The Tall Timber Electric Fleet – Soaring’s Railroad Vehicles
In Durango, CO, a small mountain town known for preserving the past with its historic steam train, Soaring Treetop Adventures is looking toward the future with the Tall Timber Electric Fleet, a group of electric railcars that can transport people and supplies — as well as professional firefighting equipment and personnel — along this scenic right-of-way.
Soaring (which is the largest zipline course in the world) is located in a remote area in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, accessible only via the historic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway (DSNGR) — there literally are no roads to the property. But in addition to the mighty steam and diesel locomotives with their long strings of train cars, plenty of smaller vehicles ride these rails as well, including the electric railcars of the Tall Timber Electric Fleet.
Commissioned by Johnroy and Denny Beggrow, owners respectively of Soaring and the property upon which it is located, Tall Timber, these battery-powered vehicles grip the railroad tracks with rubber tires and stay on those tracks using polyurethane guide wheels. Not only does this system make for a smooth ride, it eliminates the possibility of sparks from steel-on-steel contact of train wheels and rails — an important consideration in times of high fire risk to the surrounding National Forests.
“We were using Ingersoll Rand ‘Carryall’ work utility vehicles on our property at Soaring. We noticed that the wheelbase of these vehicles was exactly the same as the narrow-gauge tracks that pass through our property,” says Johnroy Beggrow. “We asked our friend Patrick ‘Smitty’ Smith, who builds custom railcars and equipment for railroads across the country, if he could find a way of attaching railway guide wheels to these cars.”
Not only did Smitty find a way to do just that, he did it using an unusual resource: roller coaster wheels.
In 2007 the resulting prototype electric railcar was tested at mile marker 475 of the DSNGR tracks, the scenic valley in which Soaring is located. The test was a resounding success. After a few minor modifications, the Beggrows ordered five more of the custom vehicles over the coming years and soon, electric railcars were traversing tracks that have hosted steam trains since the 1880s.
While four of the electric railcars are generally used to transport staff and to haul supplies, two of the cars have been further customized for use in helping to prevent and to fight wildfires.
These miniature “fire trucks” are equipped with what firefighting professionals call “slide-in units” — firefighting gear packed into a pre-made frame designed to be easily attached to specific types of vehicles. In the case of the Tall Timber Electric Fleet, these two railcars are fitted with Firelite Deluxe Skid Units manufactured by the Kimtek Corporation of Vermont.
Each “fire truck” features an 80 gallon water tank and a 10 gallon foam tank, which, when combined, create an impressive 360 gallons of Class “A” firefighting foam. Each unit also carries 400 feet of standard fire hose as well as 100 feet of booster hose. In addition, they are equipped with powerful water pumps that can draft water directly from the Animas River, providing a continuous water supply to battle fires without the worry of water tanks running dry.
“Soaring’s location is approximately halfway between Durango and Silverton by rail,” says Denny Beggrow, whose family has lived in and operated business in this valley since the 1940s, “Which means that we can get our firefighting equipment to many remote sections of the track fairly quickly.” In fact, these electric railcars have seen action assisting with firefighting efforts in Cascade Canyon and Needleton.
Also of note, the innovative “hyrailer”-type design of these electric railcars allows for the lightweight polyurethane guide wheels to be easily pivoted upward, meaning that unlike most vehicles that ride the rails, the electric railcars of the Tall Timber Electric Fleet are able to leave the railroad tracks and drive anywhere that the original “Carryall” vehicles can traverse.
With one eye toward preserving the past and one eye toward the future, the eco-friendly battery-powered vehicles of the Tall Timber Electric Fleet make their way along this historic and beautiful section of tracks, just as folks have done for 140 years … but with a futuristic twist.