All aboard?
New fire restrictions for D&SNG leave some scrambling during closure

All aboard?

Passengers disembark the D&SNG at the train depot in downtown Durango./ Photo by Jonathan Romeo

Jonathan Romeo - 06/23/2022

As part of the settlement in a federal lawsuit related to the 416 Fire, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is now subject to sudden closures if wildfire danger is too high, which is having mixed results just a few weeks in practice.

In March, the D&SNG and the U.S. Forest Service signed a settlement stemming from the federal lawsuit, in which the railroad was accused of starting the 416 Fire, north of Durango in the summer of 2018. The agreement held several conditions, namely that D&SNG would pay the federal government $20 million to recoup firefighting costs. 

In addition, the D&SNG has agreed to not run trains if wildfire danger is too high, as determined by a fire restriction system set by the Forest Service.

“It’s definitely a game changer for the way we do business,” Jeff Johnson, general manager of the D&SNG, said. “And cancellations are the most difficult part of this process, because we’re aware this is something people have planned for a long time. It’s on their bucket list.” 

With an incredibly dry spring and early summer, the D&SNG has already been forced to shut down several days this June, canceling thousands of reservations and affecting the two towns that rely on the tourism dollars, Durango and Silverton. 

The situation is further muddled by the fact that after the 416 Fire, the D&SNG promised to convert its fleet from running on coal, which holds a huge fire risk, to oil- and diesel-burning engines. The D&SNG spent millions to fulfill this commitment, but even still, these locomotives are not allowed to run in certain conditions. 

And, long-term, as drought becomes increasingly severe and pervasive, local officials worry that sudden cancellations of one of Southwest Colorado’s largest – if not largest – tourist attractions could soil the region’s reputation, consequently affecting local hotels and restaurants. 

“No one wants to see a wildfire; that’s not the pushback,” DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “The whole pushback stems from a lack of communication from the Forest Service and how tiny a window of time it is for us to know if trains are running the next day.”

Never again

Throughout its 140-year history, the D&SNG has shoveled coal into its steam engines to power locomotives to Silverton and back, a 90-mile round-trip. But engines powered by coal, which sends embers flying when burned, notoriously hold a huge risk of starting a wildfire.

This is what federal investigators believe ignited the 416 Fire, which started just off the D&SNG railroad tracks north of Durango in June 2018 and burned 54,000 acres, endangering homes, forcing evacuations and causing drastic economic losses.

In March, the D&SNG signed a landmark settlement (though as part of the agreement, the railroad does not legally admit fault for starting the fire). And, over the past three years, of its own accord, the D&SNG spent upwards of $7 million to convert its fleet to oil and diesel engines, which burn liquid and therefore don’t emit sparks. 

D&SNG owner Al Harper said in the wake of the 416 Fire the railroad would never again shut down because of wildfire risk. And, for a short period, that was true. Last summer, for instance, the D&SNG relied solely on oil and diesel for the first time in its storied history. Despite drought conditions, the railroad didn’t cause any major fires. 

The settlement agreement, signed this past winter, changes all of that.

Weighing the risk

As part of the settlement, the D&SNG agreed to abide by the terms of the Forest Service’s “Industrial Fire Restrictions Plan,” a system of rating fire risk, which then triggers four levels of restrictions. At Level 4, the strictest, the D&SNG is barred from running oil or diesel engines, effectively shutting down the railroad.

 The Forest Service tracks daily conditions, namely the dryness of fuels on the ground and wind activity. Then, based on the set of criteria, the level of risk is determined. As a result, this process isn’t a judgment call, said Dave Neely, the acting forest supervisor for the San Juan National Forest.

“It’s not the Forest Service calling day to day, saying ‘stop running trains,’” Neely said. “We evaluate the conditions and make that data available to (the railroad), and they understand their obligations under the agreement when those conditions hit.”

The criteria, however, is based on logging regulations in Oregon, which in part explains why oil and diesel locomotives are banned in Level 4. Johnson said none of the D&SNG’s oil burning steam engines and diesel engines have started a fire, nor is he aware of other scenic railways having fire issues with locomotives of this type.

“We are aware there’s a lot of frustration within the community,” he said. “But we are committed to maintaining a transparent working relationship with the Forest Service staff in carrying out the terms of our agreement.”

The Forest Service, however, maintains that although oil/diesel locomotives are less likely to start a wildfire than coal, there is still a risk. “There’s always a risk when trains are running on tracks,” Mark Lambert, a planning, public service and lands staff officer with the Forest Service, said.

Short notice

The Forest Service says it tries to notify the D&SNG as soon as possible of stage levels, Neely said, but, of course, predicting the weather is inherently tricky and last-minute. As a consequence, this can put a lot of stress on train operations.

“Sometimes we don’t know until the afternoon report whether we’re going to be in Level 4 the next day,” Johnson said. “The minute we know we have to shut down, we send an immediate message to everyone. But it is challenging.”

Earlier this month, the D&SNG was notified around 4 p.m. that it could not run trains the following day, leaving the railroad scrambling to notify thousands of customers. About 40% rebooked, but with multi-day shutdowns, most were forced to take refunds.

The last-minute notice to the communities of Durango and Silverton has emerged as a major issue, Gallegos said. She clarified that the D&SNG sends out a notice to partners as soon as it is aware of train operations, but the Forest Service is not leaving enough time for all the entities involved to respond accordingly.

“It becomes a customer service and communication nightmare,” Gallegos said. “I don’t think the Forest Service understands the impact on the two communities and their economies.”

Back-up Plan

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, best estimates showed the D&SNG had a $200 million annual impact on the region’s economy.

Silverton is acutely affected by these shutdowns, Gallegos said. Each summer, the small mountain town awaits the economic jolt of thousands of riders a day who wander for lunch and shopping. For many businesses, this short window is what helps them survive the slower winter months. And it’s incredibly hard for businesses to plan staffing and supplies when they don’t know if a train will show the next day.

“We’re the lunch stop, and we’re being told 12 hours before whether we’ll have 1,300 people in town or 300,” Gallegos said. “How do our restaurants plan staffing or purchasing perishable food? We’re losing money because of that short notice.”

Businesses in Durango, too, have been feeling the impacts, with some hotels reporting customers are canceling entire trips. Jack Llewellyn, director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said the situation prompted tourism officials from both Durango and Silverton to come together earlier this month to create a response plan when a customer’s trip is canceled.

Now, disgruntled tourists are directed toward other activities – like rafting, biking, fishing or hiking. Officials have also created a self-guided, D&SNG-centric day trip itinerary, which includes a tour at the train depot, a drive up Highway 550 and tours at the Old Hundred Gold Mine in Silverton, to name a few.

“This way, when people call us and say their trip is ruined, we say, ‘No it’s not. Here’s what else to do,’” Llewellyn said. “The train is the main reason they come to our area, and they are disappointed, but I think there’s enough amenities to have a great time.”

The D&SNG, too, is adding more locomotives to its daily trips to increase the number of passengers it can take on days when it can run. Still, this puts incredible stress on Silverton restaurants, especially.

“We’re still facing supply chain issues from the pandemic, and now we’re facing customer-based issues,” Gallegos said. “We’re going from feast to famine within a 12-hour notice. The Forest Service needs to understand the trickle-down effect on our livelihoods.”

Workable Solutions

The solution comes down to better communication, Gallegos said. First, the community of Silverton would like to hear a more clear explanation of the fire restrictions and why oil/diesel engines are banned. And, both communities would like to have more of a heads up on train cancellations.

“We’ve had zero communication from the Forest Service to inform our communities – whose economies depend on the train – about how, why and when these decisions are made,” Gallegos said. “We have to figure out a better symbiotic relationship.”

As the region continues to experience drier and drier years, some question the long-term sustainability of the train.

But federal data shows the “Level 4” conditions vary wildly from year to year. In 2020, for instance, there were 22 days that would have triggered Level 4 restrictions and thus shut down train operations. In 2021, though, just three days qualified.

“We understand we need to work together to take into account people’s livelihoods, the economy and the quality of life across the West,” Neely said. “But the solutions aren’t easy. These are very real challenges we are facing as a whole.”

Yet any shutdown is difficult, especially when the conversion to oil/diesel locomotives was previously thought to be the ultimate fix (the D&SNG rarely runs coal trains anymore). And, when people hear the word “shutdown,” they think the railroad is completely closed, Johnson said.

As part of the agreement, the fire restrictions plan is subject to an annual review between the Forest Service and D&SNG, and changes are possible should both parties agree.

Yet just a few weeks into this new process, Johnson said it’s far too early to think about any tweaks to the plan.

“Once we get through this first season, we’ll have a lot more information on how to better navigate through it,” Johnson said. “We hope it will evolve to a much more bearable system in time. But in the meantime, it will be challenging; there’s no question about it. It’s heartbreaking for us to contact our passengers and tell them their trip is canceled.”