By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad launched its 2013 season late last month and along with it, a series of new rides and ticket options.
The Chama, N.M.-based railroad now offers a Sunset Ride on Saturday evenings that includes dinner and live entertainment at the new Cumbres Pavilion atop the Cumbres Pass, and a Sunday Express that includes a picnic in the mountains. In addition, the Cumbres & Toltec will offer free rides for children between the ages of two and 12 with the purchase of one full-price adult ticket.
Railroad officials hope the new offerings will help draw more riders. Last year, ridership on the Cumbres & Toltec reached about 30,000 — half of what the railroad needs to be "much more comfortably self sufficient," says President John Bush, who took the railroad's reins in late 2012.
"If we could get to that figure, we would be much better off in terms of our operating budget and things wouldn't be nearly so back against the wall," he says.
Bush knows firsthand what a thriving Cumbres & Toltec looks like. He served as the railroad's assistant general manager and chief mechanical officer from 1989 to 1996, when the Cumbres & Toltec experiences some of its most successful years. In recent years, various issues have plagued the railroad. The recession did a number on ticket sales, and a 2010 fire on the Lobato Trestle shut down a portion of the Cumbres & Toltec's service until the 2011 season.
"Anytime you get a service interruption, people tend to think you no longer exist," says Bush.
Changing demographics have affected the tourist railroad's business, too. Fewer and fewer people remember — and have a fondness for — steam railroads these days, says Bush. But if they make the trek to the Cumbres & Toltec's Chama, N.M., headquarters, and take a ride on the 64-mile railroad, he has no doubt the one-of-a-kind experience will leave a lasting impression.
"It's really a dramatic and unique experience," Bush says. "Our tagline is that we are the 'authentic West,' and we truly are."
The Cumbres & Toltec travels along the Colorado/New Mexico border, with stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, steep passes and deep gorges. Chama, where the trains leave from and return to, is a historic small town that prides itself on remaining relatively unchanged during the past century.
Although the railroad might have maintained its 1880s feel, officials have worked to modernize the infrastructure and assets. During the past several years, the states of Colorado and New Mexico — which jointly own the Cumbres & Toltec — funded a project to replace the native ballast, which was composed of rock, gravel, dirt and cinders, with crushed rock ballast. The railroad has replaced ties, as well. And it just completed a $1 million restoration of a 110-year-old steam locomotive that included replacing part of the boiler; upgrading the running gears, valves and cylinder; and installing a new cab.
The restored unit gives the Cumbres & Toltec four functioning steam locomotives; Bush hopes to have a fifth in service by summer's end and ultimately bring a sixth locomotive online. The railroad owns a total of 10 units. And for a tourist railroad, the steam locomotives are key to providing a unique experience for their guests.
"The opportunity in this day and age for a family to get away from everything is rare. Here, they can get out and spend an entire day at a slow pace," says Bush. "They get away from that interstate highway mentality, where things are zipping by at 100 mph. You see things a lot better at 10 mph."
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