DENVER – It’s been 23 years since trains rumbled through the tunnel atop Tennessee Pass.
That could change as interest in the dormant Tennessee Pass Line between Cañon City and Dotsero grows. A fledgling railway project in Utah’s Uinta Basin and a billionaire New York City developer with thousands of acres of wheat and an existing rail operation in southeastern Colorado are circling the tracks, hoping to revive the state’s 208-mile transmountain railway.
If either get their wish, trains carrying freight, crude oil and, possibly, passengers, could be rolling through the Royal Gorge, Salida, Browns Canyon, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Avon, Eagle and Gypsum.
The Surface Transportation Board that safeguards the nation’s rail network has spent the last three months working with the Tennessee Pass Line owner Union Pacific as the longtime rail operator negotiates with suitors for the stretch of railroad it idled in 1997. While few of the players are talking, the filings with the transportation board are telling.
It began in February, when Colorado Pacific Railroad filed an application with the Surface Transportation Board, asking it to force Union Pacific to sell the Tennessee Pass Line for $8.8 million. Union Pacific last year declined Colorado Pacific’s offer of $10 million.
Colorado Pacific Railroad is owned by KCVN, which is owned by New York City high-rise developer Sheldon Solow and his son, Stefan Soloviev, who reclaimed the original spelling of his family’s name. Soloviev runs Crossroads Agriculture, a variety of agricultural businesses on KVCN’s vast acreage in Kansas and Colorado.
The company estimated in its Feb. 14 application with the transportation board that it would need $278 million to rehabilitate more than 208 miles of track between the Royal Gorge and Dostero.
KCVN’s attorney in that filing noted that when Crossroads wants to move Colorado grain west to flour mills in Utah or Southern California, it needs to ship it east 250 miles to reach a Union Pacific westbound rail line in Hutchinson, Kansas, and then it rolls 250 miles back into Colorado, “having traveled 500 miles without any net westward progress,” reads the filing.
KCVN has forced the sale of a rail line before. The Surface Transportation Board approved KCVN’s application to force V and S Railway to sell southeast Colorado’s Towner Line in 2017.
Colorado Pacific Railroad in 2016 announced a $6 million plan to buy and rehabilitate the 122-mile Towner Line, which stretches through Otero, Kiowa, Crowley and Pueblo counties in southeast Colorado. The company’s application noted that KCVN owns 69,000 acres of Colorado wheat farmland worth about $50 million near the Towner Line and the company has “wealthy principals” who could afford additional costs related to the acquisition of the railway. The Surface Transportation Board in 2017 approved Colorado Pacific’s call for a forced sale by V and S Railway, which acquired the troubled rail line from the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2005 and officially abandoned the line in 2011.
When Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merged in 1998, Union Pacific gave up on attempts to utilize the Tennessee Pass line and continued to rely solely on routing its coal-train traffic through the Moffat Tunnel, while promising to revive traffic on Tennessee Pass should Moffat Tunnel become clogged with trains. The Surface Transportation Board, in its approval of the merger, said if Union Pacific ever decides to sell the Tennessee Pass route, it should sell to an entity that will use it in the transportation system.
“We will be vigilant as to this issue,” the STB wrote.
Union Pacific on March 9 urged the Surface Transportation Board to reject KCVN’s request for a forced sale, saying that it has been negotiating a sale of the Tennessee Pass Line with another party since last fall. That filing, until it was redacted, included the name of the other party, which was caught by an intrepid reporter for the trains.com news wire who identified the suitor as Rio Grande Pacific Corp., which operates short lines in six states.
Rio Grande Pacific is the planned operator of a $1.5 billion proposal for a new railroad connecting crude oil from Utah’s Uinta Basin with the national railway network. If the Uinta Basin Railway is built and Rio Grande Pacific acquires Tennessee Pass, three to 10 trains hauling crude oil could travel south through Utah to Grand Junction to Minturn, over Tennessee Pass and through the Upper Arkansas River Valley en route to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The federal government is conducting an Environmental Impact Statement studying the impacts of the roughly 85-mile Uinta Basin Railway project.
“Specifically, RGPC had expressed interest in purchasing from Union Pacific the portion of the Line from Parkdale to Gypsum, Colorado, and implementing both passenger and freight service. We told KCVN we intended to see those discussions through before exploring other options,” reads the unredacted document filed by Union Pacific that briefly appeared on the Surface Transportation Board’s website on March 9, according to trains.com.
In 1998, Mark Greksa’s Royal Gorge Express acquired 11.75 miles of Union Pacific track between Cañon City and Parkdale for his tourist trains. He shares use of the track with freight hauler Rock & Rail Railroad. The 1998 deal left Union Pacific with permanent “overhead trackage rights” to the rails through the gorge, “so as to preserve the integrity of the Tennessee Pass through route.”
Rock & Rail on March 9 also urged the transportation board to reject KCVN’s application for a forced sale. Rock & Rail argued the Tennessee Pass Line consists of “numerous” owners and Union Pacific doesn’t qualify as the single owner of the entire stretch of railroad under the board’s rules for forced sales of feeder lines.
Greksa has been watching the flurry of filings and interest on Tennessee Pass. He’s also been busy opening his Royal Gorge tourist train in a pandemic, so he hasn’t weighed in.
“We’ve heard all the rumblings. Here’s the thing: they have to come to us for permission to run through the gorge and we are not going to give it to them,” Greksa said in an interview. “There has been talk about Tennessee Pass forever. But no one has ever talked to us. But it doesn’t matter. They are going to have trouble getting through the gorge without our permission.”
The Surface Transportation Board on March 13 sided with Union Pacific and rejected Colorado Pacfic’s request to force the sale of the Tennessee Pass Line. (Federal law allows the Surface Transportation Board to approve forced sales as a way to keep trains rolling on rail lines slated for abandonment when parties cannot agree on a deal to sell.)
But the board’s dismissal of the deal “without prejudice” means KCVN and Colorado Pacific could refile the application.
The talk of rail traffic in the Upper Arkansas River Valley has locals on edge. The valley’s Stage & Rail plan calls for a hiking and biking path along a former narrow-gauge railroad grade in the valley and rail service on the existing tracks could impact those plans.
“I think a bigger concern with this project would be the impact to local communities, access and experience in Brown’s Canyon National Monument, and wildlife impacts along the river corridor, which is already impacted by Highway 50 and 24 through much of the valley,” said Julie Mach, the conservation director for Colorado Mountain Club who is helping with the Stage & Rail trail plans. “There has always been interest in a true ‘rails-to-trails’ route along the existing rail line, but UP has never been responsive to those discussions. An ideal situation would be for the state to purchase the line in order to facilitate a rails-to-trails project.”
A 2017 report by CDOT that studied abandoned rail lines and possible line acquisitions in the state identified the Tennessee Pass Line as significant for its potential to carry both passengers and freight. It also noted the Tennessee Pass route as the only existing transmountain alternative to the Moffat Tunnel, which often runs near capacity.
“The Tennessee Pass Line may be able to be used as an alternate route as transmountain rail demand grows due to increased development on the Western Slope or if the Moffat Tunnel were damaged or closed for any reason,” reads CDOT’s 2017 report. “Such an event would have a significant impact on Colorado, particularly on the Western Slope, since the railroads would be forced to move freight through Wyoming.”
CDOT is studying passenger rail service on 173 miles of the Front Range between Fort Collins and Pueblo. The agency is gathering public input for its Front Range passenger rail plan via a series of online meetings throughout July. CDOT’s preferred alternative for passenger service between Fort Collins and Denver no longer includes Union Pacific’s idled Fort Collins Branch, which was identified as an option in 2000 rail studies but disregarded in the 2011 North I-25 Environmental Impact Statement studying passenger rail service north of metro Denver.
So does the renewed interest in potentially shipping crude and grain over Tennessee Pass in any way alter CDOT’s plans or perspective on the state’s dormant but critical trans-mountain railroad?
“CDOT is monitoring the status of these lines but has no specific plans at this time for development or acquisition along the corridors,” CDOT spokesman Tim Hoover said.
Entrepreneur Christof Stork spent most of 2016 trying to foster support for passenger rail service over Tennessee Pass. While stirring the interest of residents eager to relieve traffic on Interstate 70 and a housing shortage in the Eagle River Valley by connecting it with the Upper Arkansas River Valley, Stork didn’t get too far with local leaders.
Stork estimates the cost of repairing the line for serious passenger service between Gypsum and Leadville would cost $50 million to $100 million. He’s not talking about seasonal tourist trains.
“I don’t want to think small. I’m talking about a commuter rail system. Something like the airport train in Denver,” Stork said.
He sees a train along the Eagle River connecting upvalley resorts with downvalley communities could shift housing patterns by creating dense housing near train stations for workers who are struggling to find affordable housing in the valley between Vail and Gypsum.
But he figures the only way to convince Union Pacific to either sell or partner with a passenger rail service is for the state of Colorado to start pushing. The state owns the Moffat Tunnel and the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District’s long term lease with Union Pacific to use the tunnel – the only other transmountain railroad in Colorado besides Tennessee Pass – expires in 2025.
“That gives Colorado leverage to get UP to play ball and be friendly with the Tennessee Pass line,” Stork said.
“Maybe it does. Who knows?” he added. “I do know this, though: Things are only going to get worse in 20 years. If we don’t plan now we might lose this option. In 20 years, people may be saying ‘What were they thinking? Why didn’t they plan for this when they had the chance?’”