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Reaching the Summit of Mt Washington

17 April 2015

Tour Manager Marion Motz travels up Mount Washington by cog railway and journeys along the North Conway Scenic Railroad on our New England in the Fall trip.

In September I led the New England in the Fall tour. Amongst the highlights of this trip are two amazing and very scenic, rail journeys, The Mount Washington Cog Wheel Railway, and the North Conway Scenic Railway.

On a bright, sunny day we set off at the early hour of 7am to enjoy the first of these rail trips. I had been rather apprehensive beforehand about what the weather conditions would be like because when I Googled Mount Washington Cog Wheel Railway before the trip, I was greeted with the words 'Mount Washington - known as Agiocochook, or "Home of the Great Spirit," is famous for its dangerously erratic weather and until 2010, held the record for the highest wind gust of 231 mph directly measured at the Earth's surface.' Not to worry, we set off in brilliant sunshine, with a blue cloudless sky, and this wonderful weather continued throughout the day.

After a 45 minute coach journey we arrived at the station and saw one small locomotive surrounded by a large crowd of people. As I collected our tickets, I thought to myself we will not all fit into that small carriage, but fortunately my fears were unfounded and we all boarded in time for the 8.15am departure.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the world's first mountain-climbing rack-and-pinion railway and it is the second steepest rack railway in the world, with an average gradient of over 25% and a maximum gradient of 37.41%. It is approximately 3 miles long and climbs from 2 700 feet above sea level to the mountain's summit peak of 6 288 feet. The train ascends the mountain at 2.8 miles per hour and it took about 65 minutes to reach the top; the return journey was slightly quicker at 4.6 mph.

The train consists of a locomotive pushing a single passenger carriage up the mountain, and descending the mountain by going backwards. Both locomotive and carriage were originally equipped with a ratchet and pawl mechanism, engaged during the climb to prevent any roll-back; during the descent, both the locomotive and carriage are braked. I had a few scary moments, as we slowed descended the steep mountain, especially when there was a steep drop on one side of the carriage, and I  felt myself clutching my hands tightly; but there was no need to fear, because fortunately the brakeman who operated our train was very experienced at his job and we arrived back at the bottom station with no problems!

The train is enclosed but the windows were open and, in spite of the cloudless sky the temperature dropped as we climbed the mountain and it became quite chilly. The brakeman gave a running and informative commentary as we climbed the mountain, telling us the history of the railway and pointing out interesting sights. Once we reached the top of the mountain we were fortunate to have the most incredible and breathtaking views, which because it was such a clear day, extended all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The next day saw us taking the Notch Train on the North Conway Scenic Railroad. Crawford Notch is the steep and narrow gorge of the Saco River in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and it was discovered in 1771 as being a route through the mountains, which until then had been thought to be impenetrable; the idea of putting a railway through the area was considered a difficult engineering feat that many thought to be impossible. However, in 1857 the railway opened and ran from Portland, through the Notch, to Fabyans.

And so, after a10 minute drive from our hotel, we arrived at North Conway Station. A dog show was taking place on the green just outside the station, much to the joy of some of the dog lovers in the group. Others enjoyed looking around some of the old carriages in the station, and the old Victorian station itself.

Having been told when and where to assemble to board the train, when the appointed time came, we were greeted by a stern, rather bossy 'take-no-nonsense' railroad lady, who showed us to our reserved seats in the train - the famous Notch train which travels on tracks that were laid in the 1870s as part of the Maine Central Railroad's famed Mountain Division line.

At 11am we set off on the railway track which travels high above the road, Route 306, seeing spectacular views in places which it would have been impossible to see from the coach. The railroad is operated by dedicated professionals, another one of whom gave us a live commentary on the history and folklore of the railroad, as well indicating points of interest. Different members of the crew then walked through the train, ready to answer our questions.

We saw some dramatic, natural scenery as we travelled on the railway, passing sheer bluffs, steep ravines with cascading brooks and streams. The panoramic views of the mountains covered in many varieties of trees, which were just starting to turn colour was absolutely amazing, and the different shades of colour, ranging from green through gold, orange, and red to purple was so outstandingly beautiful, it is difficult to describe.

The total journey of the round trip on the Notch Train to Fabyan Station, near Bretton Woods took 5½ hours. Just before stopping at Crawford Station for a 40 minutes break, the train passed over the amazing Frankenstein Trestle and Willey Brook Bridge. This whole journey shows a remarkable engineering achievement, due to the gain in height of 1,623 feet in the 30 miles travelled between North Conway and Fabyan Station. The very impressive Frankenstein Trestle, which offered brilliant views on all sides, was originally built of iron, but later replaced by steel; it is 520 feet long and 85 feet above the ravine floor while the Willey Brook Bridge, which is close by, is 400 feet long and 100 feet high.

We stayed at Crawford Station for about 40 minutes. Being opposite Saco Lake (a small pond from which the Saco River originates), this was a pleasant spot for the picnic lunches we had brought with us, and several of us crammed round the picnic table from where we could enjoy the beautiful surroundings. After lunch we again boarded the train for a short 15 minute journey to Fabyan Station at the end of the line. On arrival, we all disembarked, watched and took photographs as the engine was moved from one end of the train to the other. When we got back on the train, we found the seats had been turned round and we were encouraged to switch to the other side of the carriage so that on the return journey, we would be able to see the view on the other side of the train. Some of us wandered down to the open-air car, covered on top, but open to the elements through the sides. Once more we enjoyed the excitement of travelling over the Frankenstein Trestle, before settling back to enjoy the passing scenery of magnificent tree decked mountains in the distance and fields and woodlands nearer to the track, until eventually Route 306 which we had passed at the start of the day's journey, came into view, and the train trundled slowly back into North Conway Station, thus bringing to an end another magnificent train journey.