A new era has begun for the 137-year-old Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad with the arrival of Southern Pacific No. 18, an oil-burning locomotive.
The new era is not necessarily of D&SNG’s choosing, but the 416 Fire brought home the precarious nature of sending coal-burning trains on a 45-mile trip that gains more than 2,790 feet in a forest that is increasingly battling ever-longer droughts.
The 46-ton SP-18, in Durango on loan from Inyo County, California, where it normally resides as a working exhibition at the Eastern California Museum in the town Independence, was originally built in 1911 for the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad.
D&SNG plans to use the locomotive to run a few four-passenger car trains to Silverton and for other special runs. But mainly, SP-18, which arrived in November and is on loan through June, is here to help crews train on an oil-burning engine so they are prepared to run the D&SNG’s own engine No. 493, which is undergoing a conversion to burn oil instead of coal and is expected to be operational in May.
“We have some crew members with experience on oil-burning locomotives and some who don’t, so we have a significant training program going on,” said John Harper, D&SNG general manager.
Randy Babcock, D&SNG mechanical foreman, said conversion of No. 493 is the first time a coal locomotive has been converted to burn oil. The conversion is expected to cost about $1 million.
After D&SNG assesses how well the conversion of No. 493 goes, the railroad could convert two more of its coal-burning locomotives to oil-burners.
“We’ve always burned coal. There is a coal mine 14 miles up the hill. It made total sense” Babcock said. “In the South, railroads used oil because that was what was available.”
SP-18 was transferred to the Southern Pacific in 1928 and operated between Keeler, California, and Miner, Nevada, until 1954, when it was replaced by narrow gauge diesel engines.
After decommissioning, the engine remained in Dehy Park in Independence for 63 years. Restoration work on SP-18 to make it fully operational began in 2010 and was completed in 2016. The restoration came at a cost of $170,000 and the elbow grease from 10,000 volunteer labor hours that included the efforts of five regular volunteers from the D&SNG.
Now, the work of D&SNG volunteers to bring the SP-18 back to life has come full circle, as the engine provides the training platform on oil-burning engines for crews in Durango.
Coal-fired engines throw out hot cinders that can start fires. The problem is well-recognized. D&SNG has its own firefighting operations that include pop cars with water tankers that follow trains to extinguish small fires. A helicopter equipped with a bucket to hold water can attack fires from the air.
Engines that run on oil and diesel, however, burn liquid that vaporizes when ignited, so there is no solid material to form embers.
Al Harper, owner of the D&SNG, estimates using oil instead of coal to fuel locomotives will cut the risk of a locomotive-ignited fire by 95 percent.
The scarcity of oil-burning engines for narrow gauge rails has led D&SNG to explore conversion of some of its coal-burners to use oil.
Tracey Steele Mandelker, business legal manager for American Heritage Railways, said because of pending litigation, the railroad will not comment on fire risk and the ability of oil-burning engines to reduce that risk.
She said the railroad views the conversion to oil-burning as an effort to increase the “sustainability” of the railroad.
John Harper added, “Our goal is to be more sustainable in all climate conditions. In the future, we want to have multiple fuel sources.”
Al Harper has acknowledged the 416 Fire could have been started by an ember from the train.
In June and July, the 416 Fire, which burned more than 54,000 acres, shuttered operations on the D&SNG for more than 40 days, nicking the economy of Durango but bruising the tourist-dependent economy of Silverton.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but Al Chione, an eyewitness to the start of the fire near the Meadowridge subdivision near a steep grade between Hermosa and Rockwood, reported the fire started near D&SNG tracks shortly after a train passed through.
A civil lawsuit has been filed against D&SNG seeking restitution for damages caused by the 416 Fire.
In the future, the D&SNG plans to consult with the U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts and La Plata County to determine if weather conditions pose too high a fire risk to run coal-fired engines.
Al Harper has called the conversion to oil-burning “a momentous task,” and he has vowed D&SNG will be prepared for increasing drought conditions predicted by climate change.
“We will never be shut down again by fires,” Al Harper told The Durango Herald in August.
In total, Al Harper estimates D&SNG will invest about $7 million, not only on the conversion of coal-burning engines to oil-burning but to acquire two custom-built diesel locomotives and take other fire-prevention measures.
The diesels, being built by Motive Power & Equipment and Equipment Solutions in South Carolina, are slated to be in Durango in May.
John Harper is not sure when the two diesels will go into service, but he said they are planned to lead new runs from Rockwood to Cascade that will begin next year.
D&SNG has four operational diesels, but they are not powerful enough to make the run to Silverton and are used for maintenance purposes, such as switching cars and engines in the rail yard.
But the focus now is on the SP-18 and the preparation of crews for coming additions of oil-burning engines to D&SNG’s fleet of six operational locomotives.
John Harper said D&SNG is on a learning curve on integrating oil-burners into its fleet. But they will come with certain benefits. For instance, oil-burning engines can be shut down at night, cutting down on emissions – coal-fueled locomotives have to be kept burning all night.
Practicalities still must be addressed, too.
“We don’t know how much oil it takes to get to Silverton yet,” John Harper said. “We haven’t made a run yet.”
The SP-18 will help answer some of D&SNG’s questions.