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For retired Cog Railway engineer, 93, job was living out a love of trains

March 25, 2018 Updated: March 27, 2018 at 6:27 am
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photo - Martin Frick, 93, became the manager of the Cog Railway after he sold the company several locomotives from his native Switzerland. Photographed at his home on Thursday, March 22, 2018. 

(Nadav Soroker, The Gazette)
Martin Frick, 93, became the manager of the Cog Railway after he sold the company several locomotives from his native Switzerland. Photographed at his home on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette) 

Martin Frick's all-time favorite portrait-with-train is framed and hanging in the TV room at his southwest Colorado Springs home.

The professional image shows him at the Pikes Peak Cog Railway Depot in Manitou Springs, jauntily posed before cherry-red railcars, smiling a smile so genuine it makes you want to smile back.

Frick can't recall when the photo was taken; he looks to be in his late 40s or early 50s, but at 93 he could pass for septuagenarian, so who knows?

"I don't know ... do you?" Frick said, calling in an assist from his wife, Ursula.

"Oh yeah, I remember that. That was a great day," she said. "That was, like, 30 years ago or something."

"I like that picture," said Frick, his voice going dreamy.

He might not be able to tell you the exact date or occasion, but he can tell you this: It's a photo of a man who really loves his job. "I've always liked trains. As a little boy, I liked trains, and I like trains now," he said.

A native of Switzerland, Frick arrived in Colorado Springs in 1960 as a young engineer and escort for a shipment of new cog railcars manufactured by his employer, the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Company. Three years later, railway President William Thayer Tutt invited him to stay and take over as general manager.

It was the kind of gig a hard-core train fan couldn't turn down.

"It's the highest cog railway in the world - the highest - and I was just, I don't know ... the way it runs, the way it operated ...," said Frick, who went on to spend almost three decades with the company, and serve as its president, before retiring in 1991, the year the railway celebrated its centennial anniversary.

"It was the most interesting job," he said.

Switzerland is home to 25 cog railways and most of the handful of companies, globally, that specialize in them. Frick grew up visiting grandparents who lived just a few blocks from the mountain railway equipment company where he later went to work, after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

During a turn in the company's sales department, Frick was assigned to talk to a visiting American who was looking to upgrade and expand a cog railway operation in Colorado.

"Thayer Tutt was a fascinating man. Somehow, we personally, immediately, understood each other," Frick said. "Things just went on from there."

Frick made multiple trips to Colorado Springs over the following three years, overseeing installation of a series of new cars that exponentially increased passenger capacity. In 1963, after accepting the job as general manager, he moved his wife and two young children from Switzerland to Colorado Springs.

"From my couple of visits before I moved here, I knew what it was. As I said, the cog railway fascinated me. From the engineering side, I thought it was interesting to work for a company that operated trains and not be in an office designing or selling trains," he said.

A historical essay on the Cog Railway's website credits Frick with bringing the popular tourist destination "into the modern age" with advancements including the addition of the first 80-passenger cars, installation of new electric and manual switches, the design and acquisition of four 214-passenger cars, and "many other improvements too numerous to mention."

The units Frick helped usher into service more than half a century ago were still in operation when the railway shuttled its final passengers to the summit of Pikes Peak last October. The announcement came earlier this month that the temporary winter closure for maintenance might very well be a permanent one.

"I hope they're not going to shut it down and tear it up, because Colorado Springs would lose a fantastic tourist operation," Frick said. "I hope they're able to keep it. That's what I hope."

Americans have never embraced rail travel with the enthusiasm of their Swiss counterparts, but when Frick first arrived here there were still "one or two" passenger trains running between the Springs and Denver. That's no longer the case.

Seems a modern world that's focused on the destination, and getting there five minutes ago, is tough terrain for transportation that's equally about the journey.

"You don't have a chance to ride a train because you don't have too many anymore," Frick said. You have cars, and overcrowded highways, and flying coach today is not much fun."

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