Company asks Surface Transportation Board to prohibit crude oil, other hazardous shipments on Tennessee Pass rail line |

Company asks Surface Transportation Board to prohibit crude oil, other hazardous shipments on Tennessee Pass rail line

The Tennessee Pass rail line runs through Eagle, Lake, Chaffee and Fremont counties.
Special to the Daily

Hoping to allay “erroneous concerns” about the defunct Tennessee Pass rail line possibly coming back to life, a company proposing to resume freight and potentially passenger service is asking federal officials to restrict its proposed lease agreement to prevent the shipment of any crude oil, coal and hazardous materials on the line.

Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Co., a subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific Corp., has a proposed lease agreement with Union Pacific, which owns the rail line, pending before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the nation’s railways. The proposed amendment was filed Monday.

Rio Grande Pacific Corp. is planning to operate the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in Utah. If ultimately approved, that railway would be built to get crude oil from Utah to national rail lines and then refineries — raising concerns among some that those shipments could head through Colorado and the Tennessee Pass rail line.

“From the beginning, CMPR has stated and restated our interest in exploring commuter/passenger opportunities and local commercial freight within the Tennessee Pass rail corridor lease area, which is approximately 160 miles between the Sage/Eagle County Airport area and Parkdale,” Richard Bertel, CEO of Rio Grande Pacific, wrote in a letter Wednesday to communities along the rail line.

“Still, false speculation continues related to some hypothetical use of the Tennessee Pass rail line for crude oil and other commodities from outside the corridor,” Bertel’s letter continues. “This week, CMPR voluntarily made the attached amended filing with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to limit its lease to handle only the transportation of passengers and general commodities — specifically excluding crude oil, coal and hazardous commodities from being transported over the line. This filing confirms our original purpose for the line and our alignment with community interests.”

The Tennessee Pass rail line has been out of service since 1997. Its tracks run along the Arkansas River and through communities there, as well as through towns in the Eagle River Valley, crossing the mountains at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. The new lease agreement for the line with Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway was first announced Dec. 31.

“There’s been a lot of false speculation, fear that opening the line would open the route to hazardous materials or volumes that would not be desirable. So we just restated our interest is in developing commercial (freight) and passenger and commuter opportunities,” Sara Cassidy, spokeswoman for Rio Grande Pacific Corp. and Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Co., said of the new filing.

The company has spent the past several months on a “listening tour” with local communities along the rail line.

“Eagle County and others have vocalized concern about a linkage between Tennessee Pass and a crude oil project, and we’re trying to be abundantly clear and demonstrate that we are aligned with community interests,” Cassidy said.

Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said he questions whether the Surface and Transportation Board would actually approve the proposed restriction.

The filing — which asks the board to restrict the proposed lease against the the transportation of crude oil, coal and hazardous commodities on the line — itself notes that while limitations on the scope of commodities to be handled are not usually imposed, “they are not unique.”

“A number of parties in this proceeding have filed in opposition to the proposed lease mainly on the erroneous contention that CMPR was intending to transport crude oil, coal or hazardous commodities over the line,“ the filing states. ”These erroneous contentions are being made notwithstanding CMPR’s emphatic statements that CMPR has no intent, much less ability, to transport these commodities over the line due to features of the line that make it logistically impractical to do so. For example, the line has more than 11 miles of 3% grade.“

Scherr said Eagle County plans to also hold a public listening tour this spring or summer to better gauge what the community would like to see happen with the rail line — something that has been derailed up to now by the pandemic.

“We have not yet done the community powwow to say what do we want to have happen with this rail line, but I can’t think of anyone who would be happy to see crude oil around here,” Scherr said, adding that many people would probably not want to see any freight on the line, though it would likely be necessary to help pay for any passenger or commuter services that could one day materialize.

Eagle County and the town of Avon have contracted with the law firm Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell in Denver to examine or potentially challenge the rail line’s reactivation if needed.

“We love talking about potential passenger rail, and the (amended) application to the Surface Transportation Board is great. It would be nice to have that permanently banned, but we don’t think the board will do that,” Scherr said.

For the company’s part, Bertel’s letter notes that the company looks forward to exploring 21st century applications for the Tennessee Pass rail line — which dates back to the late 1800s.

“We are motivated to consider how this rail line may complement existing transit services to play a positive role in an area that boasts world class recreation and scenery, which draws local, national and international tourism and better facilitates associated jobs and workforce transportation needs, all near airports, mountain communities, education institutions and more,” Bertel wrote. “We are eager to explore how rail might help alleviate congestion on state and local roadways and provide more efficient options to transport a growing demand for goods that currently travel by truck, in a time of rising fuel prices and growing concern about our environment.”

Colorado Pacific Railroad has also announced that it plans to challenge the proposed lease agreement for the Tennessee Pass line, after its attempts to purchase the line, and then force a sale, failed. That company could not be reached for comment.

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