Friday, November 17, 2006 at 9:48 pm

Narrow Gauge Tourist Railroads

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I’m a sucker for narrow gauge, and I know I’m not alone. For some reason, railroads built to a gauge narrower than the standard four feet, 8½ inches have captured railfans’ and model railroaders’ imaginations, no doubt due in no small part to the rugged terrain and astounding scenery in which such railroads were invariably constructed. Narrow gauge was used to save on construction costs, which makes sense in expensive terrain. Usually, one of two things happened to narrow gauge lines in North America: they made enough money and were rebuilt to standard gauge, or they went bust. Because, as it turned out, the savings in construction were not enough to offset the interchange problem: freight had to be transferred from a narrow-gauge car to a standard-gauge car if it was to traverse the continental rail network, and that transfer was quite inefficient.

A few pockets survived until at least the mid-twentieth century, such as Maine’s two-foot-gauge lines. Newfoundland’s 42-inch-gauge rail network, which lasted until the 1980s (it was on an island, for one thing, so interchanging was simpler: they actually had a standard gauge switching yard at the port, and actually lifted freight cars onto narrow-gauge trucks). And a few examples of narrow-gauge railroading survived by turning into tourist railroads that are doing very well today.

Cumbres & ToltecThe spiritual centre of North American narrow gauge was found, I think, in the three-foot-gauge lines of Colorado, and two snippets of the Denver and Rio Grande Western’s narrow gauge lines have been preserved: the Durango and Silverton (Wikipedia entry) and the Cumbres and Toltec (Wikipedia entry). Both railroads use original D&RGW narrow-gauge steam and rolling stock, though the C&S only runs during the summer months; the C&S also has a couple of rotary snowplows, one of which was featured in a video, Rotary on the Cumbres and Toltec, that I have seen. I haven’t been on either line, but the scenery looks spectacular (I’m also a sucker for mountains).

But narrow gauge, even today, isn’t all Colorado, all the time, though model railroads might lead you to think otherwise (almost every model narrow gauge item that I have seen has been of a Colorado prototype). In the eastern U.S., there is still, miraculously, the East Broad Top (Wikipedia entry), which was the last operating narrow gauge railroad in the eastern U.S. when it shut down in 1956. (The official site calls it “the last operating narrow gauge steam line east of the Rocky Mountains”; Newfoundland had dieselized by then.) It was purchased, salvaged, and reopened as a tourist line in 1960. It operates on weekends from June to October.

White Pass & YukonAnd finally, there is the White Pass and Yukon Route (Wikipedia entry), which originally ran between Skagway, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, but while the tracks remain, the trains currently turn around at Bennett Lake. It actually operated as a freight railroad until 1982, but five years after it shut down it was back in service as a tourist line, serving the increasing volume of passengers from cruise ships. Both diesel — yes, narrow-gauge diesels, originally built for this line — and steam locomotives are used to haul passengers in original and replica coaches up ridiculously steep grades.

All of these lines, incidentally, are three-foot gauge. I haven’t been on any of them, but they’re on the to-do list if I can manage it. This was only a brief introduction; I’m sure I’ll be posting more about narrow gauge in the future.

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