In 2019, Jared Talbot was a construction man living happily in Arizona. Upon learning of a new project, however, he and his family moved to Colorado Springs.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he recalled. “That’s why I came to this job.”
That’s why other specialists from around the globe came, teaming up with local laborers.
The world-famous Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway was in need of a major overhaul.
Long days followed Talbot’s move. Long and sometimes harrowing days along the 14,000-foot mountain. Mornings and afternoons were spent fashioning new tracks mostly by hand, attention focused on the cold, hard ground with frequent gazes to the sky, monitoring whatever storm cloud lurked.
Crews often trucked to sites. But occasionally, they hoofed it a mile or two in the effort to install 48,000-plus linear feet of steel rail.
“A lot of long days,” Talbot said. “But it’s been awesome.”
Their creation is set.
After a three-year closure for an ambitious, $100 million mission, North America’s highest railway has been reborn.
“Boy,” remarked Ron Wilson, one conductor back in his chair. “I’m just thankful.”
As will be the usual tourists after a most unusual year.
While many spent the 2020 pandemic confined to their homes, now they’ll reenter a reopened society. They’ll once again breathe in the alpine air, ascending to the scenery that inspired one of the nation’s most iconic songs.
In 2021, America the Beautiful never looked so good.
The return of the railway grants a return to the classic sights on this side of America’s Mountain. It’s a return to the waterfalls, forests and great granite outcrops such as the Diamond. Passengers will again behold legendary canyons, valleys and mining camps. They’ll again take in the sweeping views of other 14,000-foot peaks beyond — and they’ll hope, as always, to see some resident bighorn sheep.
Wilson and his fellow drivers are back with their narration, educating on natural and man-made fascinations along the way. They’re back with their jokes.
Much else has changed, starting with the railway itself.
“A lot smoother,” Wilson said.
The previous Abt rack system — a double-wide set of “teeth” yanking the cog wheel along — has been converted to a single-wide Strub system. Instead of wooden ties, steel has been implanted. And instead of the native granite that the first, 19th-century builders used, a ballast base has been hauled in.
These were all decisions made for the sake of efficiency and long-term sustainability, said Ted Johnston, the railway’s assistant general manager.
“We talked a lot in this project about bringing this railroad into the 21st century,” he said.
That meant remakes — new engines and all — to existing railcars and a trio of brand-new fleet members, numbered 27, 28 and 29 in the historic roster dating to 1890. They were built by Stadler Rail, the Swiss manufacturer carrying on the renowned cog expertise of Swiss Locomotive Works, which in the 1960s delivered the red trains that became synonymous with Pikes Peak.
Renderings of the sleek, modern machines initially made Johnston and his team nervous. At an outfit proud of nostalgia and heritage, would the cars fit in?
“Once we saw them in person,” Johnston said, “we were like, ‘OK, that’ll work.’”
The exterior red is familiar, with the interior more spacious and equipped with the prized amenity of heat. In a throwback development, the cars will be tugged by a locomotive — similar to transports before the 1960s wave of self-powered railcars.
The new era comes with a 30th fleet member: a beastly, Swiss-made snow blower fit to crush bigger, taller drifts that the previous house-made contraption could not.
“It’s our favorite new toy,” Johnston said.
But the operation’s “crown jewel,” he said, is the depot. The base remains true to red, white and blue, the colors painted onto a new bathroom building. They’re also painted onto a new overhead bridge that crosses to a new pavilion built to spread out customers. The renovated gift shop looks new.
All of it Johnston surveys now with pride.
“We got asked quite a bit ago, ‘Do you guys really think you can do this?’ We always said yes. But every time we said yes, we always thought to ourselves ... ‘Are we really gonna be able to pull this off?’”
They did with a team driven to make history.
Last month, before the railway’s opening, Talbot was eager to ride over the tracks he helped forge. He was eager to bring his family along.
“I got four kids at home,” he said, “and they’re all like, ‘Dad, when do we get to ride?’”
The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns OutThere Colorado.