Railroad rep: Firm has ’no intention’ to run oil over Tennessee Pass
Firm will focus on commuter, passenger service
The proposed new operator of the Tennessee Pass rail line has no intention of hauling oil through Eagle County.
That unequivocal statement to the Eagle County Commissioners came Monday from Sarah Thompson Cassidy, the community liaison for the Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway. That firm is a subsidiary of the Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, which operates lines in seven states.
Colorado, Midland in late December announced it had reached a lease agreement for the line with the owner, the Union Pacific Railroad. Union Pacific also operates the line between Denver and Dotsero via the Moffat Tunnel. Union Pacific stopped using the Tennessee Pass line in the mid-1990s, and much of the line has fallen into disrepair in the quarter-century since.
Thompson Cassidy used her time talking virtually to the commissioners to clear the air about a number of topics, including the prospect of hauling oil cars over the mountains. Those cars would presumably come from Utah’s Uintah Basin. But hauling oil by rail from the basin would require construction of a new line to the existing east-west line that roughly parallels Interstate 70 through Utah.
‘No intention’ to haul oil
“There’s been a lot of false speculation about (hauling) commodities,” Thompson Cassidy said. “The company I represent has no intention, no plans and no means to operate oil trains on the corridor.”
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Thompson Cassidy added that “If there was a business case for freight, I’d think it would have been done by now.”
Colorado, Midland has filed an application to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board for approval to use the line. That application has already garnered letters of opposition. Many of those letters are from people who live along the line. A rival line, the Colorado Pacific Railroad, also opposes the approval.
That rail line, which serves agricultural customers in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, has tried in the past to purchase the line for easier access to western grain markets. That request has been rejected by the Surface Transportation Board.
During Monday’s meeting, Thompson Cassidy told the commissioners that Colorado, Midland is currently seeking community input on ideas for primarily passenger-based service. That will “take however long it takes,” Thompson Cassidy said. But she added, she expects seeking information to take just a few months this year.
When community needs are assessed, Thompson Cassidy said Colorado, Midland will start work on a feasibility study. Any final plans would probably require local partners.
Ideally, the railroad could submit applications this summer for planning grants for those ideas.
An ‘aggressive’ timeline?
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said that timeline sounds “pretty aggressive,” adding that for years, county officials “can’t get a phone call back from the line owner.”
Thompson Cassidy speculated that silence may be because the Union Pacific doesn’t have any current operations on the line.
Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said local passenger service, at least in Eagle and Lake counties, could relieve pressure on highways including I-70. Chandler-Henry added that if guests came to the valley through the Eagle County Regional Airport, then took a train upvalley, the results might be of interest to state officials.
Commissioner Matt Scherr told Thompson Cassidy that the county and other local governments have weighed in on the environmental impact statement process for the Uintah Basin line.
That action was taken because of the “possibility” to connect the basin with the Tennessee Pass line, not because Colorado, Midland had announced any plans.
Scherr also noted that due diligence is a major part of the county joining a consortium of local governments that have hired a Denver-based law firm to monitor the agreement.
“It’s not a combative position at all,” Scherr said.
Thompson Cassidy said Colorado, Midland won’t act on its own “if we don’t have the communities with us.”
Chandler-Henry said she’d like to see passenger and commuter service on the line sooner than later.
“I’m ready to ride to the slopes next winter,” she said.
What: Tennessee Pass rail line.
Length: Roughly 160 miles, from just west of Eagle to just west of Canon City.
Owner: Union Pacific Railroad.
Proposed operator: Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway