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Cog railway

Started: 2014-08-13 21:22:14

Submitted: 2014-08-13 22:34:24

Visibility: World-readable

3 August 2014: In which the intrepid narrator finally ticks off the last thing on his Colorado tourist list

I've lived in Colorado for twenty-three years, long enough to do pretty much every touristy thing in the state, and plenty of non-touristy things. The last touristy thing on my list was to ride the cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak.

Calvin watches the scenery from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Calvin watches the scenery from the Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Since I live in Boulder, this turned out to be an all-day event the day after I climbed Mount Logan, starting with the two-hour drive through Denver down I-25 to Colorado Springs, with Kiesa functioning as my impromptu smartphone-assisted narrator and Calvin watching movies on the iPad. (At times Kiesa's role was not unlike Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest, repeating what the computer told her.) We made our way through Manitou Springs, pulled over to let a fire truck pass on a narrow one-way street leading to the railway terminus, and parked in the crowded parking lot.

Cog rail yard
Cog rail yard

I picked up our tickets for the 12:00 train and we found our seats in the lead train, which turned out to be a diesel-powered self-propelled railcar. The engine sounded more like a truck than a train, which seems appropriate given the grades which the vehicle climbed at speed. The 12:00 departure included two vehicles: our single-car railcar, and a second double-car railcar that followed us up the hill, with its own driver and conductor. I quickly observed that the railroad could chose to operate one, two, or three cars during each of its timetabled departures, depending on the load it expected at that time. (It then occurred to me to wonder how far in advance they needed to make the choice to operate more cars at any particular time.)

The first part of the journey was through a narrow forested canyon with little to see but trees and the occasional large rounded granite boulder, which the conductor/tour guide tended to exclaim about at length. The train eventually climbed a steep, straight section of track where we could see the torque of the diesel motor and the traction of the cog wheel put to good use. We emerged high on the hillside where we could see Colorado Springs and the plains behind us, prompting the conductor/tour guide to make a few derisive comments about Kansas, which amused the group sitting on the bench opposite us, who were in fact from Kansas.

Looking up the Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Looking up the Pikes Peak Cog Railway

(As we climbed I began to wonder about the signaling scheme, since I've spent just enough time reading about signaling systems on Wikipedia to be dangerous. I did not see any obvious track-side signals at any point along the route. Most of the route was single-track, with three passing loops distributed along the route. The trains were timetabled so that they would meet at the passing loops, where one conductor would disembark to operate the manual switches while the trains passed. One could imagine the trains passing a metaphorical token between them at the passing loops, allowing the train to enter the next section, which the train going in the opposite direction had just vacated. But since two trains operated in the same direction on the same section of track at once, there appeared to also be an element of permissive-block signaling, where the following train was allowed to proceed as long as it could stop in time to avoid the train in front of it. Since the trains were diesel-powered cog-traction railcars, their performance characteristics more closely resembled a truck than a traditional train, rendering permissive-block signaling practical.)

Passing loop on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Passing loop on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway

We crossed treeline and continued our inexorable climb towards the summit through the tundra along a south-west-facing slope. As we climbed I began to wonder if I ought to feel slightly guilty that I haven't been above 14,000 feet this summer on my own power and decided that I could assuage my guilt by climbing some fourteeners on my own before the summer was over.

Cog railway running up the side of Pikes Peak
Cog railway running up the side of Pikes Peak
Cog railcar at the top of Pikes Peak
Cog railcar at the top of Pikes Peak

At length we reached the top and disembarked at the summit, where the road and the trail converged at a squat one-story tourist-trap building containing a poor imitation of a cafe and a large gift shop. We had heeded the no-food warning of the railroad, despite our departure at noon, and Kiesa and Calvin were hungry, so we found some theoretically-edible food at the cafe. (I had a machine-made theoretically-coffee beverage whose primary redeeming characteristics were that it was warm and (a little too) sweet. Sipping cloyingly-sweet machine-made coffee in a dingy crowded tourist trap waiting interminably for Calvin to make his way through a bowl of macaroni and cheese the size of his head was not a highlight of the trip. I'm perfectly happy climbing mountains and not finding a cafe on the top, but if they're going to put a cafe on the top, I would really hope for better food. I'm not above hoping for Starbucks.)

Parking lot at the top of Pikes Peak
Parking lot at the top of Pikes Peak

With only a few minutes remaining in the forty-five minutes we were allocated on the summit, I walked around the parking lot that had replaced the summit in search of something that I could consider a high point, and contended myself with staring off at the rugged terrain to the north, lit intermittently by sunlight breaking through the clouds that had enveloped the mountain after we ascended. The juxtaposition between the parking lot crawling with tourists and the alpine scenery was jarring. I've been to crowded fourteener summits before, but none with a parking lot right on top. (Even Mount Evans' parking lot is a hundred meters from the proper summit.) But I couldn't in good conscience begrudge the tourists their chance to breathe the thin mountain air and enjoy the scenery; there are only two fourteeners in Colorado with roads leading to the top, leaving another 52 to the hikers and the climbers.

Looking north from Pikes Peak
Looking north from Pikes Peak

I returned to the train in time to return to civilization by way of Manitou Springs. The ride down was not accompanied by narration from the conductor/tour guide, leaving me alone with my thoughts as I contemplated the mountain, the switching scheme, the audacity of the engineers who built a cog railway to a 14,000-foot mountain, the merits of the (hypothetical) world's highest Starbucks, and my plans for the rest of the summer. I can confidently say the cog railway was an amusing way to spend a Sunday.

For more pictures from Pikes Peak, see Photos on 2014-08-03.
You always learn more from someone whom you disagree with.
- Dr. Shepherd, 23 August 1999