Aerospace Metal

Rail Fan Dream: Riding A Historic Steam Locomotive

CHAMA, N.M.– Hands sweating in borrowed leather gloves, I gradually facilitate the oversize brass lever toward me with an odd-sounding combination of brute strength and finesse.

Ronnie Lopez nods encouragingly. “Only a little more,” he states, his own gloved hand ready to catch the hot metal control if I mess up.

But then, ever so slowly, the 130-ton locomotive attached to this lever begins to chug forward, great clouds of coal smoke puffing out of its stack. Lopez relaxes slightly, his hand from the brake.

Within the cab of this 1920s-era locomotive is a bewildering tangle of steam and hydraulic lines, levers, spigots and valves. None are tagged. All look important. And all are too hot to touch with bare hands.

The boiler up front is sitting at almost 200 psi, a trainee fireman is shoveling great hunks of coal to the already-roaring firebox to keep the pressure up, and there’s already all types of pressure on me.

I’m not nervous. Much.

The day before, this same locomotive, Locomotive 488, transported us on the 64-mile-long run by the farming community of Antonito, Colo., up and over Cumbres Pass and then down to the ranching town of Chama, N.M. Crossing Cumbres in 10,015 feet above sea level, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the nation’s longest and greatest narrow-gauge railway.

The railroad carried silver ore, timber and livestock, on its paths, along with passengers. Standard American train tracks are 4 feet, 8.5-inches broad, but narrower indicators allows trains to better scale in mountainous regions since the tracks could be more tightly curved in narrow locations.

That I push a dozen guys are being taught by the train engineers from the railroad, the majority of them retirees to correctly shovel coal into the firebox, make steam and exploit that power to push the locomotive.

“They aren’t refined machines,” states Bill Hobbs, a retired securities industry executive from Little Rock who is on his third four-day visit to the school. “The feeling of crude power is a big part of the attraction”

Attraction is the incorrect word. Obsession is a one that is more exact. These men — and it men — are spending thousands of dollars to find out how to drive the trains owned jointly by a Colorado-New Mexico nation trust and operated exclusively for trips and education.

The railroad and its school are a significant driver for the two rural cities, but the small legion of fans worry too few people know despite its pedigree. Most people are are familiar with the Durango & Silverton lineup, a few hours’ drive away but much more accessible to passing tourists.

The two railways was attached as a member of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which stands from the Great Depression and shut down from the 1950s. The 1960s struggled on through a oil boom that was short but left the Cumbres & Toltec line.

Railroad fans who couldn’t tolerate the loss persuaded Colorado and New Mexico’s authorities to shoot over, and a cadre of staff and dedicated volunteers keep it running.

That idea is loved by Neil Hague. An aerospace engineer from Wichita, Hague is moving through the engineer college for a fourth period, smiling widely as he chooses the right-hand seat.

“One hundred years ago, that is what I would have been working on rather than airplanes,” he says.

The chugging locomotives draw fans most every day who chase them across the nearby road, pulling off at well-worn spots to snap photos as clouds of coal smoke and steam bellow from the piles. One of the best-known amateur chasers are Fort Worth brothers Casey and Cody Akin, who a few years back met the railroad staff when they accidentally got their pickup stuck on a crossing.

On a recent day, both, along with a buddy and Casey’s wife, Rachel, spend hours driving up and down Cumbres Pass to take photos they’ve taken dozens of occasions previously. Their dad introduced them to trains as kids.

“We pulled onto the primary street and I found that train and I was hooked,” Casey Akin, 33, says.

The Akins, that run a trucking company, spend a week visiting the trains each year, not certain if that trip will be their last. They worry about the age of those women and men specializing in operating the railroad, and dread it might one day just stop running.

“Lots of those older people, they had been living when steam was running for actual,” Casey Akin says. “The younger people, they’ve probably never seen one.”

That is probably accurate — at least not in person. But such trains have been seen by millions of people before. They featured prominently in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in a succession 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 in, where Henry Jones is closely analyzing his Grail journal? That’s real, too. The house in Antonito now 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 morning after.

Sound is a major factor for steam fans. A Texan who sees in period costume to ride, Russell Rawle, says you have to stand next to a steam train to completely enjoy it.

He is perfect. Compared to soulless modern cars with fake engine noise cancelling to the passenger compartment, steam trains carry their power, history and controls right where you can feel it.

“You can feel it breathing,” Rawle says. “it is a living, breathing thing”

If you go

Getting there: You can board the train from Chama, N.M., or Antonito, Colo.. Chama is about three hours north of Albuquerque, and about two hours north of Santa Fe, while Antonito is roughly a four-hour driveway south of Denver. Many train enthusiasts ride the Cumbres & Toltec and then drive two hours shore to Durango to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge steam train. In Antonito include the Indiana Jones House Bed & Breakfast, although options in Chama and Antonito are limited.

Railroad excursions: Plan on spending a full day on the train. You can board in Antonito or Chama, ride over Cumbres Pass, then return via motor coach. You can also ride the trainer over the pass and take back the train, or ride 1 train up into the lunch stop at Osier, change trains as they pass, and return to a starting point. The railroad also supplies special trip 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 children for full-day rides, rising to $179 for adults at the parlor car, at which passengers are greeted with fresh fruit and treated to free cake and beverages. Snacks are available for purchase on the train. For more information call 1-888-286-2737 or see

Engineer and Fireman Steam School Courses: Classes are filled for the remainder of the year.

The courses commence at $2,250 before moving on engineer college, which costs $ 2,750 for fireman faculty, which has to be completed. Classes are limited to 12 students at a time. Railroad operations are taught by an innovative course and dealing with runaway trains. That class costs $4,000, and fireman and engineer courses have to be completed. To learn more about the schools, call 1-888-286-2737 or email