San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad (SLRG) As reported by: Denver Post-Back on track (Article Launched: 02/10/2006 01:00:00 AM) Back on track Two new lines starting in May hark back to Alamosa's days as a rail hub. By Electa Draper Denver Post Staff Writer The San Luis Express, traveling through the San Luis Valley, will begin its daily 63-mile route May 24. Another new line will connect Alamosa to Antonito. (Post / Brian Brainerd) Alamosa - The first train of a new line left here for La Veta on Thursday morning, and along the way it restored something lost to this historic railroad hub for more than 50 years - passenger service. A crowd of more than 100 seemed genuinely giddy while witnessing the inaugural run of the San Luis Express. Well- wishers waved as the modern diesel locomotive pulled out with a single maroon- and-silver luxury car filled with media and railroad brass. Alamosa was reliving a little of the glory days, when it was "the narrow-gauge capital of the world" - a hub for passenger trains linking Denver and Santa Fe to La Veta, Alamosa and Durango. That all ended here in 1951 when passenger service, which was no longer profitable, stopped altogether. But the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad and its operating partner, the Denver & Rio Grande Historical Foundation, say they will provide daily scenic 63-mile excursions east to La Veta beginning May 24. At the same time, they will launch another new line, the Toltec Gorge Limited, connecting Alamosa to the tiny southern Colorado town of Antonito and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad roughly 30 miles to the south. Rancher James Vessels climbs down after taking a look inside the first passenger train to leave Alamosa since 1951. He drove 50 miles from San Pablo to witness the train s departure. (Post / Brian Brainerd) The C&TSR is a spectacularly situated narrow-gauge railroad that ends at Chama, N.M. Despite its status as the longest and highest scenic railroad in the country, the C&TSR is financially bedeviled by uneven ridership and erratic funding by one of its two owners, the state of Colorado. Since 2003, the other owner, the state of New Mexico, has more than tripled the support given by Colorado ($2.9 million compared with less than $800,000). In March, the Colorado legislature will look at Gov. Bill Owens' proposal for $500,000 for the Cumbres & Toltec. It falls far short of the more than $1million requested by the train's operator. "Because of the recession, many critical services were cut to the bone, including transportation, health services and higher education," Owens' press secretary, Dan Hopkins, said. "It was the fiscal reality. You don't make it up in one year." Railroad officials have estimated that the Cumbres & Toltec provides $42 million a year in economic benefit to southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. And the need for additional state funding is eliminated, railroad officials have said, when ridership is more than 50,000. Last year ridership was about 30,000, but the 50,000 mark was met or bested in the years 1995 through 2001. Then rail-maintenance problems and extreme fire danger in 2002 shortened the steam-powered locomotive's season, causing passenger figures to plunge drastically and increase only slowly in following seasons. San Luis & Rio Grande president Ed Ellis said he expects the two new lines will boost ridership on the Cumbres & Toltec by 5,000 to 10,000 by connecting it to people in Alamosa's 300 motel rooms. "We might not do that the first season. ... But I haven't heard one person say that (the La Veta line) will be competition for the Cumbres & Toltec," Ellis said. "Some 300,000 people go the Great Sand Dunes a year. Now they have something else to do while they're here." The new interim operator of the Cumbres & Toltec agreed. "We're going to attract riders to their railroad, and they're going to attract riders to ours," said Frank Turner, head of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Management Corp. The group recently replaced the previous not-for-profit operator. It had announced in October that it was pulling out because it never got the money it was promised to run the railroad. "We're going to have to have money from Colorado," Turner said. "We're more optimistic about funding this year than we have been for a long time." The financial uncertainty of launching new service didn't dampen spirits Thursday. Neither did it matter that the beautiful 1909 Denver & Rio Grande Railroad depot that served as backdrop for the train and brass band is now an office building housing the Alamosa County Department of Social Services. Instead, a small ticket office and waiting room have been added to the railroad's old freight office across the street.The proposed round-trip adult fare from Alamosa to Antonito is $12. The proposed fare to La Veta is $40. Alamosa's connection to the railroad, and its status as the center of commerce in this mountain valley, dates from 1878, when settlers from Fort Garland arrived via train and founded the town in an area shaded by cottonwood - "Alamosa" in Spanish - trees. Business leaders here anticipate a tremendous economic boost from the new line. Tom Bobicki, head of Alamosa Downtown Merchants Inc., said that on a scale of 1 to 10, the new rail's importance to Alamosa is an 11. His wife, Charlotte, the regional representative for Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said the entire San Luis Valley is excited. "Our visitors are thrilled this is happening. There are major hoteliers who think this is the biggest thing that could happen to Alamosa," said Debra Goodman, executive director of the Alamosa Chamber of Commerce. Rancher James Vessels and his 11-year-old grandson, Colten, drove 50 miles from San Pablo to witness the return of passenger rail to Alamosa. "I've been thinking for some time that this is something they should do," James Vessels said. "They should keep the rail industry alive in this country." Staff writer Electa Draper can be reached at 970-385-0917 or email@example.com.