Taggart Tunnel

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The Taggart Tunnel, in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was an eight-mile-long main-line railroad tunnel through the Continental Divide. Its eastern portal was at Winston, Colorado.[1] Through political maneuvering by an outraged passenger and several railroad officials who each was acting only to "cover his tracks," a gross violation of safety rules occurred and caused the destruction of the Tunnel and the deaths of more than three hundred passengers and crew on two trains.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information


Nathaniel Taggart's grandson, who was then President of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, built the Tunnel in 1902. At eight miles in length, it was the most stunning engineering achievement of its time. It carried a ventilation system to remove locomotive exhaust fumes, but was still regarded as safe only for the passage of a train pulled by a Diesel-electric locomotive. For that reason, while Dagny Taggart was in charge of operations at Taggart Transcontinental, she observed a strict rule always to keep a Diesel engine on standby in Winston, Colorado, to pull any train that arrived at either portal of the tunnel without its engine.

Chick's Special

As far back as May 1, 2019 Dagny Taggart had planned to replace the rail from Winston, Colorado, eastward with Rearden Metal rail taken from the now-defunct John Galt Line. But when Washington official Tinky Holloway was held up for three hours after a train derailment along the Miami Line, pressure began to build to send the Rearden Metal rail to the Miami Line, even though the Winston section was in worse shape. Dagny Taggart would have stuck to the original schedule, but on that fateful date, the Economic Planning Bureau promulgated Directive 10-289. Furious, Dagny Taggart resigned. Her replacement, one Clifton Locey, canceled the replacement of the Winston track and sent the Rearden Metal rail to the Miami Line. (Clifton Locey was not a long-term thinker. He thought only in terms of the political offense of the moment.)

Then, on or about May 7, Mr. Clarence "Chick" Morrison, of the Office of Morale Conditioning, announced his intention to carry out a "whistle-stop tour" of the country "to boost morale." The trouble began when Mr. Morrison demanded a Diesel engine for his special train. All of Taggart Transcontinental's Diesel engines were in service, except for the spare Diesel at Winston.

Eddie Willers tried to avoid mentioning the spare Diesel to Clifton Locey, but someone else, whose name is unrecorded, did. Accordingly, Locey gave the Diesel to Chick Morrison's special.

The superintendent of the Colorado Division, the division that included the Tunnel, quit his job. Locey quietly recruited one Dave Mitchum and assigned him to that position.


On May 27, 2019, "Kip" Chalmers, a member of the Washington cabal, was traveling in a private railcar attached to the Taggart Comet, the railroad's signature coast-to-coast express. He was on his way to California to establish a domicile in that State and then stand immediately for election to the unicameral Legislature that had replaced the United States Congress and now passed laws in the United States (that is, when the Economic Planning Bureau wasn't issuing Directives). (Wesley Mouch desperately needed another sympathetic vote in the Legislature, and California was already becoming restive even then. But Mouch also made clear to Chalmers that failure was not an option.)

The Comet derailed about a mile east of Winston when the rails split. This was the very section of rail that should have received the Rearden Metal replacement, but didn't. (See above.) The Comet's Diesel engine was damaged beyond repair.

The station agent at Winston immediately called the Colorado Division office at Silver Springs, Colorado. Dave Mitchum, the superintendent, distraught and close to panic, ordered a wrecking train sent out to make a quick repair and pull the Comet in to Winston. His initial decision, suggested by chief dispatcher William "Bill" Brent, was to hold the Comet at Winston until an eastbound train, pulled by a Diesel engine, could pass through the tunnel, meet the Comet, and change engines. This would result in an eighteen-hour delay for the Comet. The alternatives were either to:

  1. Send the Comet through the tunnel with a coal-burning steam locomotive to pull it (totally unsafe, especially since the ventilation system was not functioning at par), or
  2. Try to hold up a westbound United States Army freight special that also had a Diesel engine pulling it (untenable because the Army would certainly refuse, and in any event the Army special was also running late).


Kip Chalmers would not accept the eighteen-hour delay. At first he threatened the station agent, but the agent pleaded orders from his own superiors. So Rep. Chalmers sent a telegram directly to James Taggart. It ran thus:

Am held up on the Comet at Winston, Colorado, due to the incompetence of your men, who refuse to give me an engine. Have meeting in California of vital national importance. If you don't move my train at once, I'll let you guess the consequences.

Taggart called Locey and harangued him, saying that at least when Dagny ran the operating department, James Taggart didn't have to worry about important passengers telegraphing him in the middle of the night.

Locey went to the New York City Terminal, rushed around the offices to give the impression of activity, and then sent a peremptory message to Mr. Mitchum, which read in part:

Give an engine to Mr. Chalmers at once. Send the Comet through safely and without unnecessary delay. If you are unable to perform your duties, I shall hold you responsible before the Unification Board.

Dave Mitchum realized that this was a political set-up. He then prepared to set-up someone else in turn. He sent a message to the trainmaster to summon an engineer and fireman to "report" to Winston, Colorado, "for possible emergency assistance." He ordered the road foreman to make ready a coal-burning locomotive to make the trip to Winston. Then he ordered a track motor car for himself and prepared to journey east, to Fairmount, ostensibly in search of a Diesel engine that might be available, though he knew that no such engine was available. Lastly, he gave verbal orders to Bill Brent that if he had not returned by a certain hour, he was to send the Comet through the tunnel with the coal-burner to pull it.

Bill Brent refused and quit his post, knowing that he would be arrested under the Directive. Mitchum then passed his verbal order to the assistant dispatcher.

The disaster

When the orders, and the locomotive, reached Winston, the conductor of the Comet received the order without a word. The Comet's regular engineer refused the order and quit the railroad. The engineer who had brought the locomotive to Winston, however, actually thought that he could make the passage through the tunnel if he traveled fast enough. That he would actually make such a calculation was probably because he was inebriated. His fireman did not question the order; he and the engineer had worked together as a crew for a long time.

As the Comet pulled away from Winston, the conductor, after giving the lantern signal to proceed, jumped from the Comet and was never mentioned again in the narrative. He and the fireman would be the sole survivors.

Not long after the Comet entered the tunnel, the fumes began to build. The engineer opened this throttles wide in a desperate attempt to outrace the fumes. But the Comet was trying to climb an upgrade, and was simply too heavy for the old coal-burner. The engineer had barely managed to make a speed of forty miles per hour, when a passenger, who was never identified, pulled the emergency-brake cord, and the Comet stopped. The sudden stop apparently broke a key connection, because the engineer was unable to restart the engine. Screams broke out from the cars, and several passengers broke windows in a vain effort to get air. The fumes overcame the engineer, who collapsed. The fireman jumped from the train and ran all the rest of the length of the tunnel. He barely came within sight of the western portal when an explosion knocked him unconscious, though he would survive to tell his story.

The Comet had stopped just beyond a sharp curve. All the passengers died of asphyxiation before the Army freight special, laden with ammunition, entered the tunnel. The Army Special had orders to proceed regardless of signals, because the signal system was known to be unreliable. So whether the signals were red or green, made no difference.

As any engineer knows when discussing such a situation,

If you see it, it's gone, and you're just helping with the cleanup.
That is true even in the best of conditions. What made a crash inevitable was the unreliable signal system, the orders to ignore the signals, and the position of the Comet beyond a sharp curve.

The Army special, moving at eighty miles per hour, crashed into the rear of the stalled Comet. Its cargo exploded.

The explosion sealed the Tunnel. It would not be rebuilt until after John Galt's great strike was over.


The breathless radio report of that disaster brought Dagny Taggart back to New York to take immediate charge. Clifton Locey had fled New York and pleaded a debilitating medical condition, so he proved no obstacle. Dagny served notice on the Washington insiders that she would do what needed to be done without regard to directives or regulations. She then prepared to lay rail through the original mountain pass that existed before the tunnel was built.

But she was never able to carry that plan through. That night, she took the Comet out of New York in a desperate attempt to reach Afton, Utah, and stop a consulting engineer, one Quentin Daniels, from vanishing into the society of "The Destroyer," who had been removing talented men from the American economy for years. She of course flew into the mountains of Colorado and crashed into Galt's Gulch. The Committee of Safety of that community refused her permission to leave for a month. During that time, James Taggart inaugurated the Railroad Unification Plan, by which he simply used the track of the Atlantic Southern Railroad for the western part of his transcontinental traffic.

Spoilers end here.

Real-life tunnels

Engineers have in real life dug tunnels through the Continental Divide. The most recent is the Eisenhower Tunnel, a vehicular tunnel opened to traffic in 1973.

The longest main-line railroad tunnel in the United States is actually the Moffat Tunnel, 6.2 miles long and at a maximum elevation of 9,239 feet. It was completed in 1927 at a cost of 18 million US dollars.

That a somewhat longer railroad tunnel could have been built through the Divide in 1902 is conceivable. David Moffat, for whom the tunnel is named, tried to raise money to build his tunnel in 1902, though he never lived to see it built.[2][3]

The Alpine Tunnel, a 1771-foot narrow-gauge tunnel through the Sawatch Mountains (elevation 11,523 feet), was completed in 1882.[4][5] While the Alpine Tunnel did support the passage of coal-burning steam locomotives, an eight-mile tunnel would not have been been safe for any locomotive other than a Diesel-electric.


Whittaker Chambers, in his infamous review of Atlas Shrugged, at one point stated that Ayn Rand's message to all who disagreed with her might as well be:

To a gas chamber—go![6]

He might have been speaking of a detailed sample of the attitudes of the passengers of the ill-fated Comet shortly before it entered the tunnel for the last time. That part of the narrative began thus:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

The narrative continued with a description of one passenger in each of the sixteen cars of the Comet (other than Kip Chalmers' private car attached to the rear). In each case, that passenger was described as being in sympathy with either the government's policies or with the guiding philosophy, such as it was, behind them. Jason Lee Steorts, writing in National Review, provided some examples:[7]

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence....

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don’t care, it’s only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."

The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities....

This description closed with the observation that

there was not a [passenger] aboard the train that did not share one or more of their ideas.

Those passengers died by asphyxiation, and this might have been the "gas chamber" to which Whittaker Chambers was referring.


  1. No such town actually exists. But this might refer to Montrose, CO. Montrose is a few miles north of Ouray, CO, the most probable site of Galt's Gulch. A narrow-gauge railroad once connected Montrose to Durango, CO and ran through Ouray. That line is since abandoned.
  2. "Entry for Moffat Tunnel," Denver and Rio Grande Guide, n.d. Accessed May 1, 2009. <http://ghostdepot.com/rg/mainline/moffat%20route/moffat%20tunnel.htm>
  3. Map showing location of Moffat Tunnel, Center for Land Use Interpretation, n.d. Accessed May 1, 2009. <http://ludb.clui.org/ex/i/CO3162/>
  4. "The Alpine Tunnel: An Engineering Marvel," Legends of America, n.d. Accessed May 1, 2009. <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/co-alpinetunnel.html>
  5. "The Alpine Tunnel," The Colorado Guy, n.d. Accessed May 1, 2009. <http://www.coloradoguy.com/alpine-tunnel.htm>
  6. Chambers W, "Big Sister Is Watching You," National Review, December 28, 1957. Hosted at National Review Online, published January 5, 2005. Accessed May 1, 2009.<https://www.nationalreview.com/flashback/flashback200501050715.asp>
  7. Steorts JL, "The Greatly Ghastly Rand," National Review,, August 30, 2010, pp. 43-48. <https://www.nationalreview.com/articles/244381/greatly-ghastly-rand-jason-lee-steorts>