If two groups get their way, Downtown will be a rail tourism hub in a year or two. 

Tourist-attracting fun for the whole family

But logistical obstacles include insurance, track upgrades, and the coronavirus.
The AT&SF 2926 steam locomotive, pictured outside of its Wells Park garage earlier this year. The hope is to soon get it to the point where it can take people on excursions around the state. (Photo by the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.)
Spend a few minutes looking over or actually climbing aboard Wells Park's very own steam locomotive, and you'll soon understand what all the fuss is about. 

For one thing, it's huge. Really huge: Including the tender that carries the fuel and water, it is 50 feet longer than a Rail Runner locomotive, with wheels twice as big, and at 500 tons, about two or three adult blue whales heavier. If modern diesel engines are a tribute to efficiency, getting the job done, and minimizing the need for routine maintenance, then the AT&SF 2926 steam locomotive is a tribute to brute force and steel.

It takes hours just to heat the water to the point where steam can power it forward, and when it gets cooking it evaporates 100 gallons per minute. Despite being built in 1944 out of thicker-than-usual metal (the thinner, stronger stuff was reserved for the war effort) it was originally designed for cruising speeds of 90 miles per hour. A similar model once cracked 120.

You get the impression that riding the rails on the locomotive would be something akin to holding on tight to a giant steam-powered gazelle that, for some reason, has allowed you to sit on its back. And you get that impression even while it's turned off, parked in a dark garage near 8th and Haines.

But that feeling, of course, is precisely the point. That potent mix of magic and romance has kept a large platoon of volunteers at the job site, slowly restoring the locomotive to working order over the last 20 years or so. And it is what gives organizers confidence that, once they can roll it out to the main north-south line, people will show up and bring their wallets.

"There are nutty people from all over the world who will come for this sort of thing," says Michael Hartshorne, the president of the New Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society. "Selling tickets is the smallest problem we have."

If the railroad historical society and a separate project pursued by the Wheels Museum are successful, rail excursions departing from Downtown could become a routine matter within a year or two. Whether for a special business meeting, a private party, or just a joyride, the trips could potentially give a non-trivial boost to the local tourism trade.

Getting to that point, however, will be tricky, perhaps making the restoration of the 1940s locomotive look like the easy part.

Just traveling the eight blocks to the main north-south rail line is a challenge. The society does not own the tracks that make up the spur line (which connects west to the Sawmill neighborhood, although it is not maintained past 12th), and those tracks are not necessarily in shape to handle a massively long and heavy locomotive. Sorting that out and making the required upgrades means "we're going to spend a lot of damn money," Hartshorne says, though exactly how much isn't clear.

Even off the spur, there's the matter of insurance in case of a derailment or some other breakdown that blocks rail traffic or necessitates a highly-specialized crew coming out to get one million pounds of metal back on the track. Kimberly Gallegos, the spokeswoman for NMDOT, said that insurance was "likely the largest unknown" surrounding what she called "preliminary discussions" about the excursion trips.

Another major unknown is the pandemic, which has put a pause on most of the effort. Among the wave of recent cancelations was an event where the locomotive was to move under its own power for the first time since 1953, originally scheduled for March 20-21.

But assuming the coronavirus can be overcome and the logistical obstacles worked out, the dream situation looks something like this: Rent a few historic passenger cars, hitch them rides to Albuquerque at the back of Amtrak trains, then sell about 500 tickets at, say, $500 apiece. The trip involves steaming up to Las Vegas, where a newly refurbished Fred Harvey hotel would be a key attraction, then returning the next day. After paying for the carriage rentals, the fuel, insurance, and the roughly $1,000 worth of water for all the steam power, Hartshorne reckons the group could be left with a few thousand dollars worth of cushion to plan the next trip. Do four or five trips per year, per the tentative plan, and Downtown might enjoy the equivalent of a large convention's worth of hotel and restaurant spending in the process. 

Attracting more visitors is also the name of the game for Leba Freed, the president of the Wheels Museum, which recently became the proud owner of a historic railcar called the Silver Iris. The 1950s-era car has its own special mojo. On tours, Freed says, "people won't leave." 

"People love trains all over the world," she adds. And, "we need tourism."

Freed's plans for running excursions may well combine at some point with the efforts of the steam locomotive group. They will need railcars and she has one, currently parked just southeast of the Coal Ave. bridge. She's also working with Ron Ashcraft, who owns another railcar parked nearby called the Acoma, formerly part of the excursion trains that ran between Santa Fe and Lamy.

But Freed, who is facing her own insurance and technical challenges, also intends to approach state government about hitching rides for the Silver Iris on the Rail Runner. If the stars align, the end result might not have the pizazz that a steam locomotive-powered trip brings, but it could be easier to pull off on a regular basis. Instead of a few trips per year with a locomotive that requires an out-of-state engineer to operate, Freed could see a weekly operation hooked up to a train that was running anyway.

Either idea will be tough to pull off, even if the pandemic and knock-on economic crisis turns out to be mild in retrospect. But the players trying to make it happen argue that New Mexico is uniquely positioned to make it work. We already have the hardware, of course, but unlike excursion operations in Durango and Chama, we also have a large airport nearby. Rail buffs would also likely be interested in the Rail Yards. And it's hard to beat our scenery and weather.

Then there are the intangibles.

"It's romantic, it's historic, it's heritage," Freed says. "It's all these wonderful things."

The process of making it happen will not be easy, but "I think it's very doable, very feasible," says Ashcraft. "It just takes time. But we're moving ahead."
Downtown Albuquerque News covers greater Downtown, which we generally define as the area created by I-40, the Rio Grande, and the railroad tracks. We publish weekdays except for federal holidays. If someone forwarded DAN to you, please consider subscribing. To subscribe, contact us, submit a letter to the editor, or learn more about what we do, click here. If you ever run into technical trouble receiving DAN, click here.
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