The final day of 2020 brought unexpected news to the Upper Arkansas Valley with the announcement that a rail company was making moves to resume service on the Tennessee Pass Line, renewing the possibility that trains may again travel the rails for the first time in decades.
“It’s popped up a few times since the line went dormant in the ‘90s, so this is not the first time this kind of scenario has popped up. However, in my time here, this is the first time it’s gotten to the point where an actual company is making a bid to lease it and is reaching out through the media seeking input on it,” said Buena Vista town administrator Phillip Puckett. “We certainly don’t want to overreact, but it does drive a bit of concern for me and for our board, eventually, as more details come out.”
A press release issued New Year’s Eve 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.
Rio Grande Pacific Corporation owns or operates freight and passenger services in eight states.
The section of the Tennessee Pass Line leased runs from Parkdale, in Fremont County to Sage, in Eagle County. If there is interest, Colorado Midland & Pacific will assist public agencies in obtaining funding for establishing passenger rail services.
Last train to rumble through BV was ‘97
The railroad has been dormant since August, 1997. In Buena Vista, the track crosses town streets in three places: Arkansas Street, East Main Street and at the intersection of Baylor Drive and U.S. Highway 24.
The town has been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation on installing a traffic light at the Baylor intersection, and further down the line has plans to create another intersection with the highway – and a fourth railroad crossing – by extending Steele Drive to connect with South Railroad Street.
In Salida, the railroad follows the river along the east side, passing by the base of Tenderfoot Mountain before continuing though Bighorn Sheep Canyon into Fremont County.
Between those two communities, the railroad follows the Arkansas as it winds through the presently silent expanse of Browns Canyon National Monument.
Those last two significant words in that title have been added since the last time the Tennessee Pass Line was used.
The frontier town of Buena Vista grew up with close ties to the history of the railroad systems of the western United States, but while the tracks along the Arkansas went out of use, BV continued to grow.
“The biggest thing to me is just the impact to our traffic flow through town,” Puckett said. “It’s already a constraint having just three crossings of the railroad on the east side of our town … The thought of having one or multiple trains coming through a day is very concerning from a traffic flow standpoint.
“We’re not a sleepy town anymore,” Puckett said.
Mayor Duff Lacy said that “I will be interested so see how this evolves,” noting that “the tracks have not seen maintenance for some time now. One thing I think will be obvious: It will be some time before we experience any (train) traffic.”
Tennessee Pass Line served national interests in WWII
Vic Kuklin, the president of the Buena Vista Heritage Museum and organizer of Buena Vista’s RailFest celebration of railroad history, said “reopening the Tennessee Pass Line has been a concern of many people along the route for decades.
“The UP closed the line because it is expensive to operate,” Kuklin said. “The eastbound grade is steep enough to require helper locomotives on freight trains. That greatly increases the cost of getting a train over the pass.
“During World War II, when rail traffic was absolutely at its maximum capacity, the Moffat Tunnel (which bores through the Continental Divide near Winter Park) line was closed due to a fire in one of the shorter tunnels. It took 6 months to reopen the collapsed tunnel. Much of the Moffat traffic was detoured through Buena Vista on the Tennessee Pass line,” Kuklin said. “That is the reason why the tracks are still in place. The U.S. government does not want to lose the possibility of detouring rail traffic over Tennessee Pass again, if needed,” he said. “That is a national security issue. Though it will cost millions to rehabilitate the tracks, they remain a national asset.”
Kuklin also noted that “this route will probably never be turned into a hiking trail or homesites as it could then never be returned to rail traffic.”
Pending impacts remain unclear
At this stage, it’s unclear how the Colorado Midland & Pacific announcement will impact the Baylor Drive intersection project.
The forthcoming design enhancements were focused on pedestrian and automotive traffic, so “if a train comes back through, then obviously the design would have to take that into consideration, so it’s very likely that they would have some impact on that intersection.”
The Baylor Drive project has the advantage that it already exists as a railroad crossing. Connecting Steele Drive – and by extension Gregg Drive, CR 319 and Rodeo Road – across U.S. 24 to South Railroad Street would involve building a new railroad crossing.
“It’s definitely a blow to our chances of getting a new crossing there,” Puckett said. “Rail lines don’t like active lines with crossings. Streets are a nuisance to them, right? It’s a cost problem, it’s a safety problem for them, so the fewer the better.”
Other concerns the announcement brings to Puckett’s mind are noise and environmental impacts. He also anticipates that, if passenger rail service is to be offered, communities along the railroad would be expected to finance that service.
“I don’t know, I’m not sold on that. I think the concept would be potentially very beneficial and would probably drive some positive economic impacts. Getting people to town, out of town, in a different way other than by driving is, I think, an appealing concept, but the reality is, who’s going to pay for that?
“I don’t think there’s a financial benefit to CMP, so reading between the lines, and some very early conversations I’ve had with a few other people, I think ultimately it would fall on the local governments to subsidize that, whether that’s infrastructure enhancements or the actual operation … I’m pretty skeptical about that aspect until they show more, there’s more detail.”
Impact of trains through Browns Canyon contested by Friends
The Friends of Browns Canyon National Monument group was quick to issue a statement critical of the announcement, specifically the possibility of crude oil being transported along the steep banks of the river en route from the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
In a follow-up statement, Rio Grande Pacific denied that it would be transporting crude oil over Tennessee Pass.
“Speculation that RGPC’s interest in Tennessee Pass is for the operation of trains carrying crude oil from Utah is false. RGPC has no plan to operate oil trains over Tennessee Pass,” the press release stated.
Kuklin said he had heard the rumor that the line might be used to transport oil from Utah to Texas, as well as “one interested party (who) wants to ship wheat from Kansas to the West Coast.”
“I would be happy to see wheat moving through Buena Vista, but I have concerns about trains of crude oil traveling through here and through Browns Canyon,” Kuklin said.
Voicing a similar opinion to Vailnews.com reporter David O. Williams, Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker said “ag products are one thing, but the oil would be a whole other kettle of fish.”
“I don’t know what political control there is over this. It is the railroad, so probably not a whole lot of local political control. Certainly not jurisdictional control, but we’ll be working closely with our county leaders as this progresses,” Puckett said.
A coalition of governments of the counties the Tennessee Pass Line passes through may also be forming, he said.