After months of being shut down, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is set to ride again, though with a much-altered look to adhere to social-distancing guidelines put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jeff Johnson, general manager of the D&SNG, said operations are expected to resume June 23, with the railroad offering limited rides Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Under the plan, two D&SNG locomotives would leave around 9 a.m. from the Rockwood station for a round-trip ride to Cascade, taking about two hours.
At 12:15 p.m., another round of two locomotives would set off for the same ride, Johnson said.
Trips will be limited at 50% capacity, and the vast majority of cars will be open air. A limited number of closed coaches will be used, mostly for the restrooms.
Concessions will not be offered on the trip, though there will be a concession stand at the Rockwood station where passengers can purchase food and drinks. Johnson said there will be a robust cleaning schedule, as well.
Masks will be required for employees and heavily encouraged for riders, Johnson said. Face coverings are a requirement in public places within Durango city limits where people can not maintain 6 feet of social distancing. The order was approved last month by City Council.
Brian Devine, environmental health director at San Juan Basin Public Health, wrote in an email the D&SNG has “met all SJBPH requirements, and we’re really pleased with the level of thought and detail that’s in their self-certification and their internal operating plan.”
Because of the fire danger that exists in Southwest Colorado, the D&SNG will use one of its oil-burning steam engines and a diesel locomotive, which hold a lower risk of starting wildfires as opposed to the coal-fired engines, which send off sparks and small cinders.
“It costs quite a bit more by the gallon to burn oil … but we don’t want to use those coal burners right now during these conditions,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the D&SNG was able to rebook about 800 reservations that had previously been canceled last weekend. Railroad officials will make a public announcement about the reopening Monday evening, which should bring in more bookings, he said.
If bookings pick up, the railroad has the ability to add a third trip in the afternoon, he said.
The D&SNG, one of the region’s main tourist attractions and economic drivers, shut down in March amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
D&SNG officials previously said the railroad would be profitable only if it could run at 75% capacity. But Johnson said last week that given the unlikelihood of being allowed to run at 75%, the railroad instead looked at ways to make 50% financially feasible, resulting in the limited Rockwood to Cascade ride.
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, said Monday that San Juan County Public Health, which serves San Juan County, has voiced support for the D&SNG to run at 75% so the full trip can resume, given all the other precautionary measures the railroad has put in place.
The D&SNG, which runs from Durango to Silverton, is technically under the jurisdiction of both San Juan Basin Public Health in La Plata County and the San Juan County Public Health in San Juan County.
But Devine said under the public health order (PHO), local health departments can decrease, but not increase, capacity on trains.
“We confirmed directly with the governor’s office that the PHO allows scenic trains to operate up to 50% capacity, which is consistent with the maximum capacity limits seen anywhere else under Safer at Home to reduce contact between households and protect people’s health,” he said.
A spokesman with the governor’s office confirmed Monday morning that running at more than 50% capacity would require a variance request. The D&SNG dropped out of La Plata County’s variance request recently and intends to run limited service until at least Aug. 15.
Silverton’s tourist based economy is highly dependent on the D&SNG, which brings riders to town to stop for lunch and shop at the numerous gift shops.
Silverton itself closed to outside visitors for months after the pandemic hit in March, and in recent weeks, has been trying to reopen and encourage tourists, Gallegos said. Without the D&SNG, it’s even more difficult.
“We’re just trying to get back to business,” she said.
Johnson said the D&SNG is trying to look at ways to offer train rides out of Silverton, but it’s a challenge.
“We’re trying to see how we could stretch ourselves out,” he said. “But we don’t have anything definitive yet. It’s a work in progress.”