Aerospace Metal

Rail Fan Fantasy: Driving A Steam Locomotive That Is Historic

CHAMA, N.M.– Hands perspiration in produced leather gloves, I slowly facilitate the oversize brass lever toward me with an odd-sounding combination of brute power and finesse.

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

But ever so gradually, the locomotive attached to the lever starts to chug fantastic clouds of coal smoke puffing from its pile. Lopez relaxes slightly, his hand in 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 look important. And all are too hot to touch with bare hands.

The boiler is currently sitting at almost 200 psi, there is a fireman shoveling great hunks of coal to the firebox to keep up the strain, and there all types of pressure on me.

I am 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.

The railroad carried timber ore and livestock, onto its 3-foot-wide paths, along with passengers. Conventional American train paths are 4 feet, 8.5-inches wide, but narrower indicators allows trains to better climb in mountainous regions since the tracks can be more tightly curved in narrow areas.

I drive a dozen men are being taught by professional engineers in the railroad, the train, the day, most of them retirees to shovel coal into the firebox, make steam and then harness that power to push the locomotive.

“They aren’t refined machines,” says Bill Hobbs, a retired securities business executive from Little Rock who is on his third largest visit to the school. “The sensation of crude power is a huge part of the attraction.”

Attraction is the word that is incorrect. Obsession is a one. These guys — and it is virtually all guys — are spending thousands of bucks to learn how to drive the trains owned jointly by a Colorado-New Mexico state trust and operated solely for trips and schooling.

The railroad and its own faculty are a significant economic driver for the two cities, but the legion of dedicated fans worry a lot of men and women know despite its pedigree. The majority of people are far familiar with the Durango & Silverton lineup, a few hours’ drive away but far more available.

Both railways used to be connected as a member of the larger Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which stands out of the Great Depression and closed down in the 1950s. The Cumbres & Toltec line fought on through a brief oil boom but has been nearly left by the late 1960s.

Railroad enthusiasts who couldn’t bear the potential loss persuaded the governments of Colorado and New Mexico to shoot over, along with a cadre of paid staff and devoted volunteers keep it operating despite challenges which have the necessity to hand-make virtually every replacement part.

That idea is loved by Neil Hague. An aerospace engineer in Wichita, Hague is moving 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 decades back, that is what I would happen to be working on rather than planes,” he says.

The chugging locomotives draw fans daily who chase them along the road, pulling off at well-worn spots to snap photos as clouds of coal smoke and steam bellow in the stacks. Among the amateur chasers are Fort Worth brothers Casey and Cody Akin, who met the railway staff when they obtained their pickup.

On a recent day, the two, along with a buddy and the wife of Caseyspend hours driving up and down Cumbres Pass to take photos they’ve taken dozens of times. Their father introduced to trains.

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

Spend a week and the trains visiting with each year, not certain if that trip is going to be their last. They anxiety that it might one day just quit running , and fret about those men and women dedicated to operating the railroad’s time.

“A lot of those older people, they were alive when steam was running for real,” Casey Akin says. “The younger folks, they have probably never even seen one.”

That’s likely accurate — at least not in person. But such trains have been seen by millions of people before. They featured prominently at the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in a sequence where a young Indy fights baddies to a circus train.

That water spout that he catches onto? It’s real and just outside Chama. And that home he runs in, where Henry Jones is carefully analyzing his Grail diary? That’s real. The home in Antonito today is really a family-run bed-and-breakfast where you can drift off to sleep at the bedroom of Indy the morning after, and also be awoken by roosters along with the steam whistle of the train.

Audio is a significant factor for steam fans. Russell Rawle, a Texan who sees in period costume to ride, ” states you need to stand alongside a steam rail to completely appreciate it.

He is perfect. In comparison to soulless automobiles with engine sound steam trains take history right and their power, controls 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 Chama, N.M., or Antonito, Colo.. While Antonito is about a four-hour drive south of Denver, Chama is around three hours north of Albuquerque, and about two hours north of Santa Fe. Train enthusiasts ride the Cumbres & Toltec and then drive to ride the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge steam train. Choices in Antonito and Chama are limited, but in Antonito include the Indiana Jones House Bed & Breakfast.

Railroad trips: Plan on spending a complete day on the train. You ride over Cumbres Pass can board in Chama or even Antonito, then go back via motor coach. It is also possible to ride the trainer over the pass first and take the train back, or ride 1 train up to the lunch stop at Osier, change trains as they pass, and return to a starting point. The railroad also offers special excursion trains, such as 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 visit

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

The four-day courses start at $2,250 for fireman school, which has to be completed before proceeding onto engineer college, which costs $2,750. Classes are limited to 12 students at a time. An innovative class teaches railroad operations and dealing with runaway trains. That class costs $4,000, and both fireman and engineer classes must be completed. To learn more about the schools, call 1-888-286-2737 or email