Commuter/tourist train proposed from Salida to Eagle | VailDaily.com

Commuter/tourist train proposed from Salida to Eagle

Railroad tracks sit idle Tuesday in Red Cliff. County commissioners heard an idea Tuesday for an active passenger rail line between Salida and Eagle.

EAGLE — With coal production at a 30-year low and railroad traffic slumping, a Golden man wants to fill the tracks between Eagle and Salida with commuters and tourists.

Christof Stork is proposing a public commuter and tourist train between the towns, 110 miles over Tennessee Pass.

With the drop in coal traffic and Union Pacific's corresponding drop in revenue, Stork said the railroad might be willing to give up those tracks. Someday. Maybe three years. Maybe 20.

"We want to be able to jump in when the time is right," Stork told the Eagle County commissioners Tuesday morning. "Now is the time to discuss this."

Stork first approached the Eagle County staff about six months ago, said Chris Lubbers, director of ECO Transit and Trails.

"Any new idea is worth further study — any idea that means moving people in a multi-modal manner," Lubbers said. "Anyone who comes to us with an idea, we want to be receptive."

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Union Pacific Railroad owns those tracks.

"Union Pacific occasionally receives proposals to utilize or purchase our right of way. When reviewing such proposals, our top priority continues to be maintaining our ability to provide safe and efficient service for our customers, which are providing the raw and finished materials Americans use daily. We do not intend to sell our right of way between Salida and Eagle," said Calli B. Hite, Union Pacific's director of corporate communications.

Why it might be maybe

Colorado coal production has plummeted by 50 percent since 2004, and the industry has hemorrhaged hundreds of jobs.

Parts of nearby Routt and Gunnison counties are economically devastated with three mines closed, and more job losses likely on the way.

In Colorado and Wyoming, railroads haul all that coal and with coal production falling, more than 5,000 railroad employees have been furloughed or laid off as a result of the drop in coal production, reports Inside Energy.

By the numbers

Stork said the passenger rail idea could make sense economically for both Union Pacific and the region: Eagle, Chaffee and Lake counties.

His numbers are wide-ranging:

• Startup costs: $20 million to $80 million.

• Operating costs: $15 million per year.

• Operating revenue, based on two 200-seat trains running at 40 percent capacity: $30 million per year.

• Average proposed ticket prices: $120, mostly for tourists.

• Morning and evening local shuttles between Eagle and Minturn, and Salida and Buena Vista: $5.

• Monthly commuter passes for morning/evening shuttles or standing room only: $100.

Stork's proposal foresees 18 stops in nine towns along the 110-mile route, including Eagle, Avon, Edwards and Minturn in Eagle County. A train station could be a big economic boost to town centers along the route, Stork said.

Tickets for Leadville's Colorado & Southern scenic railroad run $37 for adults and $20 for children. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad costs $44 for adults and $34 for children.

That's real money

Union Pacific receives all kinds of proposals to buy its tracks and the right-of-way. Stork said most propose paying the railroad $1 million to $2 million a year.

"That's not real money to a company that size," Stork said. "When you make it a public commuter train and give all the money to Union Pacific, that becomes real money."

Union Pacific is not a charity, and will want $200 million to $400 million to sell those tracks, Stork said.

And yes, $20 million to $80 million is a serious chunk of change for a startup, but Denver's light rail system cost $2.1 billion, Stork said.

These commuter and tourist train startup costs would be relatively low because tracks are the most expensive part of any such enterprise, Stork said, and these tracks are already there and are in good shape.

The Federal Railroad Administration denied Union Pacific's request 19 years ago to pull up those tracks.

A couple of decades ago, Eagle County pursued a rails and trails program that would have run along the railroad corridor from Minturn to Gypsum.

An idea for a transit system from DIA to Eagle regularly bubbles up, but the cost always pops that bubble. Past estimates have put the cost of a high-speed system from DIA to Eagle County at almost $15 billion.

Rolling rails

To get the rails rolling, Stork said it would require an effort from regional residents, along with support from county and state officials. That would mean using some of those governments' already-approved transit taxes, such as $700,000 from Eagle County's ECO tax that generates $8 million annually, Stork said.

Chaffee County, Gunnison County and the Roaring Fork Valley also have dedicated transit taxes.

"Local citizens need to get some skin in the game," Stork said.

Stork lived in Europe for many years and is a regular rail traveler there.

"I like trains. I see what they can do for communities, especially building town centers. I'm also an entrepreneur," Stork said, adding he has started and sold three technology companies.

"I always need to be doing something creative," he said.

After listening to the presentation, the commissioners asked Stork to keep working on the idea with Lubbers.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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