Aerospace Metal

Rail Fan Fantasy: Driving A Steam Locomotive

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 power and finesse.

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

But , ever so gradually, the 130-ton locomotive starts to chug fantastic clouds of coal smoke puffing from its stack. Lopez relaxes his hand from the brake.

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

The boiler front is sitting in almost 200 psi, a trainee fireman is shoveling great hunks of coal into the already-roaring firebox to keep the pressure up, and there is 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 at 10,015 feet above sea level, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the nation’s longest and greatest narrow-gauge railway.

Opened in 1880, the railroad carried lumber, ore and livestock, on its paths, along with passengers. Standard American train paths are 4 feet, 8.5-inches wide, but narrower gauges permits trains to better climb in mountainous areas since the tracks can be more tightly curved in narrow areas.

I push specialist engineers from the railroad, the train are instructing a dozen guys, the majority of them retirees to properly shovel coal into the firebox, make steam exploit that power to drive 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 trip to the school. “The feeling of crude power is a huge part of the attraction”

Attraction is the word. Obsession is a more exact one. These men — and it’s virtually all men — are spending thousands of bucks to find out how to push the trains owned jointly by a Colorado-New Mexico state trust and operated solely for excursions and education.

The railroad and its faculty are a significant economic driver for the two rural cities, but the little legion of devoted fans worry too few men and women know more about the railroad despite its pedigree. Instead, most people are are more acquainted with the Durango & Silverton line, a couple hours’ drive away but much more accessible to passing tourists.

The two railways used to be connected as part of the bigger Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which closed down in the 1950s and stands from the Great Depression. The 1960s fought on through a oil boom that was brief but abandoned the Cumbres & Toltec line.

Railroad enthusiasts who couldn’t tolerate the potential loss persuaded the authorities of Colorado and New Mexico to take over, and a cadre of paid staff and dedicated volunteers keep it operating despite obstacles that have the necessity to hand-make virtually every replacement part.

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

“One hundred years ago, this is what I’d have been working on rather than planes,” he states.

The locomotives draw fans every day that chase them along the street, pulling off at spots that are well-worn to snap photos as clouds of steam and coal smoke bellow from the stacks. Among the chasers are when they inadvertently obtained their pickup stuck on a 33, Fort Worth brothers Casey and Cody Akin, who met the railroad team.

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

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

The Akins, who run a trucking business, spend a week and the trains visiting with not certain if this trip is going to probably be their last. They dread that it could stop running, and fret about the time of women and those men dedicated to managing the railroad.

“Lots of those older folks, they were alive when steam was running for real,” Casey Akin states. “The younger people, they’ve probably never even seen one.”

That’s likely true — at least not in person. But countless people have seen these trains before. They featured prominently in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, at a sequence in which a young Indy struggles baddies on a circus train.

That water spout he catches onto? It is real and just outside Chama. And that house he runs into, where Henry Jones is closely analyzing his Grail diary? That is real, too. The house in Antonito today is a where you can drift off to sleep in the bedroom of Indy the next morning, and be awoken by roosters along with the steam whistle of the train.

Sound is a major element for steam enthusiasts. Russell Rawle, a Texan who sees in period costume to ride, states you need to stand to fully appreciate it.

He is perfect. In comparison to modern automobiles with imitation engine sound piped into the passenger compartment, steam trains carry history right and their power, controls where it can be felt by you.

“You can feel it breathing,” Rawle states. “It’s a living, breathing thing”

If you go

Getting there: You can board the train from Chama, N.M., or Antonito, Colo.. Chama is just about two hours north of Santa Fe, and about three hours north of Albuquerque, while Antonito is roughly a four-hour drive 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. Lodging options in both Antonito and Chama are restricted, but in Antonito include the Indiana Jones House Bed & Breakfast.

Railroad excursions: Plan on spending a day on the train. You ride over Cumbres Pass, are able to board in either Chama or even Antonito, and then return via motor coach. You can also ride the trainer over the pass and take the train back, 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 offers special trip trains, including John Denver-tribute concerts and sunset rides. Prices begin at $95 for adults and $49 for children for full-day rides, rising to $179 for adults at the parlor car, where passengers are greeted with fresh fruit and treated to free cake and drinks. Snacks are available for purchase on the train. To learn more call 1-888-286-2737 or see

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

The four-day classes start at $2,250 before proceeding onto engineer school, which costs $ 2,750 for fireman school, which must be completed. Classes are limited to 12 students at a time. An advanced course teaches railroad operations and coping with trains. That course costs $4,000, and engineer and fireman classes must be completed first. To learn more concerning the schools, call 1-888-286-2737 or email

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