Loop still ‘learning lessons’ after second year
With a second year tucked under the tracks at the Georgetown Loop, some experts are looking at the operation run by the state historical society and Railstar Corp. and saying, “We told you so.”
But the operator say that with each new engine coming on line, and each restoration, it is learning lessons and doing its best to provide a safe and viable operation.
For 12 days this season, riders showed up to the Loop station only to find it closed and all of the engines in the shop. The operation also lost capacity, as some days only one engine was available and able to pull fewer than the usual number of cars. The No. 12 broke an axle, the No. 21 diesel blew out a motor box, and the No. 9, fresh on the tracks this year, needed to be taken down to work out first-season kinks.
Even before the Georgetown Loop operation changed hands two years ago, the railroad was a hot topic of discussion among locals and business owners. The railroad is a driving force for the town's tourist economy, bringing visitors and hundreds of thousands of dollars to local shops and restaurants.
When the former operator, Georgetown Loop Railroad Inc., and the Colorado Historical Society failed to renegotiate a contract, some questioned how the state could arrange a new operation in the short available time. But in about nine months, the society contracted with Railstar and procured a steam and diesel engine for the Loop. The group sweated countless hours to successfully show everyone the steam.
Yet the first two years haven't been without troubles, and some experts say the troubles are directly related to the operator's inexperience on a mountain railroad and the necessity of using engines poorly suited to the demanding tracks.
Railstar manager Ron Trottier says many of the problems are part of the operation's learning curve and the company is learning from those lessons. Despite the loss of days and capacity, the operator served 73,000 passengers, falling 2,000 short of the season goal but exceeding last year by 12 percent. This winter, the engines will undergo thorough maintenance, and changes are being made to the approach to restoring engines.
All these issues have cost the railroad in revenue and maintenance expenses. Now that the operation is state-owned, some of that money comes at the expense of taxpayers.
Inexperience or inevitability
An engineering feat of its time, the Georgetown Loop tracks twists up steep slopes challenging even the largest of narrow-gauge engines. Unfortunately for Railstar, the only steam trains available for its first two seasons were the relatively small Nos. 21 and 9.
With little raw power, the trains require expert firing and maximum effort to haul even four cars of passengers. This fact, along with inexperience among the crew, makes “overfiring” inevitable and increases maintenance costs, experts say.
Last spring, a former contractor criticized Railstar's techniques in driving the historic machines. John Braun of Mammoth Locomotive Works helped restore the No. 12 locomotive and worked as a mechanic during Railstar's first year of operation. In a letter written to the state boiler inspector in April, he criticized Railstar's use of the engine last season, saying, "I feel a fairly serious situation exists which could cause premature failure of the sheets or vessel."
Braun said the No. 12, under heavy load, was generating more steam pressure than it could handle, adding that Railstar firemen also rose the steam on the engines too quickly in the morning and were overfiring the engine to a high pressure to get back up the hill to Silver Plume. Braun said the practice was causing thermal shock to the engine.
"All of this has led to us having to expand tubes three times last year on the firebox end and also witness cracking in the butt end of the tubes, which has only manifested itself this year," Braun said.
John Bush, manager of railroads at Roaring Camp & Big Trees in Felton, Calif., agreed that wear on the tubes near the firebox is indicative of overfiring an engine. While Bush couldn't confirm whether Loop crews were overfiring without actually seeing the trains in operation, he said it was more likely because of the small size of the engines.
"They are going to be working at closer to the maximum of their design potential than would a larger engine. They are going to wear more quickly, and the maintenance costs are going to be higher," Bush said.
In response to Braun's letter, Joseph Bell of the Colorado Historical Society asked for an independent evaluation of the engine. Marlin Uhrich, who contracted with the society to restore the No. 9, and Tom Blonding, a National Boiler Board inspector, went to the Loop on April 14.
Uhrich said the crews were doing a good job but they were inexperienced. His assessment written to the society confirmed that concerns about overfiring of the engine were not improbable. "The concerns that this fellow has about the locomotive being overfired at times is somewhat justified because this locomotive is small and the railroad is in need of a heavier locomotive to handle the traffic demand," Uhrich wrote. "I believe the locomotive crew is doing the best they can do at present."
Uhrich said they didn't find mechanical problems with the equipment. He went on to recommend double-heading the No. 9 and No. 12 engines going up the hill to prevent the problem of flash-firing and causing tubes to expand and contract rapidly. The two engines were run in tandem a few times on the Loop tracks last summer, but for the last 20 days of the season the 9 ran alone, as the 12 was in the shop.
Bell said he discussed the issue with Railstar and was satisfied by the vendor's response. "They were getting acquainted with the equipment," he said. "It does really take a little time and effort to really know what the personality of any machine is."
But Trottier denied that his crew ever overfired the engines. He said the Loop is a difficult run and the engines work hard, but not beyond their capacity.
"In the end you've got to make the engine work hard enough to get your load up the hill, and that is a tough job in operating this railroad," Trottier said. "I'll be the first to admit it that it's not like other tourist railroads."
However, Trottier said the No. 12 was taken off line in July for a short period to replace a grouping of the boiler tubes, the same tubes Braun said were damaged due to overfiring.
He said the operation would have preferred to change the tubes during winter maintenance, but made the decision not to because of economics. This winter the rest of the tubes will be replaced.
From the historical society's perspective, Bell said the state is working to ensure the operation is working efficiently.
"There are so many opinions out there concerning steam locomotive use and firing and how it should be operated," Bell said. "What we attempt to do is our due diligence, and work with the vendor and come to a conclusion that we're doing the best we can."
One opinion that Trottier, Uhrich and Bush agreed upon was that the No. 9 and 12 engines are not well suited to the difficult terrain and heavy demands of the tourist operation at the Loop. Uhrich also said that, in the early 1900s, steam engines were not run up and down the tracks dozens of times a day. And, train companies rotated their equipment in and out of service for maintenance more frequently, not to mention the fact that the engines were newer back then. But the engines were the only available equipment to start the operation in short order.
Next year, the society hopes to have the No. 111 on line. The powerful engine from Breckenridge should solve many of the operator's capacity problems, pull more cars and allow for more judicious use of the smaller trains.
Almost a year overdue and at the cost of more than $230,000, the No. 9 steam engine was delivered to the tracks last May. With any new piece of equipment, some time to work out the kinks is required. But breaking in the No. 9 was not possible, as described by a mechanic at the Loop.
In a letter written by Steve Butler, he calls the boiler work excellent but describes how the "systems to provide water feed, lubrication, air brakes, and control of the fire were in unserviceable condition." In fact, according to his letter, a list of 35 items needed to be repaired, and an outside company gave an estimate of $21,132 worth of further work required on the engine.
Uhrich said the restoration of No. 9 was done to the best of his shop's ability and with the time and money available. He also explained that restoring a historic steam engine requires a delicate balance of modern industry requirements and preserving the train's historic integrity. "We're taking the 21st century, and we're trying to shove it into a 19th-century locomotive," he said.
Trottier said the issues his employee raised simply represented a difference of opinions on how to restore steam engines.
Wayne Penn, a rail system safety and compliance officer with Sprinter Rail Systems, agreed that in the steam restoration community, a difference of opinions is the industry standard.
"… When it comes to steam locomotives, you could have five or six experts evaluate the same data and get five or six different opinions about it," Penn wrote. "While there are very specific mechanical standards to follow and maintain in the care and feeding of steam locomotives, there are no published industry specifications on how to perform a restoration project."
Uhrich also said that the No. 9 restoration faced unique challenges, especially in converting a coal burner to oil. In fact, Uhrich was opposed to converting the engine at all, although he is very happy to have it restored and running on the tracks today.
Bush agreed that oil firing can be complicated for former coal engines. Oil burns at a higher temperature, so the firebox creates heat faster than water can carry it away. This causes overheating of stay bolts and firebox tubes, he said.
In fact, that's what happened when the engine was repaired and run on the tracks. The No. 9 was taken off line for repairs to stay bolts three times in August, once to repair 43 stay bolts. Uhrich said this was partly due to overfiring but more directly related to the conversion of No. 9 to oil.
Only two stay bolts were replaced when the engine was restored and tested, but at Uhrich's shop the 9 was not subjected to the same amount of stress as at the Loop. When carrying passenger cars under daily operation, the firing was heating the firebox unevenly and leaks were emerging in the stay bolts. Through the end of the season a lot of kinks were worked out, systems changed, and the 9 ran the final 20 days straight as the only remaining operating equipment.
But, in his letter Butler recommended that the historical society use a combination of vendors in future restorations.
"I am left with the impression that there may be some unfamiliarity with standard full-size railroad practice, which allows for these problems to be inherent in the restoration process with the current contractor working unsupervised. Perhaps some expert counsel can be found, and more than one source considered to allow for the best combination of different vendors strengths to be better applied for a better result in future restorations," he wrote.
For the next restoration, which is that of the No. 111 from Breckenridge and also at Uhrich's shop in Strasburg, Railstar wants to have more oversight in the process, Trottier said.
Bell also said a combination of vendors will be used in the future. "We would be looking at a combination of vendors in the future to try to get the best product," Bell said. "We've learned a lot in the first project."
But the historical society has little say in who restores the 111, as it is the property of the city of Breckenridge. The society will lease the engine once it's restored, but the state is already making payments, so the city can use the money to pay for the restoration.
Over the last two seasons, Railstar and the historical society have learned a lot of lessons from operating a mountain railroad. And with each new engine that comes on the tracks, the maintenance and firing crews will be faced with new challenges.
The historical society and Railstar are also learning their lessons about restoring small engines. Trottier recommended that the state cancel the restoration of the No. 74 steam engine from Boulder. "There's too many hundreds of thousands of dollars to put it into a condition where Railstar would say, 'Hey, that's OK, we'll operate it,' " he said.
The engine also has less pulling capacity than the No. 111, where Trottier prefers to put the resources.
Trottier also said that Railstar faces the challenge of balancing the bottom line of the operation with what's needed to maximize reliability. Last winter, due to an unexpected shortfall in the maintenance budget, some work that Railstar would have preferred to do on the No. 12 couldn't be completed, Trottier said.
But Trottier said that a cost-cutting measure would never come at the expense of safety.
"We're in the driver's seat, and we're never going to do anything unsafe. I also don't want to see anybody spend money inappropriately or that could be spent on another locomotive," Trottier said.
Penn also said that steam locomotives can be run safely without repairing every single deficiency. "Steam locomotives are amazing machines, though, that have a wide tolerance for wear and tear and can keep operating safely, if less efficiently," Penn said.
Finally, Trottier pointed out that the former operator also had to learn its lessons. But it did so at a time when more equipment was available and fewer tourists already knew about Georgetown's unique attraction.
Reporter's note: The Courant attempted to locate experts with no connection with the past or current operator of the Georgetown Loop Historic Railroad and Mining Park. Wayne Penn stated he has no affiliation with either party. John Bush was employed by the former operator at the Loop as a master mechanic from 1977 to 1985, but his expertise on the No. 9 engine as it sat in the Silver Plume station was valuable to this story. Steve Torrico, superintendent of the Loop, declined to comment for this story
Reading this gave me the feeling that I would be risking my families lives if I brought them up to ride, if they were even open. Why did the CHS choose inexperienced operators from New York to run this line? Whose egos got in the way of a National tressure continuing in a safe and profitable way? Those in control at CHS during this should be called out and immediately dismissed. I have lost all respect, as I'm sure many of us Denverites have, of the CHS.posted by Joe Snyder on October 26, 2006 6:42am
I was on the trian ride and mine tour in june 2006. The train ride was ok but the mine tour was a disappiontment becouse thay had young people doing the tour.I aslo was the mine and train tour in the summer 2000 thay were great back thenposted by Louis Eisley on October 25, 2006 5:30pm
As a former employee of the former competent company, the Georgetown Loop Railroad, Inc., watching this story unfold has been very sad indeed. There is no excuse whatsoever for not meeting demand and ultimately hurting Clear Creek County’s image and tax base. The former operator built this railroad into one of the nation’s premier scenic lines and now, ridership is down almost 50%. Is this acceptable? I don’t think so. If only the CHS had listened and been reasonable, none of this would have happened. Ridership would have increased instead of decreased. This is inexcusable. How many vendors will it take and how much of my tax money will need to spend before this railroad is revived?posted by Concerned on October 25, 2006 4:40pm
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