On Thursday, 9-Feb-2006, the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad ran a special, promotional trip from Alamosa to La Veta, CO, to officially announce their new tourist services that will be launched during the summer of 2006. In cooperation with Don Shank of the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation - the organization that owns the Creede Branch and is restoring FEC 4-6-2 148 - trains will run from Alamosa over to La Veta, crossing the scenic and inaccessible Veta Pass area, and also from Alamosa down to Antonito to complement and connect with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic. The La Veta run will be known as the San Luis Express, and the connection down to Antonito will operate as the Toltec Gorge Limited.
Thursday's train consisted of two ex-Kennecott GP39-2s, ILSX 1390 and 1389 - along with High Iron Travel's Caritas, an open-end observation car that started off life as Frisco's Pierre LeClede. On board were four individuals key to bringing this dream to reality: Ed Ellis (president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, LLC, the parent company of the SL&RG), Don Shank (head of the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation and partner in the San Luis Express venture), Frank Turner (president of the C&TS Management Corp - the group to be operating the C&TS this year), and Bob Shank (who will manage the San Luis Express operation). Also invited were a number of prominent local individuals, as well as individuals from the press covering the event. The morning started with speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony at the old Alamosa depot at 0900h. Concluded about thirty minutes later, the invited guests climbed aboard for the three hour trip over the pass to La Veta.
The La Veta town reception was nothing short of phenominal. Pulling into town at 1242h, the train was greeted by around 400 residents and interested individuals, many wearing red at the prompting of local officials to mark a "red letter day". (Sorry I couldn't participate - I got the press release, but I don't own anything red...) The local school band was out to play for the arrival, the fire department had their trucks out on display, and there wasn't a parking spot to be had for nearly three blocks by the time I arrived. Estimates I've seen after the fact put 400-500 people at the celebration. Once again, there were a few speeches, followed by another ribbon cutting, followed by a bit of singing and cheering by the crowd.
Once the crowd had thinned out in about an hour, the train was turned on the wye and pointed back to Alamosa. Around 1430h, everyone was back on board and the return trip got underway. The train made about equal time heading back, taking 3:15 to return to Alamosa just slightly after sunset. Upon arrival, the SL&RG's usual operations were evident, as the turn over to Walsenburg was in the yard just waiting to leave as soon as the special cleared up.
Reportedly, when service starts up on May 24, the train will consist of 1950s-era ex-Long Island Railroad coaches. Hopefully they'll consider adding an open air car, as it would be greatly appreciated by those of us who like to stand outside and take in the scenery. The talk on Thursday was that the D&RGHF's SP B30-7 will provide power for at least one of the runs, but that's not from any official source, just the railfan rumor mill. Even if not, the rumor mill also says that the SL&RG has a number of rebuilt units coming that will actually be painted in an SLRG paint scheme, not just the mix-and-match lease fleet that the RailAmerica version of the SL&RG used.
This is an incredible opportunity, and I do hope that the trains becomes a success. Other than a handful of private car trips over the pass, no regularly-scheduled passenger train has made the journey in nearly fifty years. The La Veta Pass line is one of the least accessible on the former Rio Grande system, as it passes through a rugged, remote region with few roads, and largely inaccessible otherwise because it's private property. Over this stretch lie tunnels, steep grades of 3%, sharp curves, and spectacular views to all sides. The run to Antonito should be an excellent complement to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic, and hopefully with be good for both railroads as well as the tourism trade in the surrounding communities. For more information about riding the new line, see their website at http://www.alamosatrain.com. Hopefully on May 25, I'll be able to post another one of these trip reports, except this time from the point of view as a passenger.