Volunteering on a Grande Scale

The Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec work sessions

By Aaron Isaacs

Reprinted, with permission, from the Spring 1999 issue of Railway Museum Quarterly, the journal of the Association of Railway Museums, Aaron Isaacs, Editor.

Regular RMQ readers are probably aware that something different is happening on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, something unprecedented in the railway museum movement. Volunteers are being recruited and deployed on a scale never before seen. So great are their numbers that they are accomplishing in days what many would expect to take months or even years. It feels like a new model for running a restoration program, something the entire industry should take note of. So when Friends of the C&TS Terri Shaw gave a seminar on it at the 1998 ARM Convention, I was determined to feature a summary in RMQ.

Necessity was certainly the mother of invention in this case. The C&TS truly is in the middle of nowhere. The endpoints, Chama and Antonito, have a combined population of only a couple thousand. Other than Albuquerque, NM, the nearest really large metro area is Denver, over 300 miles away. With no nearby population base, there is simply no way that the traditional rail museum volunteer model could work here. Not only is it doubtful that the nearby population could produce a dozen or so "regulars," but that wouldn’t begin to make a dent in the backlog of work. That’s because the C&TS is a big property. It encompasses 64 miles of mountain railroad. There are 11 locomotives [one is a diesel and not historic to the property] and 178 other pieces of rolling stock, plus numerous buildings. There was no choice. Something different had to be done.

A word first about how the C&TS is organized. The railroad is jointly owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico and administered by a bi-state commission. The commission contracts with a private operator to run the trains and maintain and repair the revenue equipment, track and structures. The non-profit Friends is responsible for maintaining the large number of non-revenue cars and buildings. Although it raises most of the needed funds on its own, the Friends receive some funding for materials and supplies from the commission and the operator. New this year is a per-car payment whenever the non-revenue equipment is used for a special charter.

It should be noted that business is good. 1998 ridership was 70,666, a 15.6% increase over 1997.

The birth and growth of the work sessions

When the states bought the line from the D&RGW in 1970, a volunteer group was instrumental in rehabilitating the track so that equipment could be delivered from Alamosa to Chama. They were also responsible for converting box cars to coaches and operating the first tourist trains that year. This group continued to be involved with rehabilitation and some aspects of operations in the early years with the first designated operator, Scenic Railways. As time went on, however, there came to be conflicts which led to the volunteer group being disbanded.

By 1980 when Spencer Wilson and Vernon Glover’s book, "The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: The Historic Preservation Study" was published, the historic fabric of the property was deteriorating because of neglect. One of the authors’ hopes was to inspire the return of a volunteer involvement. Friends’ founder Bill Lock bought the book and read it in one sitting. It was his call to arms. He felt he had to do something to stop the progress of the decay. He approached Scenic immediately but it was not until the following spring that he got consent to work on a car body used for storage. The first "work session" was in June 1981 and the workers were Bill and his neighbor, Glenden Casteel. The following year he and Glenden and a few others returned to renovate a historic caboose. Then the numbers started to grow, from six to a dozen, then into the twenties, then almost fifty. Bill ran the work sessions under the auspices of the Railroad Club of New Mexico, a subgroup of the New Mexico Historical Society. The first volunteers were those who heard about it through the Railroad Club and it grew as they told others.

By about 1987 the numbers coming were large enough that a separate organization was needed. Scenic had been replaced by Kyle Railways. Kyle’s general manager, Dan Ranger, and commission secretary Leo Schmitz worked with Lock and Wilson to develop a formal volunteer arrangement. They had come to have a level of confidence that this group could function without the conflicts that damaged the earlier group, and that they could successfully complete the projects they undertook. In early 1988 the Friends was officially incorporated.

Through 1989, there was a single annual two day session held on a Friday and Saturday. These produced 150 person days of work by 75 volunteers. Impressive, but it seemed that folks were just getting started when it was time to stop. In 1990 a second session was added in a different month, and both were expanded to three days, Wednesday-Friday. The payoff was immediate. Person days of work jumped the first year to 420, then increased steadily to 636 in 1995. The number of volunteers in attendance rose from 75 in 1989 to 135 in 1995.

Despite the dramatic runup in volunteer days, the feedback was still "Why are the sessions so short?" Most people were traveling a considerable distance and taking vacation. Once there, they wanted to make a full week of it. This led to the first 4.5 day session in 1996, sandwiched in between the regular pair of three day sessions. Itís actually a 4 day session with an optional half day if needed. To everyoneís surprise, it was by far the most popular, drawing just under 130 people. The three day sessions drew much less, about 85 and 40 people respectively. The net result was a 45 percent jump in person days to 920.

Convinced now that 4.5 days was the new norm, the Friends expanded all the 1997 sessions to that length. Once again, the results were dramatic. Person days rose 33 percent to 1224, although the maximum number of attendees per session dropped from 130 to 115.

The pattern established in 1997 is sessions in three successive weeks in June and July. For 1998 a fourth 4.5 day mini-session of limited scope was added in August. It was attended by about 15 people, while the largest session rebounded to 135. Person days still rose by 9 percent to 1337 work days. Consider what 1998ís total meant. 1337 person days equates to 10,696 hours or five person years. All of it is maintenance and restoration work, probably a national high. Other museums have more total volunteer hours, but most are typically in operations and administration.

Because the sessions have become a vacation destination for many volunteers, they have attracted more than the usual sorts of hard core mechanical and restoration types. For starters, only 45 percent of the volunteers live in Colorado or New Mexico. The rest come from 31 other states plus England and Australia. Although the large majority of the volunteers are still male, about 20 percent are women, primarily spouses or relatives. This is a significantly higher female involvement than most railway museums achieve, yet another benefit of the large work session. About half the women helped with food service, while the rest worked in every other area including restoration. To a much lesser extent families are involved. Although no one under 14 is allowed to work, about 3-4 children age 14-17 volunteer per session.

Over the years there has been experimentation with the session scheduling. The changes have been a by-product of wanting to make the work more effective. The first change in the scheme was to schedule two three-day sessions together, running Wednesday-Friday and Monday-Wednesday, to save set-up and tear-down time. The second change, in 1996, was because work had begun on a section house roof and the crew leader wanted ten working days in a row. So a full week was added between the usual Wednesday-Friday and Monday-Wednesday pattern, starting only the projects needing more time in the first session. It was then discovered that starting on Monday gives the breathing room to get a project done with a bit less haste and lets people, most of whom do not regularly work at high altitudes (8,000-10,000 ft.) pace themselves. The next year (1997) the sessions were kept contiguous and both of them started on Monday.

People seemed to like the scheduling but Shaw wanted more tangible feedback, so a questionnaire was distributed to the volunteers asking about the length of the sessions. Almost universally people said if they were going to come all that way, they wanted to make the most of it. They concluded that two weeks in a row was a better arrangement and have scheduled two sessions in June and two in August for 1999. Volunteers come with such enthusiasm and energy that they often finish projects quicker than expected. The time between the sessions will be used to assess what further materials need to be ordered for the next sessions and to add projects to fully use the volunteers registering for the later sessions.

Train Camp

When this level of manpower is focused correctly, the pace of work accelerates dramatically. Unlike most rail museum projects, which take months and frequently years, the Friends are completing projects in a single week, or often over a single summer. Donít misunderstand, there are still multi-year projects on the C&TS. But consider how gratifying that is for the volunteers. It dramatically reduces the "drudgery factor." We all know what it’s like, especially in the early days of a project. All the work is hard, dirty and progress seems slow--cleaning off years of stubborn grime, scraping paint and corrosion, disassembling equipment only to discover worse deterioration. The people who can stick it out through this phase are few and probably sainthood material.

The Friends projects overcome this demoralizing period in two ways. First, they unleash an army of willing hands, so the drudgery is quickly conquered. Second, they make it a special event, and therein lies much of the secret. In fact, the sessions always end with some combination of a big dinner or barbecue and a train ride.

Think of it as akin to baseball fantasy camp. All you have to do is show up and work hard. Someone else has laid out the project and has scheduled you into it. The tools and materials are all there. Knowledgeable supervisors are in place. Even your meals are brought to you. This was another instance of necessity - in Chama there aren’t that many places to eat and Bill discovered it took a couple of hours out of the middle of the day if he let everyone go off in search of their own lunch. In a two day session it meant a lot to keep people close to the job. There are no distractions [if you don’t count the train]. If this is a repeat visit, you’ll probably see friends from last time. Since it’s a one-time thing and not every Saturday, your family may be joining you. You may move up and become one of the Team Leaders. After a week, you will either have a completed project or something close to it. What could be better than this?

The Org Chart

Reporting to the Friends Board of Directors are two organizational hierarchies--the Project Planning Committee and Administration & Support. Project Planning includes the four Task Group Leaders, the site Project Managers and selected others. Under it are four Task Groups. Their responsibilities are:

1. Contact with Team Leaders to define projects, tools, materials and manpower needs.
2. Plan and supervise mechanical projects; liaison with Railroadís Chief Mechanical Officer.
3. Order tools and materials; oversee delivery to work sites.
4. Preparation of State Historic Preservation Office submittals.

Under Administration & Support are:

1. Registration Committee
2. Meals Committee
3. Chroniclers, who record the work done on each project.
4. Database management.

The Team Leaders

The Team Leaders are the sergeants of the sessions, providing the hands-on supervision at the work site. Their work starts early in the process. They help pick the projects and develop a detailed Work Plan for each one. It lists the tools and materials needed, the estimated cost, and the manpower requirements. The draft work plan must be completed at least three months before the session [though some projects require continued planning from February though May].

The Team Leader has to explain the job to the team, adjusting assignments as necessary and otherwise responding to unforeseen problems. The Team Leader is responsible to the Site Leader for overall coordination. At the end of each day, the Team Leader oversees the job site cleanup and proper storage of tools and materials. Finally, an after action report must be written. These are scrutinized by the Planning Committee at the September meeting. Also, copies are collected into a binder and provided to the Commission and the operator as well as being lodged in the Friends’ library.


Let’s take the planning for the 1998 June sessions. Most of it started in September 1997, although in actuality, planning for the next season starts at the present work session. There’s no better time than when people are together at the site to discuss, walk over and look at it, talk to the operating personnel, etc. Here’s the calendar that was used for the 1998 sessions.


  • Send thank you letters to all work session participants (serves to support tax deductibility of travel, food and lodging expenses).
  • Project Planning Committee meets to review team leadersí reports and discuss tentative projects for next year.
  • Friends representative meets with C&TS Commission Secretary and Railroad Operator to review work session just completed and discuss ideas for next work session.


  • Planning Committee reports to Board of Directors for feedback and adoption of tentative project list.
  • Minutes of committee meeting sent to Team Leaders.


  • Recruit Team Leaders for new projects.
  • Form to reserve registration packet sent to all members.


  • Establish final list of projects and Team Leaders.
  • Planning Committee receives reports and photo sets from project chroniclers.


  • Team Leaders are sent job descriptions, forms for describing their work plan and forms for requesting tools and materials.
  • Committee Co-chair begins draft of State Historical Preservation Offices (SHPO) submittal (there is one for each state).


  • Committee co-chairs review work plans from Team Leaders and relay information to Tools & Materials sub-committee.
  • Co-chairs communicate with Team Leaders for further details required for ordering or for the SHPO draft.
  • Planning Committee meets to review draft SHPO submittal, discuss project planning progress and define tasks to accomplish by May.
  • Registrar drafts forms, etc. for registration packet.


  • Registration packets are mailed to all applicants.
  • Planning Committee submits its Report on Proposed Projects to Commission Secretary for review and discussion. Commission submits to both state SHPO’s.


  • Sub-committee begins placing orders, making purchases of tools and materials and arranging for delivery to work sites.
  • Deadline for work session applications (end of month).


  • Committee makes crew assignments; Registrar prepares rosters; assignment rosters are mailed to work session registrants.
  • Planning Committee meets to discuss final preparations and make any adjustments to project plans per comments from SHPOís.
  • Food Prep committee begins purchasing for June session.
  • Office staff prepares summaries of payments received, orders T-shirts, prepares packets for volunteers to pick up at on-site registration.

June (and now, August also)

  • Pre-session crew prepares shipments of tools and materials to remote sites.
  • Site and Team Leaders meet in Chama to review safety rules and other principles of work session conduct.
  • Docent and chronicling teams meet for training day before work sessions begin.
  • Conduct work sessions. During work sessions evaluate progress of on-going projects, discuss ideas for next projects, assess materials requirements for next year’s projects.
  • Annual meeting features reports by Team Leaders and awarding of pins for years of volunteer service.


In March the volunteers are mailed a packet containing:

  • A guide to the registration process.
  • Registration form, which includes health insurance info.
  • Project description memo.
  • Project selection form, where volunteers list several choices in priority.
  • Work skills checklist, which includes listing of work restrictions or disabilities.
  • Release, waiver and certificate of compliance, which must be signed.
  • Work session calendar.
  • Rules and regulations for volunteers.
  • Historic preservation guidelines.
  • Lodging and restaurant info.
  • Discount tickets for train rides.
  • Order form for T-shirts and name badges.

How much preparation is it?

The ARM seminar attendees were rather overwhelmed by the logistics of such an undertaking. Keep in mind that this is the product of seventeen years of development. It started with two people who basically shouldered the entire load through 1994, when one of them burned out. Since then the work has been spread over a much larger number of people, but the amount of work has also grown substantially.

No one has ever kept a log of the hours, but here’s an estimate. The Friends’ president, who acts as the overall coordinator for the sessions, works on matters relating to projects and the sessions throughout the year, at least 250 hours. The Planning Committee of about eight people meets four times a year for a full day, about 250 hours. One of the committee co-leaders does the SHPO paperwork and contacts, about 100 hours. The other coordinates information from the Team Leaders, arranges purchase and delivery of materials and is the Operator liaison, about 250 hours. The main tool person spends about 80 hours buying, conditioning, storing and inventorying them. Preparation of registration materials, making crew assignments and preparing rosters takes 50 hours. The 35-40 or so Team Leaders spend about five hours each preparing for the sessions, or 200 hours. The three food crew leaders put in perhaps 120 hours before the session in menu preparation and purchasing.

Add up all the preparation and it comes out to about 1300 hours. Add to that the Team Leader and coordination time during the sessions, plus the chroniclersí time, and there are perhaps 1500 more hours spent during the sessions. That totals 2800 hours before and during the sessions. All that effort leveraged 10,700 volunteer hours in 1998. That means it takes one hour of preparation, coordination and supervision to leverage four worker hours.

Shaw says that this is the best experience she has ever had in working with an organization and the foundation for everything is communication. Planning at its most basic is a group of people talking to each other about what they would like to accomplish and how to achieve it. Organizations sometimes have problems with one person making decisions and others becoming disgruntled. The antidote for this is to let the collective wisdom do its work, let a group committed to a cooperative effort go to work on a problem and arrive at a consensus. It takes a lot of time but the time is well spent and the results satisfying.

She adds that communication has also built and fostered the very good working relationship which the Friends have with the Commission and the Operator. They all have seen the fruits of working together and keeping each other informed.

Thanks to Terri Shaw for her considerable help with this article.