Rural railroads are more important than your new trails

Converting rails to trails can hurt economies and make it harder to battle blazes.


Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. When not on a train somewhere, he lives in Salida, Colorado.

Advocates for “Rails to Trails” often ask why we’re so determined to keep some of our little short railroad lines going. Two quick answers: We need them to fight forest fires in remote areas, and railroads can boost local economies.

In Walsenburg in southern Colorado, for example, the San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad only has 149 miles of track. It is often a cash-strapped route, abandoned by the old Rio Grande some years ago as unprofitable. Its route is incredibly scenic, though, traveling over 9,380-foot-high La Veta Pass. It might be a perfect bike ride.

A train sits at the depot in Alamosa, Colorado.

But this summer, the railroad has been proving its worth by helping to fight the huge Spring Creek Fire. Every day during the fire, 10 tanker cars were filled with water in Alamosa, Colorado, and hauled by train to near the fire lines. The railroad was closed beyond that point by the fire, but it reopened once the flames were quenched.

The reopened line got those water tankers all the way over the pass and to the small town of La Veta. Firefighters were glad to have that water on the west side of the pass. This Spring Creek Fire is being called the third-biggest blaze in Colorado history. The little railroad is something of a hero for helping to fight it.

The fire has also changed some people’s minds about the economy. People who never thought of the railroad line as very active or much of a boost to business soon noticed the impacts of the rail shutdown. Mines in northern New Mexico around Antonito, Colorado, were hurting because they couldn’t ship out perlite (a mineral used in landscaping and for erosion control) and lava rock. Potato harvest is underway, and freight cars are needed for that, too.

Rails to Trails advocates have often said that trucks could replace railroads. But truck rates are increasing rapidly, and the loads this railroad hauls are heavy. Fertilizer comes into the valley over the pass from Walsenburg, and potatoes are shipped out to the rest of the country. Matt Abbey, a railroad manager, estimates that 200 to 400 jobs are idled when the railroad shuts down.

Part of the reason the old Rio Grande Railroad abandoned this railroad was the tricky nature of hauling freight over La Veta Pass. It is steep by railroad standards, often a 3 percent grade, and the route over the pass is the highest in regular operation in the country, so of course there have been accidents. On the other hand, the crews working for this little railroad are experienced and dedicated. If anyone can get tank cars over to La Veta, they can and will once the pass is reopened.

When the fire expanded, the line started to become clogged with rail cars waiting in Alamosa and at the other end in Walsenburg. Abbey said he couldn’t imagine things getting worse. Then they got worse. A key bridge at Sierra near Fort Garland burned down. The railroad worked hard to fill in around 900 feet of roadbed, then replaced the old bridge with culverts. A track crew was quick to lay new iron and ties.

Over a century ago, the value of short-line railroads was obvious. They hauled water to fires. They supported local industries and farms. Trucks were never thought to be up to the heavy tasks involved, and they still aren’t. Trucks are very difficult to move on mountain roads or rough back roads, and they don’t haul the big loads efficiently.

Meanwhile, tourist events along the Rio Grande line are hurting, too. The usually busy passenger train from Alamosa to La Veta isn’t running yet. Its dining car is one of my favorites, particularly for salmon and fresh scallops. 

Music lovers are also grieving the closure. They were hauled on excursion trains up to an outdoor stage at the town of Fir, where mainline acts perform. Peter Yarrow (an old-timer from the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary) couldn’t make it this year, but others will.

Fir’s original caboose stage and dance floor remain intact, but the green room, which was filled with instruments, chairs and electronics, was lost in the fire. That includes the walls with their many years of autographs and funny sayings by artists, now gone.

“Rails to trails” is a popular mantra and a good thing in its place, but it ignores fire season and the economic wellbeing of rural Western towns. We need our short-line trains, and the San Luis and Rio Grande in southern Colorado is one of those gems.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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