Living in a caboose, supporting the railroad

  • Forrest Whitman

 

I've lived for close on 20 years in an old heavyweight Burlington Railroad caboose. It's grounded in Gilpin County, Colo., close to the Continental Divide, near milepost 41.77 on the Union Pacific Railroad’s Moffat tunnel sub --a subsidiary line leading up to the tunnel and through it.

I may have slept in that old baby back when I was a brakeman on the Burlington Railroad. Over the years, life in the old caboose has brought snow up to my butt and coal blowing into my bunk, and more than once the regular 100-mile-an-hour winds have blown out a cupola window or two. Still, a caboose is always been a good place to get lost in railroad visions and dreams. I can't help but think of rail travel whenever I hear a freight crew just miss making the joint as the engine signals back and forth. I can't help but think about the future of Amtrak when the California Zephyr shrieks on by, usually running on time these days.

Ed Quillen, who sadly caught the westbound last year, said my caboose was a great place to imagine a future for Western rail. What a guy he was! Ed is the only buddy of mine who'd ever rouse from his bunk in the middle of the night in my caboose. Even after closing down the Stage Stop Bar, he'd pet my black lab, Gus, and stoke up the stove at 4 a.m. You've got to listen to an ink slinger like that.

He was right about the Western rail vision and the present dangers it faces, too.  A big one is coming up: Rail cars still have to push over Raton Pass, just like in the old Santa Fe Railroad days, but major track work is needed all through Colorado and New Mexico. One of our best trains, Amtrak's Southwest Chief, depends on that rail. If it’s gone, there goes our train to Los Angeles, Chicago and every point in between.

Ed encouraged me to keep going to rail meetings. He was right, even though I felt we'd gotten nowhere working on the Colorado state rail plan, or plotting high-speed rail to Las Vegas or Tucson at those high-speed rail coalition meetings. Yet a number of factors favor a rail future for the entire West.

People, especially those under age 40, seem to like trains – or so they say on Facebook. Western state rail plans are being drawn up, and the feds have $10 billion bucks in budgeting authority for high-speed rail. President Obama and good old rail fan Joe Biden are back in office. California is building high-speed tracks rights now. Rail groups can take heart.

Ed wasn't always pleased with the planning results, of course. He argued that the old Rocky Mountain Rail Authority -- I was on the board then -- needed to switch out and change focus. All of our studies showed great passenger rail potential from Denver west -- on to Copper Mountain, Minturn and Salt Lake City. Ed agreed, but thought hauling those happy skiers could never be true high speed; not over a 4 percent grade and not till maglev -- high-speed, electromagnetically powered trains -- arrive. We'll see.

There are plenty of naysayers in Congress when it comes to Western rail, but there are some yea-sayers too. Meanwhile, our state rail-passenger groups have made some headway. Believe it or not, the newly redesigned Denver Union Station will have three tracks reserved for long-distance passenger trains. A fight from the Colorado Association of Rail Passengers and a lawsuit against the Union Station Authority threw that high stand switch. Those new passenger tracks will be in use this year.

Meanwhile, life in my caboose goes on. Mama bear checks in regularly and Gus the dog valiantly barks from inside the coal door to protect us. The coyotes howl and the big freights roll by. Soon, more passenger trains will be rolling under the big Western sky. Old Ed Quillen will look down, roll a ciggie and smile.

Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes about rail matters and Colorado history while he watches trains and rides them, too.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...