A ride on the putt putt
One Day on the Maintenance of Way

James Armstrong waits outside of the Hermosa yard for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad double-header engines to couple together and begin the climb up to Silverton./Photo by Todd Thompson

It is a quiet Saturday morning at the Maintenance of Way Shed next to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks. James Armstrong arrives at 7:15 a.m. and begins his preparations for opening day.

I meet him, and we head over to the corral holding four small track cars. Locals call them “putt putt cars;” Armstrong and the maintenance crew call them “pop cars.” Working a hand crank and adjusting the throttle, Armstrong finally gets the cold, two-stroke motor started. “Pop ... pop! Pop-pop-pop ... pop!” The neighborhood echoes as the car warms up.

I’ve got a lot of questions, but Armstrong is busy, and conversation is difficult above the noise. Soon we hear the train whistling its approach. He kills the motor and hands me a hard hat and a pair of earplugs. It appears the interview is over.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll be able to yell at each other.”

Engine 481 roars past us, pulling its tender, a boxcar and 14 coaches of manic, waving passengers. The year’s first train to Silverton disappears across the bridge.

Armstrong’s inspection and maintenance is
especially vigilant on the high bridge over the
Animas River./Photo by Todd Thompson

Armstrong extends the lever bars, pulling and pivoting his pop car onto the tracks. He again starts the motor, still very loud despite the earplugs, and we load up. He calls on the radio to indicate he’s “on the block.” The dispatcher comes back through an enormously loud speaker near our ears. Then the engineer is on the radio giving his location and indicating that he’s in possession of “437 souls.” The car starts rolling, and we begin our trip up the Animas Valley, two more souls on the journey.

The ride starts out rough. Armstrong figures we’re doing 20 mph, but with the slapping around the corners and the bouncing over the rail joints, it feels like 40. There are no seatbelts, no handrails, no shock absorbers, and not much room. Looking down, my feet appear to be flying just above the gravel. It is not a smooth flight. After some initial nervousness I settle into an uncomfortable position leaning well toward the center of the car. A few joggers and bikers are on the path next to the tracks. Most wave, and all of them smile. Armstrong waves and smiles to one and all. Everyone seems to love the putt putt car.

Between careful negotiations of the road crossings north of town, Armstrong bellows out our schedule and duties. I can barely hear him, but get the idea that the train ahead of us is so long that it will need to couple with another engine near Hermosa for the uphill lug. We’re to meet a number of other workers at various points along the rails. The engines will uncouple to ride the “high line” and cross a bridge, recouple for another climb, and we’ll all pull into Silverton around noon. 4

“Our job,” he yells at me, “is to protect the train. We have to watch for fires, try to put them out, and make sure the tracks are OK.”

I’m not sure the tracks are OK the way we’re bouncing, but I see signs of recent work on the ballast so I gather that this is as good as it gets. As we slow down outside of Hermosa, I realize that the loud popping of our motor is only half the noise. The wheels shriek and click, the drive belt squeals, and the whole car rattles and rumbles. Armstrong kills the ignition as we come to a stop and the silence is extraordinary.

The engines have coupled and the double header pulls away up the grade. We ride into Hermosa yard where we stop and meet four other workers piling into a small “gang car.” As we head out of Hermosa, Armstrong hops out to operate the highway crossing gate. The countdown is on to cross the road quickly, and the track car strains under the slight ascent.

I begin to notice how difficult the car is to drive. A series of quick adjustments to the throttle, timing, and fuel mixture gets the little motor revved up. Gentle pressure on the belt drive transfers that “power” to the wheels. As we get up to speed, the belt is fully engaged and the driver continues to adjust the throttle and timing levers. Somehow these all work together differently to make the car go backwards.

Three kayakers pass a routine track inspection as they begin their trip down the Upper Animas./Photo by Todd Thompson

We get up near Rockwood and wait for the two engines to separate. As the train disappears through the cut, we pull into the yard and come to a stop. Armstrong explains that the train has a 5 mph speed limit over the high line, and the track cars can’t easily be driven that slowly. Soon the gang car pulls behind, and the crew gets out to wait with us. The camaraderie of the men is evident. Some have been working on the railroad for years, some for decades. Sometimes they work together maintaining the roadbed, bridges and drainages using the heavy equipment parked nearby: a cutter, tamper, crane and digger. In winter they’ll plow and blow snow. Sometimes they’ll work together off the tracks cutting cat lines and reducing fuel loads in the forest. Today they’re working together as scouts and firefighters.

Armstrong tells me the risk of fire will be worst on the steepest climbs. When the engines have to work harder, more burning cinders are released in the exhaust, despite the wire screens and smokestack sprayers. “If we can’t put out the fire by hand, these guys have 300 gallons of water.”

Jeff Taylor, the road master, says that if his crew can’t put out a fire using its tools, there’s a thousand gallons of water and 400 feet of hose in the boxcar at the front of the train. When the fire danger increases, the Readiness Plan calls for a diesel engine to pull a 7,500-gallon tank car behind the train. In the most severe conditions, it could soak the right of way before the train comes. In an absolute emergency, the diesels could pull the train instead of the steam engines, thus ensuring 4 that the D&SNGRR cannot be shut down again because of fire danger, as it was in the disastrous summer of 2002. The governor of Colorado has publicly praised this million-dollar fire readiness plan.

Soon we’re heading out of Rockwood and on to the high line traverse. The spectacular view from this narrow shelf cut into a cliff is what the passengers come to see. But passengers only get to look out the side of the train. On the putt putt car our view is an open panorama of the tracks ahead of us and the breathtaking drop off to the river below.

Track inspector John Martinez consults with Armstrong about the timetable during a brief stop near Elk Park./Photo by Todd Thompson

As we make our way forward, the river slowly rises up to meet us and we are soon crossing the bridge into the upper Animas canyon. The river is churning violently, seemingly impassable, but farther upriver some kayakers and rafters are braving the boil. We catch up to the train where the engines are recoupling for the next climb. The brakemen are out inspecting the undercarriage and wheels. Hand signals are passed back and forth along the line, and the train is soon under way again. We stop to inspect the water tank and Armstrong explains that both engines refilled their tenders here to take on enough water to get to Silverton. “Sometimes in the winter, we have to burn diesel-soaked ropes under the pipe to keep the water from freezing.”

Not far up, the train has made an unscheduled stop. Armstrong radios the gang car to stop at a certain mile marker. One of the engineers radios the dispatcher to report a faulty boiler injector. A huge plume of smoke and steam rises ahead of us. Evidently the engineer is satisfied, and the train resumes its climb. Then the conductor is on the radio reporting a “strong smell of wood smoke.”

Sure enough, when we get to where the engines stopped, there is a small fire burning beside the tracks. Armstrong rushes out with a shovel to begin containment. By the time the gang car pulls up, the fire has spread to a 5-foot diameter. Road Master Taylor starts up the water pump, and his crew quickly extinguishes the blaze.

Inspecting tracks, ties, ballast, tanks and drainage features requires a lot of footwork./Photo by Todd Thompson

Up near Elk Park, we meet Track Inspector John Martinez, who is waiting for us to pass. Martinez has been working for the railroad for 41 years. He came up ahead of the train to make sure the tracks were safe and to take notes on the rough spots. “I’ve seen a lot of changes on the road, for sure,” he says, “but we still do about the same thing.”

In the final length of canyon before Silverton, Armstrong points out a new section of roadbed. “We had a 5BD-foot rock come off the mountain in a landslide,” he said. “It blew out the tracks. We repaired this about two weeks ago.”

By the time we arrive in Silverton, the train has disgorged its passengers, and we can hear the brass band playing on Blair Street. The mood is festive with Victorian dress in abundance.

But for Armstrong, this is an opportunity to catch up on the maintenance of his track car. After lunch, the train passes by and Armstrong pulls his car back onto the tracks for the long putt putt home.







News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index