In a major breakthrough, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad announced Friday it would resume trips to Silverton in May.
“It’s hard to believe the last passenger train that went up to Silverton was in October 2019,” said railroad manager Jeff Johnson. “I can’t wait.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the D&SNG could operate at only 50% capacity, which meant making the full trip from Durango to Silverton was no longer financially viable. Even if it was, a rainstorm washed out a portion of the tracks last spring, including a bridge, that made trips impossible for eight to 16 weeks.
The D&SNG operated through the summer, making smaller trips, mostly from the Rockwood to Cascade stations. But for the first time in Silverton’s history, the town went without the railroad for an entire summer.
Johnson said D&SNG officials worked hard in recent weeks to think of ways to make it financially feasible to offer trips to Silverton this season.
In the end, the D&SNG decided to increase the number of its high-end seats to offset the cost of losing 50% of its capacity, which is the current capacity requirement, according to public health orders.
Starting May 22, the D&SNG will send one locomotive to Silverton with up to 165 seats. On busier days, the railroad will add coaches to allow for 265 passengers, Johnson said.
In a normal year, the D&SNG would send three to four locomotives to Silverton, with room for more than 400 people per train.
“We had to sit down and rethink our business model to come up with a pricing level to afford to bring one train to Silverton,” Johnson said. “The guiding light for us was, we need to get back to Silverton.”
Historically, the D&SNG has been the economic lifeblood for Silverton in the summer, taking hundreds of tourists each day to the mountain town, where they may dine and shop.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was concern the town’s businesses would take a financial hit, but DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said fears did not pan out.
In fact, the town had record sales tax revenue, Gallegos said, as more people made road trips to Southwest Colorado to camp and visit the San Juan Mountains.
And based on bookings at RV resorts, campgrounds and hotels, Silverton is headed for another busy season, Gallegos said.
Adding trips and passengers from the D&SNG will only help boost tourism, she said.
“The train is really a two-hour infomercial for Silverton,” Gallegos said, referring to the layover time before passengers go back to Durango. “It exposes our little community and all the amazing things to do here.”
Johnson said if COVID-19 restrictions are loosened over the summer, the D&SNG has operating plans in place for increased capacity. The D&SNG will offer Rockwood to Cascade trips, too.
“We think that may be an extremely popular trip this year,” he said.
For many in Silverton, the sight of the D&SNG locomotive and sound of its iconic whistle will herald the return of an old friend.
“It is a major part of our inception, history and daily lives in the summer,” Gallegos said. “I heard from a lot of residents and business owners they just miss the nostalgia of the train coming into our community every day.”