomotives coal fired? Johnson: Because we are still evolving the long-term plans this year, it may be a bit hard to give an ironclad answer concerning the ultimate plan for each locomotive at the moment. With that said it should be known that not all of our coal fired engines are on a schedule for conversion, and we certainly have no plans to convert every single locomotive in service at this time.


15. What do you think the new diesels will look like? Is there a corporate scheme they’ll all get? Johnson: The best answer to this is to finally reveal the paint scheme of our upcoming locomotive No. 1202, one of the MP&ES units in the final stages of being repowered. The coloring is based on the Rio Grande gold and the Maroon we use on our premium cars. The lettering is a tribute to both the Southern Pacific and Rio Grande styles used in most of the last generation of those corporate schemes. Our intention is to ultimately use this scheme on the former White Pass Alcos, as well. Note that No. 1202 is pictured on shop trucks and without its fuel tank installed.


16. Do either of you have a favorite among the steam locomotives and why? Babcock: Even though it isn’t on property anymore, Southern Pacific 4-6-0 No. 18 for sure. Of our current fleet I would say I have a least favorite more than I have a favorite, but I won’t say which one is at the bottom of my list. I will also say Nos. 481 and 476 have always been crew and shop favorites. I guess you could say No. 481 would be one of my favorites too, it was the power when I rode as a 9 year old in 1986 and it was also the first locomotive I got to run when I hired on, and of all our K-36s it seems to just keep going and going, it is the original Silverton branch K-36, too. I have always been impressed by No. 473 as well; it has been in continuous hard service since it was built in 1923, and never retired. I would challenge anyone to find another steam locomotive that can match that. Johnson: First impressions are strong, and my first working trip in Durango during the year the D&SNGRR began was with No. 476, and I always found a reason to prefer that among the 470s. We launched No. 481 in August of that year, and it quickly became a favorite as well. On the reasons, it seems that virtually all shop and enginemen have connections with their locomotives that form their opinions and even create bonds, usually created when locomotives provide reliable and predictable service no matter what demands may be placed on them through the years. Of course, subtle characteristics through years of overhauls can affect steam engines to at least a degree, but the larger personalities of each always seem to reign! I respect the loyalty that enginemen have toward different locos as it is often a personal and professional attachment that lasts through the years.


17. When you think about the railroad’s motive power 20 years from now, what do you think we’ll see? Babcock: It’s likely that we will see fewer places in this country where you can ride behind a steam locomotive daily over an extensive stretch of railroad at about any time of the year. For the Durango & Silverton, we have some realities to face in how to care for aging equipment over the next two decades. To think that we will continue to operate the same number of locomotives under a heavy workload day after day without eventually having to look at alternatives in some form is not particularly realistic toward our survival, yet expanding the fleet as we mentioned is one way we can better sustain them over a given time. Our ability to diversify the fleet will help us for some years ahead, and we wish to do so to keep as much of our former D&RGW fleet as long as possible. Johnson: Well remembered among many railroaders and Colorado railroad enthusiasts, Ed Gerlits was a treasured friend and supporter of the D&SNG for many years. Chartering unforgettable trains and brokering locomotive and rolling stock trades for us, he often theorized how our equipment would serve us through the years. Sitting in a Village Inn in Durango in the early 1990s, this question was posed by Ed. Recalling our musings now may be moot, but without question historic motive power has evolved here and among the heritage railways in exciting ways that we couldn’t ever have envisioned 25 years ago over coffee that night. While thoughtful and creative approaches will be needed to sustain it, we hope this trend continues for our industry as a whole for many years to come.


To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.