SAN LUIS VALLEY —Fate of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, its lands and equipment are in receivership and counties along its line are debating ways to handle it and prevent losses.
When the railroad entered the San Luis Valley over La Veta Pass, people here called it an “iron horse.” its passengers called it: “Progress.”
The oldest predecessor of today’s San Luis and Rio Grande (SLRG) was the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), which was chartered in 1870 and laid narrow gauge trackage into the San Luis Valley, to Alamosa and beyond.
SLRG tourist travel has been a part of the San Luis Valley since 2006, offering access to the truly wild and remote regions of Colorado along the La Veta Pass Route — a legendary pass that marks the highest point at which any standard
gauge rail crosses the Rockies in Colorado.
Near the turn of the century, after years of unsuccessful surveying, a workable route was found and the narrow gauge rail was replaced by standard gauge from La Veta over La Veta Pass and into Alamosa.
Now, more than 100 years later, the same standard gauge rails carry both freight and passengers over that route on the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad and the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.
Today, it is in receivership, its management changed and its future uncertain. Company management has been terminated and excursion trains are not operating.
The railroad operates exclusively over tracks originally laid by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, crosses to Antonito and stops side-by-side with the popular narrow-gauge tourist line, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
At a November meeting of the the Upper Rio Grande Economic Development group and reports in Valley Publishing newspapers, Rio Grande County Commissioner John Noffsker updated the organization on the most recent news, which was that the entire line, including the one from Alamosa to La Veta had filed for bankruptcy.
“We have done an analysis as best we could and the economic impact on the Valley from not having the train is huge. Right now, it is in federal bankruptcy court and there are a lot of technical things going on. At the end of the day, we are hoping to get to have a chance in court because this railroad owes close to $2 million in property taxes in several counties,” stated Noffsker.
“We at first thought of it as money that was lost, but that is not true. It will take a lot of work, but we may be able to recover a lot of that money. The main goal is to keep an operating railroad here in the Valley. Anyone who has ever dealt with the railroad, knows that it can be a mess, but Rio Grande County has kind of taken the lead on this and is working to get this into the proper court. The county is trying to determine whether or not the bankruptcy court is the proper venue or whether or not to try and acquire the line.”
Conejos County is also considering its position, including legal representation. The bankruptcy is not expected to affect the operations of Cumbres&Toltec Scenic Railroad.
The line over La Veta Pass to Alamosa and Antonito was originally envisioned as part of an ambitious, and never-realized, narrow gauge (3 feet between the rails) line linking Denver with Mexico City.
Narrow gauge tracks crossed the pass in 1877 and reached Alamosa July 6, 1878.
The railroad had pushed on to Antonito by 1880 and ultimately to Santa Fe, N. M., and Silverton, Colo. The D&RG built west from Alamosa, completing the line to South Fork and its terminus at Creede in 1881.
In 1908, the D&RG was consolidated with the Rio Grande Western to form the Denver and Rio Grande Western (DRGW).
In 1988, the DRGW purchased the giant Southern Pacific Railroad (SP). The combined companies were named for the larger and wider-reaching company, the SP. Union Pacific Railroad (UP) purchased and merged the SP in 1996. On June 29, 2003, the UP sold the Walsenburg – Alamosa, Alamosa — Antonito and Alamosa — Derrick (just west of South Fork) to short line railroad conglomerate RailAmerica (RA). RA sold the SLRG to Permian Basin Railways on Dec. 22, 2005.
A history on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad website states, “The railroad begins in Alamosa and travels on historic narrow-gauge tracks over La Veta Pass. The train rails were completed June 22, 1878. Alamosa was quickly put on the map thanks to this narrow-gauge rail, supplying ore, lumber, cattle, sheep and farm products to the developing valley and, in turn, shipping out agricultural and mining products.”
“From 1890 to 1950, Alamosa hummed day and night with the activity of both passenger and freight trains from Denver, Durango, Santa Fe, Salida and Creede. After the 1950s, the track was used exclusively for freight until becoming a member of Premier Rail Collection in 2006.”
The railroad was established by RailAmerica following the divestiture of the tracks by the Union Pacific, following acquisition of the D&RGW through merger with the Southern Pacific. Holding company Permian Basin Railways purchased the railroad from RailAmerica in 2005.
The train was turned into a concert train through the combined efforts of President Ed Ellis and musician Michael Martin Murphey in 2007. Ellis is no longer with the railroad.
A lot has changed since then, including sale of the rail line from the South Fork Depot to the Wagon Wheel Gap and to train enthusiast Donald Shank.
Shank created the Rio Grande Historical Foundation in 2007 and a passenger train tour from just outside Del Norte to Wason, just east of Creede before putting it up for sale in the summer of 2017.
Power for the railroad were crew transports that had been converted into tourist rail buses.
After 15 years of highs and lows, the scenic SLRG was put up for sale, a former official of the Colorado tourist line confirms for Trains News Wire.
“The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad (SLRG) runs west from a connection with the Union Pacific Railroad at Walsenburg, over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at La Veta Pass and into the fertile valley of the San Luis and Rio Grande Rivers.
“At Alamosa, the railroad splits with a branch extending south to Antonito — just north of the New Mexico border — and northwest to South Fork. In addition to the Union Pacific, the SLRG connects with the short line San Luis Central Railroad (SLC) at Monte Vista and the Denver and Rio Grande Historical Foundation at Derrick, just west of South Fork.
Although its locomotives are modern, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad collection includes vintage steam locomotives, including the addition of former Lake Superior and Ishpeming Railroad locomotive #18, built by the American Locomotive Company at its Pittsburgh works in 1910.
This locomotive previously operated on the Grand Canyon Railway and the Mount Hood Railroad. LS&I #18 joins #1744, a 2-6-0 Mogul locomotive that began service in 1901 for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
As of 2019, both #18 and #1744 were under restoration for a return to service.
Rolling stock, too, is part of the receivership.
This article was written to clarify the story of affected railroads.