Railfans tend to choose teams. Much like sports fans, they have their favorites, for whatever reason, and they stick with them– rain or shine. If you think about it, it’s a funny phenomenon (unless you happen to be an employee of your favorite railroad) because in the main the railfan is rooting for a company. Actually, that’s true of pro sports as well… These companies have their own goals and their own reasons for existing, and they live or die on the vagarities of economics as well as the wants and needs of their owners and management. Yet railfans get into online brawls (and sports fans get into literal brawls) over the relative merits of their favorite enterprises. Partisanship, nostalgia, and resentments run deep, and it’s an odd thing to watch. There’s a reason that “fan” is part of both “railfan” and “sports fan”. Fanatics.
I am a confessed Rio Grande partisan; I admit it. Always have been. I can explain why, if someone asks. I loved that railroad, and felt profound (if irrational) heartbreak as it slowly disappeared into first the Southern Pacific and finally into the Union Pacific. I even wrote a pretty successful book about it. By any objective measurement my partisanship seems a little “off”, and over the years I’ve tried to rebalance my life so that it doesn’t dominate me. Ultimately, it’s a hobby, right? But it’s that damnable nostalgic hook that is so hard to extract. So let’s look at that for a moment in this context.
Rio Grande, right? Well, let’s turn the leaves of the histories to the section on the D&RGW’s receivership under Judge Wilson McCarthy. He and Henry Swan were appointed by the court to take the reigns in 1935 with the purpose of making the railroad self-sustaining and ultimately profitable. Over the next dozen years of receivership and the following decade as president, the Judge did just that. How? Unrelenting realism and pragmatism. While fending off the creditors with one hand, he dragged the tottering system into the modern age with the other. He was forward, not backward, looking; innovative; fiscally responsible; frugal; unsentimental. Just look at what he did to the narrow gauge parts of the system. Initially investing capital in the 3-foot lines, he ruthlessly pulled the plug when it turned out they were no longer financially viable. First, trains were cancelled or replaced with buses, then lines were abandoned, until by 1968 the only part left was the tourist line to Silverton. The final nails were driven in by his successors, trained in his image. Sentimental? Show me a standard-gauge steam locomotive that he preserved. Not so– they were worth to him precisely as much as their value in scrap metal. Why? Because they were expensive. Diesels were cheaper to operate, and that was the bottom line.
I’ve heard and read a lot of railfan anger and resentment against Philip Anschutz, latter-day owner of the D&RGW, because of his mergers with the SP and ultimately the UP. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say this, but the narrow-gauge fans should similarly hate the Judge for what he did to their beloved, historic, romantic network of slim gauge lines. Fortunately for them (and me), fragments were preserved and still operate today, but only because tourists are willing to fund the operations with their dollars. They don’t exist to haul freight or ore, which is why they were built. In other words, had they not adapted to the changing economics of the times, the D&SNG and the C&T would also be scrap. McCarthy pruned the dead wood so that the company could remain viable, and in doing so the Rio Grande became a solid performer– fiscally as well as operationally. Right up until the time when it no longer could do so independently.
So, the Judge gets the credit for saving the D&RGW (despite destroying its arguably most romantic segments), whereas Uncle Phil gets the blame for “destroying” it. I’ve even seen people online state that Anschutz hated the D&RGW, despite the fact that everything he did in the early years shows the opposite. No, in reality he tried to save it by marrying it to a larger transcontinental system. The problem was, the plan just didn’t work out.
The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, as an independent company and operation, was ultimately undone by the Staggers Act that deregulated railroad haulage rates. It undid many of the protections for smaller systems or those with high operating ratios, and simplified mergers between systems. Union Pacific immediately snapped up the Western and Missouri Pacifics, the D&RGW’s historical partners on each end of its system; even before Anschutz purchased the line it had been driven into the arms of the SP. By this time, SP was institutionally wobbly, only recovering strength by the mid-1990s. When UP merged with SP, at least partially to defend against the BNSF merger, that was that for the Grande’s identity. Like a single drop of orange paint, mixed into a can of yellow. Gone.
It reminds me of the song, “Video Killed the Radio Star”. The Staggers Act saved the railroad industry, but most railroads in the nation only survived by merger with other, bigger systems. Now you can count the remaining Class I systems on seven fingers, including the Canadians.
So, now what for the vast majority of railfans? Maybe we love trains, generically, and everything is fine. Just go out and photograph another UP or BNSF train. Or else, we choose a team from the past– a team that doesn’t exist anymore– and put on our fan jersey and wave our fan pennant and jeer the opposition. Or we mock those who aren’t as knowledgeable as ourselves. Argue about the minutae. Count rivets. Snark at small mistakes. Pontificate. Or, we can take a positive approach and join together with like-minded teammates, learn from each other, support and enable each other, and enjoy what is ultimately just another hobby. I know people who take both approaches, and the ones in the latter group are what encourage me to keep me going.
Much like cheering for sports teams that we don’t play on, have no personal involvement in, and (in the case of pro teams) don’t even own any stock in, it’s a little crazy to get too passionate about fandom. For instance, why someone born and living in New Mexico would pledge allegiance to the Raiders is a complete mystery to me. Fandom is something to enjoy, but not something to get into a fight over. Let’s be grownups.
This post started out as a look at the Fading o’ the Grande. I guess I’ll get to that next time!