Cog Railway meets its end?

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The death notice was brief and to the point.

“After 126 years of operation, The Pikes Peak Cog Railway has decided not to reopen this spring for the 2018 season, or for the forseeable [sic] future,” said the press release from The Broadmoor. “Over the past several months, the railroad has undergone a major evaluation and it has been determined that the infrastructure and equipment has run its course. The railroad is in the process of determining next steps and action plans for the future.”

Disbelieving cog devotees flooded social media. Was this some kind of fiendish plot from Phil Anschutz, the arch villain? Was The Broadmoor angling for a big chunk of the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax, or control of the Pikes Peak Summit House? Or was this indeed the end of the historic railroad, one that began as a risky entrepreneurial bet on the local visitor industry and has thrived for 126 years?

Forget the conspiracy theories. Imagine for a minute that you’re Anschutz or Broadmoor CEO Jack Damioli. You’re responsible for an ancient and much beloved visitor attraction that carries 300,000 passengers annually to the summit of Pikes Peak and back. How long has it been since the line to the summit was completely upgraded? How old are the rails and rack rails? What about the cars and the locomotives?

Most significantly, what’s the likelihood of a serious accident, one that could result in multiple fatalities?

In 126 years, there has never been a fatal accident. Yet if the age and condition of the cog’s infrastructure makes such an accident more likely, Damioli’s decision is absolutely correct.

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That doesn’t make it any less devastating. Like so many of us, I grew up with the cog. I don’t remember my first ride to the summit, and I haven’t ridden it for decades. I’m sorry that I didn’t see this coming in time to take a last ride.

So here’s the question: Will the cog rise from the dead?

That depends on the numbers. The railway charges passengers $40 per round trip, and might bring in about $10 million annually, including sales at the souvenir shop in the cog depot. Until the railway closed for maintenance last October, it had operated continuously without a winter break for 10 years. Those figures suggest that the line has been reasonably profitable, but deferred maintenance has taken its toll.

If the cost of rebuilding runs into the tens of millions, it might not be feasible. You have to know with some certainty how much to set aside for maintenance and equipment replacement and arrive at the bottom line. Absent a reasonable return on investment, you’ll put your money elsewhere.

And where will the money come from? Anschutz isn’t a sentimental railroad buff, ready to throw away a small fortune to keep a historic train going. His extraordinary career says that he’s canny, visionary and unafraid of risk. He’s been willing to make enormous bets on ventures that offer extraordinary returns — but otherwise, he’s pretty thrifty.

Does owning the cog add value to The Broadmoor? And if not, why spend the money to rebuild?

If the cog closes for good, Manitou Springs will lose about $500,000 in direct revenue and local businesses may suffer as fewer visitors pass through.

Could Manitou partner with Colorado Springs and take it off The Broadmoor’s hands? No way — that makes no sense for either municipality. Would The Broadmoor sell it as is, and let the new owners continue to operate it in its current dilapidated state? Probably not.

The cog brings great value to the regional visitor industry. It’s a signature attraction, one that’s uniquely ours. It has no competition and never will.

But unlike the Cave of the Winds or the Cliff Dwellings, the railway costs a lot of money to maintain and operate. Compared to those two cash cows, the cog is a money pit. Unhappily, we may find out that the money pit is so deep that even our amiable resident billionaire won’t fund it.

So what can we do? We need a risk-taking, out-of-the box-thinking, transportation-savvy entrepreneur to take it over.

I can see it now: Elon Musk to extend cog railway to Mars!