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Sandia 'Working on the railroad'

Sandia ‘Working on the railroad’

Sandia has been working on the railroad — on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. That’s the one that chuffs and puffs its way across the mountains along the New Mexico-Colorado state line with loads of tourists aboard.

In response to a request from Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, Ted Borek (1822) and Don Susan (1861) traveled to Chama to help with an important project this spring. "We got a call from our small business group and they said the railroad needs some help," says Ted. "We said ‘sure.'"

"The railroad isn’t permitted to weld on trains unless they know the composition of the metals," explains Ted. With a train yard of 10 steam locomotives and only two running, railroad officials needed to move forward with repair and maintenance schedules. Lacking a way to determine the composition of several key locomotive components, they asked New Mexico for help.

Lt. Gov. Denish’s office passed the request to Sandia. "I love doing these small business projects," says Ted, who has been involved in several others.

Ted traveled to Chama in late March and returned with drill borings from several key parts and slivers of metal removed from a massive locomotive driving rod with a cold chisel. "This was a routine analysis for us, but they were thrilled we could help them out and provide a quick turnaround."

"The metallurgy was required to determine a safe and suitable welding procedure for the main driving rod on the locomotive," explains Kim Smith Flowers, long-time Chama resident and general manager of the Rio Grande Railway Preservation Corp., which operates the narrow gauge. "We had to make that determination before we could approach repairing the rod in a way that would be acceptable to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Ted’s team — Jeanne Barrera, Jeff Reich, Christine White, Polly Wilks, and Steve Meserole (all 1822) — performed the analysis. They dissolved the metals in acid and ran them through instruments to determine iron, chromium, and nickel content. "It was routine carbon-steel, probably considered state of the art in 1925," says Ted. Don Susan returned to Chama with Ted a week after the samples were collected to test the materials for hardness.

Information on the metals was submitted as a part of a package to the railroad administration, to get needed welding permits and keep the repairs on schedule.

"We are always looking for principal investigators to work on projects like these," says Mariann Johnston (13021) of the Labs’ Small Business Assistance program. "It’s an opportunity for technical staff to work with small businesses outside the normal everyday projects they do and make a difference for New Mexico. In some cases, it can be technically challenging."

Funded by a special state tax credit, amounting to $1.8 million annually, Sandia helps about 300 businesses each year with a variety of problems. Any New Mexico for- profit business can apply for help not otherwise available at a reasonable cost through private industry through the program. Sandia researchers have found themselves investigating other issues such as plastic irrigation ditch liners, applying new technologies for bar scanning cattle, automating chile harvesting/cleaning, and a wide variety of consulting and testing for small businesses "We earn a tax credit to cover the costs of labor hours the principal investigator puts toward the problem. Currently, we are fully allocated for calendar year 2004 and have other businesses on a waiting list," Mariann says. (Sandia hopes to increase the $1.8 million limit with the state in the future.)

"This is another example of how we can give back to the state we live in," says Sandia’s Jerry Hanks (12100), who works on special assignment as a scientific advisor in the Lt. Governor’s office. "This is the tip of the iceberg, really." Jerry sees many possibilities for Sandia involvement in the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, specifically, and for New Mexico small business in general.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is also helping the railroad operation by donating some equipment it no longer needs to the railroad’s machine shop, he notes.

A related project under consideration would create a historic railroad Center of Excellence in northern New Mexico, with an annex in Chama, Jerry says. Such a center would rebuild steam engines and machine parts, providing expertise transferable to other historic railways around the country.

"You can’t buy parts off the shelf for a 125-year-old railroad," says Jerry. "The train needs high-tech solutions and right now the machine shop is 1950s at best."

Such a center would teach technical skills to young people and help them find employment in the area. "We envision this to expand beyond machine shop skills to drafting, welding, and perhaps into other related industries that the hospitality and tourism industry might benefit from," Flowers says.

Some observers believe such a center could provide a significant economic impact to the Chama area, turning the railroad into a year-round operation instead of the seasonal attraction it is now. (A steam engine overhaul costs roughly $1 million.)

A first step toward this vision involves a new welding and metallurgy certification program and training center at the railroad’s machine shop. This would be done in collaboration with the railroad, Northern New Mexico Community College, the two New Mexico national labs, and the Regional Development Corporation.

In all $31 million is needed for the five-year plan to bring the Cumbres & Toltec to year-round operation with modern communications, a 21st century repair shop, and other needed upgrades, rail officials estimate.

"The goal is to make the railroad self-sustaining," says Jerry. Currently, the states of New Mexico and Colorado contribute most of the narrow gauge’s capital improvement and operating income.