Tennessee Pass rail line still mothballed | VailDaily.com

Tennessee Pass rail line still mothballed

Possible operator rebuffed for ’expedited’ approval

A flood of public comment about possible environmental damage from re-starting rail service on the Tennessee Pass line — seen here as it runs through the Eagle Mine property — prompted the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to reject an application for “expedited” approval to restart service on the line.
Daily file photo

Earle Bidez is in no hurry to hear freight trains again rumble through Minturn. It could be some time, if ever, before that happens.

The federal Surface Transportation Board on Thursday denied an application to expedite reopening of the Tennessee Pass rail line.

That application was submitted by Colorado Midland Pacific Railroad, a subsidiary of the Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, which operates lines in seven states.

Colorado Midland on Dec. 31 announced an agreement with Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the Tennessee Pass line. That agreement would have allowed Colorado Midland to operate on the line.

The company immediately announced its intent to work with local governments to craft a plan that might include some sort of passenger service.

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Colorado Midland applied to the Surface Transportation Board for an “expedited” approval, claiming the action would be a “routine, non-controversial short line lease transaction.”

That hasn’t been the case.

The Surface Transportation Board received more than 70 comments on the proposal, almost of all of which opposed the approval.

Noise, environmental impacts

Most of the comments came from Chaffee County. There, the rail line runs parallel to the Arkansas River through the entire county. Comments almost unanimously expressed concern about the possible noise and environmental impacts of running trains on a line that hasn’t been used since 1996.

There’s been local concern, too.

Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr noted that a consortium of local governments and nonprofit groups had asked for in-depth review of the proposal.

“We felt (the application) should be a full environmental analysis,” Scherr said.

Scherr added that the line at Tennessee Pass operates at a 3% grade. That’s twice as steep as climbing and descent grades allowed today. Scherr noted there were, in the past, several derailments on the line, including one hazardous material spill near Camp Hale.

Bidez, a Minturn Town Council member, remembers the days when several freight trains a day ran through town.

“We’re scratching our heads how this in any way is a benefit to the town,” Bidez said. While there had been mention of possible passenger service, Bidez said he’s skeptical.

“What good’s passenger (service) going to do us unless the town’s people want the rail line developed into a depot?” Bidez said. “Is that worth the impact?”

Eagle resident Scott Willoughby is the Colorado coordinator of Trout Unlimited’s Angler Conservation Program. Trout Unlimited submitted comments opposing the move to the Surface Transportation Board.

Willoughby called the proposal from Colorado Pacific “fundamentally flawed.” He noted that the Tennessee Pass line is the steepest in the nation, and passes through the headwaters of both the Eagle and Arkansas rivers, as well as through the Brown’s Canyon National Monument and Camp Hale, which has been nominated to be the country’s first “historic landscape.”

Times have changed

Times have changed a lo, since the line was last used, Willoughby said. Water quality has improved on both rivers.

And, Bidez said, a number of people have moved to Minturn and Eagle County who have never heard trains rumble through the valley. In addition, a large development, Minturn North, is working its way through the town’s approval process. That development could put as many as 180 units into an area virtually adjacent to the tracks.

Aside from proximity to the tracks, getting into and out of the proposed neighborhood will require crossing the tracks. That could lead to some serious traffic backups when trains roll through town, Bidez said.

In addition to the impact on residents, Willoughby noted that the recreation economy “has exploded” along the line — which runs through Fremont, Chaffee, Lake and Eagle counties.

Adding an active rail line to that mix doesn’t work these days, Willoughby noted, adding that converting the line to trails makes far more sense.

Colorado Midland spokeswoman Sara Thompson Cassidy said the company is “reviewing” the Thursday decision, and is considering its next steps.

A rival carrier, Colorado Pacific, applied to the Surface Transportation Board in an effort to force Union Pacific to sell the line. Colorado Pacific owner Stefan Soloviev wants the line to ship grain west of the Rockies from western Kansas and eastern Colorado.

Soloviev Friday didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.

Four facts

What: The Tennessee Pass rail line

Length: Roughly 160 miles, from just west of Eagle to just west of Canon City

Owner: Union Pacific Railroad

Status: On hold

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