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Weather Delays Repairs to Burned-Out Bridge; Won’t Be Ready for Opening

CHAMA — Donald Gallegos and his brother Martin sat near the train station here Wednesday chatting about how they grew up watching the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad trains ply the narrow-gauge track between their town and Antonito, Colo.
Train season begins Saturday, but Donald pointed to six giant, rectangular pieces of trestle lying on the ground nearby.
“From what I see here, there’s no damn way they’re going to be done in time,” Donald said.
The pieces will eventually replace fire-damaged sections of the historic Lobato Trestle, about four miles north of Chama. The fire in June prevented the train from making the full run between Chama and Antonito for most of the 2010 season, dealing a blow to the Chama economy.
But despite an announcement to the contrary last week, train officials announced Wednesday that it will take a little longer to get the trestle repaired and open the full route. Passengers expecting to board the first seasonal trains at Chama on Saturday will instead have to hop a shuttle to the Cumbres station 11 miles away, beyond the damaged 100-foot-high trestle.
On Friday, the Cumbres & Toltec had proudly proclaimed May 28 would be “a very joyful day in Chama” because trestle repairs would be completed and the train would once again ply the 60-plus mile route through the high country bordering the south San Juan Wilderness in southern Colorado.
“We were perhaps more optimistic than we should have been,” said Bill Hume, a member of the train’s board of directors. “After last year, we were so anxious to have this done.”
The delay is due in large part to wild May weather. It has continued to snow at the trestle, just below the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass and the second-highest trestle on the line. Randy Payment, the superintendant on the trestle rebuilding job for Wyoming-based contractor Reiman Corp. SW, said it snowed at the trestle Tuesday, and the temperature dipped to 20 degrees once the sun went down.
“It gets cold and wet and miserable,” he said.
Reiman employees have been pulling double shifts on the job in recent weeks, and much of their work consists of trudging up and down the steep sides of Wolf Creek Canyon, which is spanned by the trestle, sometimes while carrying 80-pound bags of concrete, Payment said. Workers have carved steps into the dirt, but progress moves much slower when the ground is wet or slick. Work on the trestle itself is all but impossible in bad conditions.
“It snows two or three days every week, and the steel gets wet and slippery,” Payment said.
And once work began to fix the heat damage — the steel on the trestle was badly warped by the fire — more issues were uncovered, like cracks in the concrete bases where the trestle’s legs fix to the ground. No definite cause of the fire was ever determined.
“It’s the same as when you’re remodeling an old house,” said Cumbres spokesman Roger Hogan. “You take off one piece, and find a new problem.”
Payment said he believes the job will “probably” be completed “next week,” but Hume wasn’t willing to give a timetable.
“The trestle will be open as fast as it can,” he said.
The train is a major income generator for Chama’s hotels, shops and restaurants.
“There were several businesses that didn’t survive when the train wasn’t going to Chama (last summer),” said Scott Flury, president of the Chama Valley Chamber of Commerce and general manager of the radio station, Rocky Mountain Rock, 96.1 KZRM. “It was a handful of gas stations and gift shops.”
Chama had been waiting for Saturday, and Flury pointed to last week’s press release as reason for people to be optimistic.
“All along, we’ve been anticipating trains would be coming in and out of Chama,” Flury said.
Wednesday’s announcement that the train wouldn’t make the full run “kind of took the wind out of our sails,” he said.
Season-opening festivities planned for Saturday at the Chama station will still go on, including a speech by Gov. Susana Martinez. The opening day passenger train will depart from Antonito, Colo., from the Cumbres station, as workers continue putting the Lobato Trestle back together.