Colorado fire prompts Durango & Silverton parent to suspend operations at Washington railroad

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Firefighters set a back burn along the Durango & Silverton tracks as part of their efforts to contain the 416 Fire.
Wyoming Interagency Hotshots

DURANGO, Colo. — American Heritage Railways, parent company of the shuttered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, made a startling announcement Thursday that it was closing Washington’s Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum until August to “optimize” the organization’s resources.

 The announcement comes almost a week after the Durango & Silverton was shut down by a wildfire that has scorched thousands of acres north of Durango and forced hundreds of people to leave their homes.

Officials tells Trains News Wire that the Mt. Rainier Railroad, which was purchased by American Heritage Railways in 2016, will be closed through Aug. 3. The railroad also canceled a number of Train to Table dinner excursions scheduled through August. Passengers whose excursions are canceled as a result of the shutdown will receive full refunds. The Mt. Rainier Railroad logging museum will remain open on a limited basis.

Fifteen employees will be furloughed as a result of the shutdown at Mt. Rainier.

“Resources must be optimized for all of American Heritage Railways’ operations. As a result, after conducting a thorough review of [the company’s] portfolio of businesses, we felt that suspending [Mt. Rainier] operations for a brief period of time would help both railroads in the long run,” Allen C. Harper, co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of American Heritage Railways, tells News Wire.

North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, also owned by American Heritage Railways, will not be closed.

The 416 Fire was first discovered last Friday and has scorched more than 5,000 acres near Hermosa, Colo. As of Thursday night, more than 1,000 people have been evacuated and another 1,500 have been told to prepare to leave in case the fire rapidly expands. A Type 1 Incident Management team is expected to take over firefighting efforts on Saturday morning, signifying that the blaze is one of the most complex and concerning wildfires in the nation.

Durango & Silverton train operations were suspended on June 1 when the fire was discovered. The two daily passenger trains were terminated in Silverton and the passengers were bussed back to Durango. The closure will last through at least June 17.

Officials say when operations resume it will likely be with diesels to reduce the chance that steam locomotive cinders ignite more fires.

“The D&SNG is closely working with its … partners on a daily basis to determine what train services it can operate safely after June 17,” Harper says. “Those decisions are fluid.”

Approximately 150 D&SNG employees were furloughed earlier this week.

Fire officials say that the cause of the fire remains under investigation. However, earlier this week, a Durango Herald report stated that people who live near the tracks saw the fire after the second morning train went by on Friday. One of those people said he believed the fire was caused by a cinder from the locomotive.

Railroad officials have declined to comment on what caused the fire until the investigation is complete. However, Harper tells Trains News Wire that the railroad is considering major changes to its steam locomotive fleet in the future, including converting some to burn oil instead of coal.

“The D&SNGRR is contemplating the conversion of several locomotives,” Harper says.

It is not uncommon for steam locomotive cinders to spark fires, and over the years the Durango & Silverton has employed a number of fire mitigation tactics. A speeder with water and firefighting equipment follows every train during the summer to put out spot fires and the railroad even leases a helicopter to extinguish blazes. Earlier this year, the railroad was honored with an award for its fire mitigation efforts from the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Forest Service.

This is not the first time a wildfire has forced the closure of the line to Silverton. In 2002, the 72,000-acre Missionary Ridge Fire, forced the railroad to suspend operations for 45 days.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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