THOMPSON AND MESERVE'S PURCHASE - Coming off two consecutive record-breaking seasons, the Mount Washington Cog Railway this month is poised to begin seeking a third milestone, with its owners hoping to attract 90,000 passengers in 2014 while also basking in the prospect - for the first time in the line's history - of building locomotives for anyone but itself.
Opening in 1869, the Cog Railway is the first mountain-climbing railroad in the world and the only one in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1891, however, the Manitou & Pike's Peak Railway in Colorado became the second cog railway on the continent. Its principles have reached out to Wayne Presby and Joel Bedor, who have owned the Cog Railway for 31 years, about the possibility of buying locomotives from them, a development that Presby, during a recent telephone interview, said is very positive.
"That's a major homerun for us," Presby said. "They haven't made a firm commitment to us, but we've been talking to them for the past year or two, and they're looking to replace some locomotives from the 1960s.
"We haven't come up with a figure for them, but I can tell you that similar locomotives built by European manufacturers would sell for between $2 million and $3 million," said Presby, who conceded that it was "pretty heady stuff" for the Cog to make its locomotives - and more recently, also its track switches - in-house.
The Cog is looking to install a new switch toward the top of its 3.25-mile-long line at the summit of the northeast's highest mountain and will seek formal permission to do so - as well as to make other maintenance upgrades - from the Coos County Planning Commission on Tuesday.
Presby, who previously owned and operated the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort in Bretton Woods, which is about six miles south of the Cog Railway, said when he and Bedor took over the railway in 1983, the most riders it had up to that point was 46,000 people.
"And since we've owned it," Presby said, "we broke 60,000, 70,000 and 80,000, and we're hoping to break the 90,000-person milestone this summer, which would be the culmination of 31 years of ownership and continued improvement."
In terms of improvements, one need not look further than the Cog's five biodiesel locomotives, which consume fuel made by White Mountain Biodiesel *(WMB), a company in North Haverhill of which Presby is a managing member.
Since WMB opened, in 2008, its growth rate has been in the triple digits annually, Presby said, something of which he is as proud of as the locomotives that use the fuel made by the company. In 2013, Maryland Public Television, as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's "Clean Cities Coalition" effort, did a story about the Cog's locomotives that was broadcast March 15 on some of its affiliates, including the Discovery Channel.
In using biodiesel in its locomotives, the Cog is "doing our part to help the environment and to combat global warming and basically just to run a cleaner operation than when we were using coal," said Presby.
The Cog put its first biodiesel locomotive into service in 2008; two more were added in 2009; one in 2010; and the fifth, last August.
Jack Watkins and Rob Maclay, who are the Cog's foreman and car-shop foreman, respectively, said the fifth locomotive was "pressed into service" and operated the remainder of the season, even though its engine compartment was missing external panels.
Maclay was designing, fabricating and installing the panels onto the frame last Thursday, saying the locomotive was already functional, but soon it would be esthetically pleasing, too.
Echoing their boss, Watkins and Maclay said because the Cog is a unique enterprise, it often has to do its own engineering and manufacturing. Whereas the heart of the biodiesel locomotives is an off-the-shelf John Deere engine, other components are made - like the engine panels and the switch that will soon be installed at the top of the line - by hand, said Watkins.
To get an excavator to the summit to install the switch, the Cog crew also had to make a special wood carriage to transport it, all of which, Watkins and Maclay said, is par for the course.
Presby said the value of the new switch is significant.
"We've had three of these new switches in operation for the last 10 years. One is at the base, there are two up in the middle of the line with a passing loop between them, and this will be a fourth one that we will place close to the summit and that will allow us to have two lines where the existing line ends so that trains can pass one another right at the top."
The new switch, said Presby, could result in a 30 percent increase in the overall number of trains the Cog runs per season while also making the trip up and back - which last about 37 minutes one way - easier and more convenient for passengers.
"Basically, what we do now is take people to the top and we wait as we unload and load people, and then that train immediately departs the summit. But in the future, we'll go to the summit, and ideally there'll already be a train that is loaded that went up there the previous hour. And those trains will be sitting at the switch, and as soon as the new trains arrive, these trains will be ready to depart."
The first Cog Railway train will depart Marshfield Station on April 26, Presby said, with a limited schedule that ramps up to daily, on-the-hour trips by late June.