After a historic drought year in 2018 that culminated in the 416 Fire, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad owner Al Harper promised to bolster his fleet with engines that run on oil and diesel, which hold less of a fire danger than traditional coal-powered locomotives.
In a move to fulfill that promise, the D&SNG announced this week it has purchased four historic diesel locomotives, powerful enough to make the run from Durango to Silverton, especially in times of extreme fire danger when coal poses too great a risk.
The purchase is the latest in a string of moves the D&SNG has taken to adapt to a climate that more regularly experiences drought.
In late summer 2018, the D&SNG bought two custom-built diesel locomotives for $3 million.
And in February, the D&SNG debuted its first locomotive that runs on oil – No. 493 – a 1900s engine, which was converted from running on coal. And, the railroad is expected to complete its second conversion on the No. 473 this summer.
“We need to be prepared and just recognize the changing climate,” Harper said in a previous interview with The Durango Herald.
The acquisition of the four new diesels was finalized in January and made public this week. The railroad declined to disclose the purchase price.
Jeff Johnson, D&SNG general manager, said the decision to buy was a relatively spur-of-the-moment opportunity, as far as buying train engines go.
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in Alaska announced last year it was selling the locomotives as it sought to upgrade its own fleet. The engines, built in 1969, have exclusively run in Alaska, save for a short stint in South America.
“We were able to reap a windfall because they had these units for sale,” Johnson said. “We’re really happy about it.”
The new locomotives increase the D&SNG’s diesel engines from six to 10. But Johnson said the diesel engines the D&SNG previously owned did not have the capability of making the arduous trek up the mountains to Silverton.
For the most part, however, the D&SNG intends to use the diesel engines for only the shorter trip on the Cascade Canyon Express haul or for maintenance work up and down the line.
Most nostalgic riders on the D&SNG railroad want to see that iconic puff of smoke while riding the line, and diesel engines don’t offer that experience, Johnson said. But oil-burning locomotives do. And what’s more, oil engines don’t send off cinders that can start fires, like coal-powered trains can.
“Whether the burner is burning coal or oil, it’s still making steam, and everything else is entirely identical,” Johnson said. “So these diesels are a remarkable help to us while we’re working on conversions to some of our locomotives to oil.”
Harper has said in previous interviews the diversifying of D&SNG’s fleet allows for more flexibility, especially in times of drought.
In 2018, the D&SNG was shut down more than 40 days after the 416 Fire broke out and ensuing fire restrictions were put in place. At the time, Harper promised to never be shut down again because of fire danger.
“This is a momentous task,” Harper said. “But we will never be shut down again for fires.”
A year later, the U.S. government said the D&SNG started the 416 Fire and sued the railroad for $25 million to recoup firefighting costs. The D&SNG, for its part, denies it started the blaze, which burned about 54,000 acres north of Durango.
The lawsuit is making its way through the court system, with more than 70 court filings as of Wednesday.
Neighbors who live near the train depot, where locomotives run all night long, have heralded the D&SNG’s moves toward a cleaner future. Durango resident Nathan Morris called it a “great first step in the right direction.”
“I think a lot of people … are under the assumption that any criticism of the train is aimed at shutting it down,” he said. “We’re supporting the train staying here, we just want the train to do so in a more sustainable way.”
The D&SNG expects the new locomotives to start arriving in May, Johnson said. But when it will run is anyone’s guess – the railroad just extended the suspension of service as a result of the coronavirus outbreak to May 22 “or until further notice.”
“We’re just like everyone else,” Johnson said. “We’re taking a look at how the country and world is responding (to the outbreak).”