Remote school near Colorado-New Mexico border teaches people how to drive a steam train

By Jenny Brundin, Colorado Public Radio

CHAMA, N.M. — In the thick of swirling plumes of coal-fired smoke and greasy engine parts, 11 men, mostly middle-aged and clad in blue overalls and steel-toed boots, are getting ready for a day of class. Everyone’s standing in the tiny rail village of Chama, New Mexico, gazing at clanging, heaving locomotives.

“It’s a strange beast,” says Tom Chenal, a sheep farmer who hails from New Jersey. For him, it almost seems alive, “like it’s got a heartbeat or something.”

Each of the men here are signed up for a rare and remote school near the Colorado-New Mexico border: the Cumbres & Toltec engineer and fireman school.

Dating back to 1880 with a mission to tap the resources of the southern Rockies, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is the highest and longest steam-operated railroad in the country. A National Historic Landmark, tourist trains lumber daily between Chama and Antonito, Colorado during the summer and fall seasons.

“This whole operation here is very much a time capsule,” says Ed Beaudette, the railroad’s manager of engineering and operations. “It’s one of those few places where you can get out of your modern Mercedes or Cadillac and step onto the gravel pavement, and look around and then you are back in 1925.”

It’s day two of the 4-day class and instructors prepare the men for their first day in Engine 487. They’ll be operating their own train, separate from the steam horse that conducts the sightseers. Before they arrived the students read hundreds of pages of manuals as homework.

“If you get nervous or if you don’t know the next step, don’t be scared to ask questions, we’re here to help you guys,” conductor Chris Aira tells the men.

The students rotate turns in the locomotive — in groups of three — as the train travels through alpine meadows, aspen groves, steep mountain canyons, and climbs past a sheer rock face to the 10,022 foot Cumbres Pass Summit. Later, when they run the full 64-miles of the railroad, they’ll inch along the 800 foot Toltec Gorge and follow the rushing Rio de los Pinos.

“In general it starts out with a mild amount of terror,” Beaudette says of the students’ demeanor. Not to worry, alongside them in the locomotive are professional railroaders.

“As soon as they actually get something moving, the terror tends to go away and they really get wrapped up in it. they come off all smiles,” he says. “It’s really quite an adrenalin-producing experience for them.”