Great Hospitality versus Mountain Train Fire

I  haven’t posted for awhile because not a lot exciting happens in the life of a writer in the throws of completing her next novel.  Piles of adventure happen in my head but that is just fodder for the current or future books I am working on.  But now, on vacation, I have a three real life adventures to report – two amazingly positive and the third… well it was definitely an adventure.

The Hotel Santa Fe

The Hotel Santa Fe

The first two are hotels I highly recommend to anyone traveling to Santa Fe, NM or Manitou Springs, Co. I have stayed at a lot of high end hotels during my former career as a nationally-known health care lawyer, but none of them compare to the Hotel Santa Fe, whose  beautiful, well thought-out suite was exceeded by the outgoing staff who made my husband and I truly feel welcome and at home. Our biggest surprise was the outstanding and reasonably priced food at the hotel restaurant. Reasonable priced hotel food that’s good?  Unheard of!

The Cliff House

The Cliff House

The second hotel is the Cliff House in Manitou Springs. I tend to steer away from hotels in historic buildings because experience had told me they tend to be stuffy and cramped. Not so at the Cliff House. Our room is huge, nearly dwarfing the king-sized bed. The views are spectacular (although it might be hard to have any other kind of view in the Rocky Mountains), and the restaurant one of the best we have been to.  Even though I don’t usually blog recommendations of commercial ventures, these two places so highly exceeded my expectations that I wanted to pass it along to you.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

And then there was the trip to Pikes Peak on the Cog Railway. Or perhaps I should say the attempt to reach Pike’s Peak – we only made it half way up. The Railway wanted to take us up the rest of the way but we, and 8 others, refused to reboard the train.  Why?  Two seats in front of me, smoke was pouring from the side vent of the train and in the windows to where we were seated. There were a couple big puffs when the train started up the steep slope to Pikes Peak, but the staff either didn’t notice or thought nothing of it, so we assumed it was a normal part of the diesel engine getting going.  About 1/3 of the way up, the smoke increased until is was billowing into the train, nonstop. Dense, smelly smoke – the kind that comes from insulation or oil burning.  When the car we were in filled with smoke, the engineer stopped the train at the half way point and they evacuated the train… s-l-o-w-l-y.  We were seated two seats behind where the fire was and after 10-12 minutes, we were finally off the train.  All the passengers were off the train after about 20 minutes. So there we were – several hundred people at a small siding miles from anywhere while smoke continued to billow out of the side of the train. After around 40 minutes, we were told they would proceed up to Pikes Peak by simply not running that engine. Fine, except there was still smoke steadily coming from the side of the train.


While there’s little risk of an explosion from a diesel engine (meaning that if this were fiction, I would have used something else), it was going to be hard enough to deal with the lack of oxygen when we reached 14,000 feet without having our lungs filled with oily smoke. But people, like sheep, were piling back onto the train as they’d been told. What choice did we have?

As the train loaded, some of us hung back – 10 of us to be precise. One of us was a fire fighter who said there was no way he was getting back on that train. That steeled the resolve of the rest of us. Another had biology training, stating how the carbon monoxide from the smoke bonds with our red blood cells rendering them unable to take on oxygen – something that would be an increasing problem as we increased altitude. There is safety in numbers – what would they do, strand ten people on the side of a mountain? And so, we took a stand and refused to get on.  They allowed us to board the next train headed down, and we were safely returned to the base of the mountain.

In fairness to the Cog Railway, all of their staff was courteous and they returned our money once we requested it (they did not offer a refund).  We had a grand adventure, a story to tell, and got to know some interesting people. Hopefully, the people aboard the smoking train made it to the top and back without any ill health effects.  Nevertheless, this adventure leaves me with concerns for future passengers on the Cog Railway up Pikes Peak. Aside from the snails pace of the evacuation and the apparent lack of concern for the effect of the on-going smoke on the passengers, each employee we interacted with pleasantly informed us they “it wasn’t their call,” saying the decision to put passengers back onto a car that was still billowing smoke after an hour was someone else’s decision. The conductor said it was the decision of the station. The manager down at the station said it was the decision of the engineer and conductor on the train. This company that holds the lives of thousands of passengers in their hands needs to overhaul its culture from “not my fault” to “passenger safety first.”

So, while the Cog Railway has an excellent records of their trains not breaking down, the experience leaves me with reservations for the passengers should something serious occur. It was an adventure almost like something from fiction – except then there would have been explosions.

Tomorrow, we will drive up Pikes Peak to enjoy the view. This morning, we’d thought the train would be safer. Perhaps we were wrong.

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