A railroad that refuse to die.

By Kit Miniclier.
Denver Post Staff Writer

The San Luis Central Railroad Co. Is a survivor. By 1880s, the steel rails of nearly 100 railroads knit this sprawling state together. Only about 10 still exist. One of them is the 86-year-old San Luis Central, witch has never had more than 13 miles of mainline track and began with a borrowed steam engine and borrowed freight cars in 1913.

It was built to serve a sugar-beet plant, but that plant closed six months after the railroad began service. The line initially served both freight customers and passengers, eventually acquiring a combination passenger car, baggage car and caboose for the run from Monte Vista to Center. It got out of the passenger business 12 years later.

Today the railroad has 10 full-time employees and two middle-aged diesel locomotives. It also owns about 800 freight cars and provides a vital link between many of the valley’s producers and their markets in Houston, Texas, and across the sea. In addition to other freight, it ships about 1200 carloads, or 78000 tons of potatoes to Houston annually.

However, veteran engineer Danny Naranjo says he still stops his trains for ducks, cattle or deer on the tracks, and enjoys watching sandhill cranes, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and other animals along the banks of Rio Grande.

The Railroad, whose customers own huge grain elevators and sprawling potato warehouses, hauls its freight to a siding in Monte Vista (Sugar Junction), where the cars are picked up by Union Pacific Railroad and hauled to Pueblo. From Pueblo, the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad hauls the same cars to the port of Houston.

Behind railroad superintendent J D Gray’s desk is a 1942 calendar from the Morris Feed Yards, Livestock Exchange Building, Kansas City, Mo. An electric typewriter is in a side table. No computers are insight. Framed certificates behind him include one for completing a "Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking and Human Relations" and another from the Association of American Railroads, for a course on " Railroad Emergency Operations." In the event of a hazardous-materials accident. Fertilizer can become a hazardous material, and the line hauls thousands of tons of it, Gray said.

When Gray took over as superintendent in 1983, the line shipped about 500 carloads a year. Since then the average annual haul ranges from 3300 to 3500 carloads. But Gray, 57, is quick to share any credit with new customers and devoted crew. Gray, who speaks with an Oklahoma drawl, used to wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat but now prefers more comfortable sneakers and a baseball cap. Although the Federal Railroad Administration says his trains may run at up to 20 mph, he’s imposed a 10-mph limit.

In the early days, before mechanical refrigerated cars, the line picked up lettuce for shipment to Chicago in freight cars equipped with blocks of ice and electric fans. The peak shipping period in recent times was September through February. However, the valley floor now has dozens of metal, climate-controlled potato warehouses, permitting the line to ship year-round.

"We have a big little railroad here," Gray said.