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Ready to roll: The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is back in business again

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad carries passengers from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado. (EDDIE MOORE/JOURNAL)

It’s not easy to stop a locomotive.

The coronavirus did a pretty effective job of sidetracking the 50th anniversary runs of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which were scheduled to start on Memorial Day weekend, but the virus failed to derail the historic railroad’s golden year.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 13, a train will leave Antonito, Colorado, on the way to Osier, Colorado, getting the season on track and making a point of the persistence that made the season possible at all.

Officials in Conejos County, Colorado, have given the Cumbres & Toltec coronavirus precautions a green light, making the Antonito to Osier run a go. But the railroad has not yet received approval from New Mexico officials, so a Chama to Osier run is on hold.

From June 13 to Sept. 11, the Antonito train will make runs to Osier on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. At this point the Saturday Antonito to Osier runs are scheduled only in June.

If and when the Chama train gets the go- ahead, it will make runs to Osier, probably on Tuesdays, T

John Bush became president of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in 2013. (Courtesy of Roger Hogan)

hursdays and Saturdays, up to Sept. 11.

If things go as hoped, from Sept. 12 to Oct. 18, the autumn colors season so popular with Cumbres & Toltec passengers, there will be two trains running every day. But even then, plans call for a halfway run. Chama trains will return to Chama from Osier and Antonito trains will go back to Antonito.

It might have been easier just to scrap the Cumbres & Toltec schedule this year as so many other events and seasons have been dumped because of the pandemic.

But that would not have felt right to Cumbres & Toltec president John Bush, who believes that Americans and his railroad can overcome any obstacle if they think it through, work it out and pay the price.

“We anticipate losing money this year,” Bush, 72, said during a phone interview. “But not so much that we can’t operate next year.”

All that’s possible

Traditionally, the Antonito train makes tracks all the way, 64 miles, to Chama. And during normal years, a Chama train steams all the way to Antonito. But the pandemic pulled the switch on normal.

“We won’t be able to make the full trip because we are not going to run motor coaches,” Bush said.

The way it usually works is that motor coaches take passengers getting off the train in Antonito back to their starting point in Chama and transport passengers leaving the train in Chama back to Antonito.

But the social distancing prompted by the pandemic makes using motor coaches impractical.

Bush said the railroad is taking the health and safety of its passengers seriously.

“We will be requiring all passengers to have their temperatures taken, answer questions about symptoms and observe social distancing,” he said. “Passengers will be required to wear masks. We will sell masks at cost to those who don’t bring their own.”

Lunch in Osier will be served restaurant-style at tables appropriately distanced from each other.

Soul train

The Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge tracks were built in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad to connect the silver mining towns in the San Juan Mountains with Denver.

All the Cumbres & Toltec steam engines date back to the 1930s. The engines travel at a top speed of 12 mph, allowing passengers to enjoy high country highlights such as Cumbres Pass, 10,015 feet, and Toltec Gorge, 8,793 feet.

Bush enjoys the sights along the route as much as anyone, but it is safe to say he enjoys locomotives more. He has said that steam engines are alive, that they have souls, that they make you feel alive when you are around them.

Bush makes his home in Chama now, but he developed his passion for trains as a kid in Telluride, Colorado, where his father, a geologist, was doing geological mapping in the late 1940s into the ’50s.

“The kids would play in the train yards,” Bush said. “The Rio Grande Southern Railroad was about to die, but every now and then a train would come in and when it did they would chase us out of the yards. But I just wouldn’t leave. Something about it kept drawing me back. Eventually, the old railroaders put me up in the cab of an engine.”

And he was hooked.

His career in trains includes time at railroads in Colorado, Alaska, California, as well as a stint with the Cumbres & Toltec, before he returned in January 2013 as president of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

“I love what I do,” he said.

Golden anniversary

The states of New Mexico and Colorado have jointly owned the Cumbres & Toltec since 1970. The plan had been to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that partnership this year. But that was before coronavirus crowded into the picture.

Bush takes it in stride.

“They started running trains for passengers in 1971,” he said. “So we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of that next year.”

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