While many unknowns still linger about the lease of the Tennessee Pass rail line announced on New Years’ Eve, rafting outfitters are concerned about the return of train service on the tracks along the Arkansas River, which have been unused since 1997.
“We were kinda hit by it at the 11th hour, basically,” said Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitter’s Association. On Tuesday, the AROA voted unanimously to write a letter of opposition to the lease.
“We’re obviously very concerned about what the cargo is,” Hamel said. “We know we have this rail line here with the potential that it could open again, after millions and millions of dollars of repair and upgrading. But our biggest concern is the type of cargo it might present.”
A news release issued Dec. 31 by Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, parent company to Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway, stated the subsidiary company has entered into a commercial agreement with Union Pacific Railroad for the majority of the Tennessee Pass rail line in Colorado owned by UP.
Colorado Midland & Pacific has also filed for common carrier authority to operate the Tennessee Pass Line with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads.
The section of the Tennessee Pass Line leased runs from Parkdale in Fremont County to Sage.
Brian Ellis, owner of Wilderness Aware rafting, said “I can see both the benefit to our community and some drawbacks” to the return of train traffic.
The benefits Ellis mentioned relate to passenger train travel.
“The only experience I have with trains along the river is through the Royal Gorge, the Colorado River near Kremmling and the Animas River between Silverton and Durango,” Ellis said. “In many ways, passenger rail and whitewater rafting are complimentary experiences for each other. Train passengers enjoy seeing whitewater rafting in action from the safety of the train car, and customers seem to enjoy seeing the train and interacting with people in the open cars on the Royal Gorge.
“It is my belief that the Royal Gorge Route is a strong generator of interest in whitewater rafting. Passenger rail has both economic and environmental benefits to communities by reducing vehicle traffic and associated greenhouse emissions,” Ellis said.
Freight trains, on the other hand, “have fewer benefits and increased drawbacks,” he said. “Freight trains are louder, longer, heavier, and don’t draw anyone to the whitewater rafting industry. In fact, the storage of rail cars along the Arkansas River near Parkdale are detrimental to the scenic experience visitors are seeking when traveling through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. In the years before the freight cars were parked along the river, we used to see bighorn sheep commonly along the river. Today, it is very rare to experience a sighting.”
Travis Hochard, owner of River Runners, said “There’s nothing, from a recreational aspect, that would be beneficial, unless you’re looking purely at tourism and having a tourist train. But if that’s all you’re doing, I don’t know if that’s economical to open up the tracks again. So they’d have to subsidize it by allowing freight.”
Pre-1997, Hamel said “the train was part of our whole scene. It was crazy at times as a guide because you’d come to the top of a major rapid and a freight train would come by with 60, 70, 80 cars, really loud.”
Hamel said that the AROA is most concerned about the possibility that the line may be used to haul crude oil or coal. A derailment of that type of cargo could be disastrous to the ecosystem of the Arkansas or the Eagle River and Colorado River on the other side of Tennessee Pass, he said.
Rio Grande Pacific is also seeking permission from the Surface Transportation Board to haul crude oil from the Uinta Basin of Utah to refineries on the Gulf Coast, sparking immediate outcry from groups like the Friends of Browns Canyon.
According to the Uinta Basin Railway Draft Environments Impact Statement, that proposed 85-mile rail line would provide a rail connection between the Uinta Basin oil and gas fields near Myton and Leland Beach, Utah to an existing Union Pacific rail line near Kyune, Utah and thence to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The company said in an update to its initial announcement of the Tennessee Pass lease that oil would not be transported over the Tennessee Pass Line.
“Colorado Midland & Pacific has no plan, intention, or means to operate oil trains across the Tennessee Pass line. CMP has an agreement for a portion of the Tennessee Pass only – that is from Sage to Parkdale,” reads the statement sent by Sara Thompson Cassidy, CMP community liaison for Tennessee Pass. “CMP seeks to explore and develop commuter/passenger rail and local freight opportunities within that ~160-mile corridor, and we wish to do so in coordination and consultation with communities and planning agencies in the area. Any speculation scenarios or misinformation about oil or other commodities moving on the Tennessee Pass is simply rumor, conjecture and assumption. CMP has no plan whatsoever to operate oil trains on Tennessee Pass.”
Concerns linger, regardless of the freight.
“The crude oil is very scary … it’s a shortcut, but it’s a dangerous shortcut given the nature of these winding tracks that we have. It’s catastrophic. One spill, one car in Browns Canyon or the Numbers or in Granite or something, anywhere near the headwaters, it would go all the way down,” Hamel said. “It’s more than just Browns Canyon, it’s Bighorn Sheep Canyon and the Royal Gorge. It’s like 120 miles of fishery, or more, 120 miles of Gold-Medal status. It would be pretty devastating, catastrophically.”
In his 40 years rafting the Arkansas, Hamel said that he has seen three or four derailments.
“It’s kind of scary. They were as simple as an empty coal car, a lumber car one time. A military closed car. Nobody knew what was in it or whether it spilled or not,” Hamel said. In the case of the derailment of the lumber shipment, Hamel recalls, “It was in Texas Creek at a place you’d never guess, and they ended up doing a lumber sale right on site. I had friends who were building a house who bought lumber right on site. And lumber’s pretty benign compared to anything that would get into a river.”
Whether the cars are carrying wood, grain or oil, “you wouldn’t want any derailment. It would impact the quality of the water. Even if it were grain or something, that’s not a good thing,” Hochard said. “Then there’s the logistics of if it were going in a section that we use, it could close down that section for a long time
“I remember guiding Browns Canyon when freight trains used to run along the river before the merger between Southern Pacific and Union Pacific,” said Mark Hammer, owner of the Adventure Company. “It was louder and took away from the wilderness experience.”
Ellis said that Browns Canyon National Monument is “one of the few places along the Arkansas River where there is little evidence of human activity, except for the tracks, riprap, bridges, and old bridge pilings that have been stacked along the banks to prevent the river from washing out the railroad base.”
Hochard said that, while he started guiding the Arkansas after the trains stopped moving down the Tennessee Pass Line, he has rafted alongside trains on other rivers and “it is not good for the experience, especially long and frequent activity like what is proposed.
“Not only for day trips, but it’s a popular overnight section in Browns Canyon, and now if you have trains going through in the middle of the night or while you’re having dinner, it is just going to impact the user experience.”