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A slow train running over Tennessee Pass

Brief by Allen Best

Transportation – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Trains have been absent on the Tennessee Pass route only three years. So when a work train eased through Red Cliff on October 9, the reaction it provoked couldn’t properly be called nostalgic. Nor, could the reaction be called excited. Even to those undisturbed by the noise, the history of chemicals spilled by derailed trains in this region make their return unwelcome.

But there’s a great curiosity about what will happen to the railroad tracks if, and when, Union Pacific finally plays its hand. Future abandonment of the line was announced five years ago, but UP has yet to prove to federal negotiators, and perhaps itself, that it can live just fine without the highest (10,242 feet in the tunnel below Tennessee Pass) and also one of the steepest (maximum grade of 3 percent) standard-gauge routes in the United States.

For the last two years, rumors that UP planned to press the 168-mile segment between Cañon City and Gypsum back into service have proliferated, but the work train should not be interpreted as evidence of that intent, said Mike Furtney, a UP spokesman in Omaha. “There is definitely no plan to do anything else,” he said.

The train was dispatched to do trash pickup, as per a 1996 agreement between UP and then Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. Furtney said he had heard of no significant rockfalls, but could not explain why such a long train — it included 20 to 30 gondola-type freight cars — was needed.

Nor has any UP official explained why a track-alignment consist — it uses lasers to make sure the rails are the standard 4′ 8½” apart — was spotted along the corridor last month.

UP officials also continue to insist that they have no plans for the former railroad yards at Minturn, despite their proximity to both Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas.