Durango & Silverton plows through avalanches to reopen line

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This slide near Needleton was more than of 60 feet deep.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge
DURANGO, Colo. – Wildfires, mudslides, and now avalanches.

There isn’t much Mother Nature hasn’t thrown at Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in the past 12 months, but despite all of that, railroad officials there say they are ready for a busy summer season starting May 4.

This week, D&SNG crews and hired contractors opened the line to Silverton, a feat that included clearing a path through at least four massive avalanches deep in the Animas River Canyon. One of the snow slides, near Needleton, was upwards of 60 feet deep, according to General Manager Jeff Johnson.

Johnson says it’s not unusual for avalanches to impact the right-of-way on the north end of the 45-mile branch to Silverton – it’s one of the reason the Denver & Rio Grande Western stopped running there in the winter decades ago – but that this year’s slides were particularly large. Because of that, the railroad enlisted the help of Bonds Construction. The contractor and railroad used bulldozers and excavators to get the job done.

Now that the snow is cleared, the railroad’s maintenance of way crews are working on the track to get it in top shape before trains return to Silverton on May 4.

Johnson says the railroad is preparing for a busy summer season. Besides the regular trips to Silverton, the railroad is also offering shorter trips from Rockwood to Cascade Canyon in the middle of the day.

In 2018, the railroad was shutdown for weeks at a time, first due to a massive wildfire and later due to mudslides and washouts. Although the cause of the fire remains under investigation, some believe one of the railroad’s coal-fired steam locomotives started it. Also in 2018, the railroad announced that it would be purchasing two diesel locomotives and converting one steam locomotive – K-37 Class No. 493 – to burn oil. Johnson says the steam locomotive and the two diesels should be in service by the end of the summer.

“We’re looking forward to a great summer,” Johnson says.
Crews from Bonds Construction work to clear a slide on the Durango & Silverton.
Bonds Construction

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