Editorial: Let’s not fail this Tennessee Pass

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
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Look at that butterfly. Wow, what dynamic coloring. It’s just bouncing from flower to flower, and there are some old railroad crossties ... but the nature surrounding us is just incredible.

It happens way too often: abandoned railroad tracks converted into nature/walk/ bike trails. The transition also is known as Rails to Trails. It’s when a region moves away from the dynamic power of a chugging economy and instead goes with a plan that fills you with fresh air, provides scenery that is soft on the eyes, and has people going out to buy a new pair of comfortable walking shoes. I really do not mind that adaptation, as long as there is a certainty the railroad that will soon be swallowed by vegetation has zero chance of serving agriculture and industry any time in the future.

The Tennessee Pass winds through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad put together a narrow gauge railroad over the Tennessee Pass in 1881 as part of its extension to the Aspen area in an attempt to beat the Colorado Midland’s standard gauge route to the rich mining area.

However, over the past month another fight has formed in the center of the ring. In the red corner is the Colorado Pacific Railroad. In the white corner, Union Pacific and Rio Grande Pacific railroads. UP and the Rio Grande Pacific have formed a tag team in an attempt to take over the Tennessee Pass line. In January, Colorado Midland & Pacific filed an application with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to run freight and passenger trains on the tracks. Colorado Pacific (please follow me as the words “Colorado” and “Pacific” frantically exchange jabs here) threatened to file a protest with the STB stating it believed the deal with UP and Rio Grande Pacific, and also Colorado Midland & Pacific, would form a monopoly. It seems Colorado Pacific Railroad also wants to run trains through the Pass, and made an unsuccessful bid last year for the usage of the line with UP, which was in negotiations with Rio Grande Pacific.

Now it appears the spectators to this fight have thrown themselves over the ropes and onto the canvas. Environmental groups, county commissioners and residents of Chafee, Lake and Eagle counties in Colorado do not want the Pass to carry any type of rail transportation. This has turned into a street brawl, and the STB is in the middle of it all trying to separate the scrappers.

The track itself has been vacant since 1997, and Colorado Pacific Railroad believes it will cost $278 million to strengthen about 160 miles of the rail line.

If I had to choose an arm to raise in triumph, it would be Colorado Pacific Railroad. The short-liner’s control over the tracks would help spur the local economy, and I would put money on the company taking the necessary steps to fix the tracks.

Train activity is definitely the way to go due to reasons mentioned above. The worst thing that could happen is that Rails to Trails proponents plow through and convince officials to lay out a walking/bike trail along a stretch that once belonged to the all-powerful railroad. Once the railroad is shut down there really is no turning back, and the local economy would forever take major blows to the face.

The STB has some important decisions regarding the Tennessee Pass. Even if it does side with the UP-Rio Grande Western team, the pick is better than the other alternative. Those old railroad ties carrying an economic surge is the real thing of beauty.

Categories: Freight, ON Track Maintenance, Passenger, Rail News, Railroad News, Track Maintenance
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