The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on Friday ruled out the possibility of making it to Silverton this year, but announced it will continue its limited trips to the Cascade station for the remainder of the 2020 season.
The D&SNG is offering a minimum of five steam and diesel-powered locomotive excursions from the Rockwood station, about 18 miles north of Durango, to the Cascade station, about a two-hour round-trip ride.
Trains will run from Tuesday to Saturday as long as conditions allow, D&SNG officials said.
“We’re going to continue to Cascade for the rest of the year,” said John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG.
The D&SNG cited a number of complications that keep locomotives from running the full 50-mile trek to Silverton.
The COVID-19 pandemic first shut down the D&SNG earlier this year. When regulations were relaxed, state public health orders said the railroad could operate at 50% capacity, but D&SNG officials said running the full Durango-to-Silverton trip with half the passengers would be financially unfeasible.
The situation worsened in June when a massive rainstorm washed out the D&SNG’s bridge at Elk Creek, about 5 miles south of Silverton, effectively cutting off train service to the mountain town.
D&SNG officials had estimated it could take eight to 16 weeks to repair. But the U.S. Forest Service on July 2 ordered the railroad to stop any repair work, saying plans needed to first be approved by the agency.
The Forest Service on July 27 said the D&SNG could resume repairs.
“They weren’t sure what we were doing,” Harper said. “Once we cleared any misinformation they had, they had a better idea as far as the scope of work ... and felt more comfortable with the project.”
But there is no telling when the 40 feet or so of track will be fixed. Harper said an engineer has visited the site. Harper did not immediately know the timeline for fixing the track.
And there’s one more issue at hand: The Forest Service stopped an extensive fire mitigation project that sought to clear any vegetation or trees that may start a fire on the 100-foot right of way on each side of the railroad’s track.
The D&SNG and Forest Service have yet to resolve the matter, Harper said.
“If there’s no mitigation on the tracks, then there’s liability because the potential for a (fire) start is higher,” he said.
The Forest Service did not immediately return a request seeking comment Friday morning.
The D&SNG said in a statement Friday it will continue efforts to resume service to Silverton in 2021.
DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said “although this will be the first time in our history that the D&SNG did not come to Silverton during the summer season, our community is experiencing a very busy summer.”
“This experiment without the train this summer has been interesting for our business owners, and some time adjustments to their operating hours have been noticed,” she said.
Usually during the summer, the D&SNG provides an injection of tourists for a few hours during the afternoon, who grab a bite to eat and peruse gift shops before they head back to Durango.
Now, Gallegos said it is busier in the mornings and evenings.
“Our sales tax revenue is down but not at the loss we had anticipated,” she said. “Some business owners are already up for August compared to last year while others are pleasantly surprised at their sales being barely down from last year.
“We have proved that Silverton is a destination all on its own,” Gallegos said.
The D&SNG also canceled fall events like the Brew & Wine trains and the Great Pumpkin Patch Train.
“At this time, we are working hard to plan what the Polar Express and winter trains will look like,” said Kevin Martin, head of marketing and sales for American Heritage Railways.