COLORADO SPRINGS –– When the Pikes Peak Cog Railway first closed in 2017, the people who manage it didn’t know quite where to go.
The system needed repairs no doubt, but how many and at what cost? As they compiled the final numbers it became clear–– it was best to start from scratch. So in the Spring, they ripped up the tracks that had been in place for over 120 years.
Ripping up the tracks was the easy part.
“You just rip it out of the ground, you don’t have to worry about putting it back or what it’s going to look like,” Assistant General Manager of the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway Ted Johnston said. “This rebuilding process, there’s going to be a learning curve.”
With the first rails being secured to the ground this week, Johnston estimates they’re now more than halfway done with the project.
They have cleared out the old rail, reconstructed the path to the top, now they’re laying down ballast (rocks at the base of the tracks), laying ties across it, and then fastening the rails to the ties. The last step is putting the chain-like cog track in the middle of the ties, the power that allows trains to climb grades as high as 25 percent in the ascent to the summit.
The warmer months means construction can move higher in elevation as well. Johnston said they planned not to do a lot of work towards the summit during the winter though, summer times brings its own flavor of weather challenges.
“We’re prone to afternoon thunderstorms,” Johnston added. “When you’re down in Manitou and Colorado Springs, you can kind of see them building on top of Pikes Peak. When you’re up here, they’re actually building right on top of you. It literally comes out of nowhere.”
The elevation that creates thunderstorms also creates fatigue. In talking with the project leaders for the Pikes Peak Summit House, Johnston learned they had employees take a physical to ensure they could handle the consistent exposure to the high alpine environment.
The work has proved fatal as well. In the summer of 2019, an employee working on the railway died while descending on a utility vehicle.
“We made changes right after that happened and those have been in effect since last summer. The biggest is the transportation of our crews on the mountain,” Johnston said.
Crews now travel in pick up trucks for any travel over a longer distance.
A team of just over a dozen from the contractor Stacy and Witbeck have their hammers, picks and front-end loaders to put the new rail in place. Over the last several weeks and months, they have been strategically placing piles of ties, rails, and other equipment on the path to the top.
The construction starts near the summit and then will descend around 8,000 feet to the depot at the Peak’s base in Manitou Springs. This way, crews don’t block themselves in, the equipment can be brought down easier, and it limits transportation over the freshly laid rails.
It’s an exciting moment for Johnston and the crew working on a staple to America’s mountain.
“This has only been done once and that was 126 years ago,” Johnston explained. “They used mules and pickaxes and now we’re up here doing it all again.” he said, “We have all this great equipment but at the end of the day, it’s still just the manpower of getting the track on the ground that we still rely on.”