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Correction to This Article
A Dec. 19 Travel article incorrectly said that New Hampshire's Mount Washington Cog Railway is the only one in the world that ferries skiers to the top of a ski slope. Cog railways at Wengen and Zermatt in Switzerland, for example, perform a similar service.
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The Little N.H. Cog That Could . . . Ski

The ski trains will run to Waumbek Tank, which at 3,800 feet is about a third of the way to the summit. In good weather, the engines will take on water at the tank before continuing the journey to the peak. The ride up will take about 15 minutes. That translates to about 76 feet per minute because the cog's method of locomotion is so painstaking.

In the cog system, the outer rails bear only the weight of the train. The power to climb comes from a wheel attached to the engine's drive shaft. The teeth on this wheel hook over the rungs of a "rack," or ladder-like device between the tracks.

This meshing of gears is what enables the cog to drag itself up grades that a regular train couldn't possibly manage. At one point on the trip to the top of Mount Washington, for example, a grade of more than 37 percent creates a funhouse effect of a 14-foot tilt between the front and the back of the passenger coach.

Cog engines also push rather than pull their loads up the mountain. On the descent, the seats in the 70-passenger coaches are flipped to face downhill, and the engines go first with their weight acting as a brake. A rather unsettling feature of the system is that the engines are not coupled to the passenger coaches. This independent operation is for safety: If an engine or a coach derails, it won't take the rest of the train with it. The loud, metallic clicking sound that characterizes the cog also is a cause for reassurance: It is created by a device that drags over the rungs of the rack and prevents slippage.

The cog engines -- including the Ammonoosuc ("a stony place for fishing"), the Chocorua (named for a Pequawket chief) and the Agiocochook ("home of the great spirit") -- will use a quarter-ton of coal and 300 gallons of water in their round-trip ski runs. In fair weather, cinders from the burning coal can blow in the windows of the hand-painted coaches, but grit shouldn't be an issue when the windows are shut. The rail company also has been refitting its engines to burn cleaner and eventually will convert them to oil, says Wayne Presby, who has been president of the railroad for 21 years.

The trains will run continuously to produce a lift capacity of 350 passengers an hour. Beginners will be able to debark at a platform partway up the slopes at Cold Spring Hill; more advanced skiers can stay aboard the heated train until Waumbek.

The novelty of the train is quite a lure, as the train's 136-year history as a tourist attraction attests. But once that excitement wears off, its slopes are unlikely to hold the interest of advanced skiers for more than a few runs.

Not to worry. Bretton Woods, New Hampshire's largest ski area with 101 trails and 434 acres of terrain, has the same owner as the cog and is just six miles away. The plan is to offer a combination ski pass along with a free shuttle between the two areas.

If the budget will stretch, visitors might consider patronizing still another property with the same owner: the Mount Washington Hotel, between the Bretton Woods ski area and the cog railway. Rates at the hotel climb faster and go higher than the cog, but, oh, the hotel is a grand sight.

The National Historic Landmark is a huge, white, rambling castle-like structure with red-roofed towers silhouetted against Mount Washington. Although landlocked, it somehow brings to mind the Titanic.

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