By Justin Franz
CHAMA, N.M. — The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic is delaying its opening day by nearly three weeks due to dangerous drought conditions in the southwest that have led to a record-breaking wildfire season there.
Spring is traditionally fire season in the southwest, but this year has been particularly bad in New Mexico, where wildfires have already burned more than 600,000 acres, making it one of the worst years in the state’s history. Out of an abundance of caution — and a hope that rain will soon dampen the fires — the C&TS has decided to delay opening day from June 11 until July 1.
“In 50 plus years of operation, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has maintained an excellent safety record and established a hard-earned reputation for a proactive and vigorous approach to fire safety,” said Scott Gibbs, president and CEO of the C&TSRR. “It was a difficult – but vital – decision to proactively postpone our start date. Our mission is to preserve an important part of our nation’s history while ensuring the safety of our passengers, employees, local communities and the environment through which we travel.”
This is not the first time this year that the old Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge has been impacted by fire: In May, the nearby Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad suspended operations for three days due to the fire danger. One of that railroad’s coal-burning steam locomotives is believed to have started a 2018 wildfire that torched more than 55,000 acres (The railroad denies it was at fault, although earlier this year it paid the federal government millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit over it).
Due to ever-worsening wildfire seasons in the southwest, both railroads have converted a number of former D&RGW 2-8-2 locomotives to burn oil.
Passengers with reservations for any June departures are being contacted directly by the C&TSRR. People who choose to rebook their June reservations for a later date in 2022 will receive a gift card for 10 percent off in the Gift Shop. Passengers can also opt for a full refund if preferred.
The railroad said it was not letting any employees go during the delay and that seasonal employees that normally work the trains will be doing other projects for the next three weeks. The railroad said it was closely watching fire conditions in the region to ensure it was safe to resume operations in July. When operations do start, daily trips will be made between Chama and Antonito, Colo.
“We are deeply disappointed that the whistle won’t blow to open our season in June as originally planned,” Gibbs said. “The C&TSRR is vital to the Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico economies. We thank our passengers for their understanding as we all work through extreme conditions this year and we are very hopeful they will continue to support the wonderful towns where we operate and plan to visit us later in the year when we return to normal operations.”