Colorado's Royal Gorge Route allows Passengers
the Opportunity to Ride up front with the Engineer
Superman, they claimed, was more powerful than a locomotive. I'm not so sure.
The turbocharged, 10,320-cubic-inch, V-16 diesel engine humming behind me generates a whopping 3,000 horsepower. Single-handedly, this locomotive can drag four million pounds of rolling stock up a mountain incline. I'm sitting in the cab, about to take this Krypton-strong “Can of Steel” through a 1,200-foot-deep gash in the Colorado Rockies. At least we’ll be traveling slower than a speeding bullet, I’m promised.
Since 1999, the Royal Gorge Route has offered scenic train rides through the depths of its namesake canyon with service levels ranging from classic coaches to panoramic Vista Domes and tycoon-worthy dining cars. This year, they added a sixth option – riding up front with the engineer.
Or in my case, two engineers. At the controls on the right side of the cab is Devon Cacy, a trainee waiting to be certified. Instructing him is veteran Wayne Gay. I sit in the fireman’s seat on the left side of the cab. In pre-diesel days, I'd be stoking the boiler while the Casey Jones equivalent opposite me, according to the Grateful Dead, would be “driving that train, high on….”
“Jerry Garcia got it wrong,” Wayne interrupts. “We don't drive the train. We operate it.”
In front of Devon sits a dashboard-like panel of levers, knobs, buttons, dials and gauges. He pulls an oversized black handle, and the locomotive's air horn issues a wale reminiscent of a more trustworthy Johnny Cash song. With the cab’s floor vibrating like Magic Fingers on overdrive, the train moves forward.
Trackside spectators waive. I waive back, pretending I'm actually performing some useful function.
As we leave town, the canyon becomes narrower and deeper. Out here, far from the nearest road, mountain lions can occasionally be spotted, but all I glimpse from my lead-dog position are deer, rabbits and a bighorn ram.
"One time we were coming back on the dinner train and there was a Chihuahua in the track,” Wayne relates. “We stopped and tried to catch him, but he kept avoiding us. He ran almost 3½ miles at about six mph before getting off the tracks."
Up ahead, the canyon has narrowed into a cliff-hemmed corridor with tracks hugging one wall and river rapids pounding the other. Four whitewater rafters splash down.
"Do you want to blow the whistle?" Devon asks.
He doesn’t have to ask twice. I reach over and smugly give the black handle a powerful tug. The rafters waive back.
"The bridge is around the next corner," Wayne advises.
Ahead, the famed Royal Gorge suspension bridge traverses the top of the canyon like a thin stick stuck between two cliffs. Built as a tourist magnet in 1929, it stood as the highest span in the world until 2001 when it was eclipsed by a bridge in China.
A forest fire this summer destroyed nearly every structure up topside, including the cable car that also once crossed the canyon. Fortunately, the suspension bridge suffered only superficial damage, and fire damage below the rim was minimal.
"We were back up and running within a few days," says railroad general manager Steve Kaverman. "If you know what to look for you can see some of the fire residue, but it's mostly just as it was."
We soon reach Parkdale, our turn back point. With no way to make a U-turn, the train simply reverses direction with the engine pushing from the back. My up-front position is no longer up front. Fortunately, a reserved seat awaits me in a Vista Dome car where I'll enjoy IMAX-like views on the return. I just won't have a whistle to blow.
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Up to four train tours depart daily from the depot in Cañon City, 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs. Minimum age for the locomotive ride is 13. Contact the Royal Gorge Route Railroad (888-724-5748, www.royalgorgeroute.com) for information and reservations.