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Another Royal Gorge War could be coming soon

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR AN AREA that America’s largest railroad wants to abandon, Central Colorado has sure seen plenty of rail-related activity lately.

The Union Pacific Railroad has now sold the 11 miles of Royal Gorge track, from CaƱon City to Parkdale.

The buyers are the same people who operate the Georgetown Loop tourist line, and with some restored diesel equipment, they plan to start running passenger excursions on August 14. (Adult fare is $24.50, and you can make reservations or get particulars by calling 800-691-4386, or at their website:

Curiously, though, UP retained “overhead freight rights,” which means it can still run trains through the Gorge, although it can’t serve customers in those 11 miles.

UP has said it plans to abandon the rest of the line from Parkdale to Sage (a siding that serves a drywall plant near the junction with the Moffat Line at Dotsero), and Gov. Roy Romer, when he gave his blessing to the merger in 1996, said the rail corridor would become a scenic hiking and bicycle trail.

But another state agency want the rails to stay in place. On June 18, the Colorado Transportation Commission, which sets policy for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT — which was generally thought to stand for “Colorado Department of Trucks”), voted 11-0 to keep the rails in place and to look for a rail operator.

This is pretty much what happened to another Colorado line the UP abandoned in the merger — the “Towner Line,” the old Missouri Pacific route east from Pueblo to Towner near the Kansas border.

Earlier this year, the legislature approved buying the 122-mile Towner Line for $10.2 million, and the state is now negotiating with potential rail operators who believe it can be a profitable freight operation, hauling wheat out and serving one of those industrial hog farms.

So we’ve got two state agencies working against each other — the governor’s office bent on giving us a trail, and CDOT trying to preserve rail service hereabouts. The state parks department is already committed to spending $4 million to plan the trail, while the Transportation Commission has directed CDOT staff to look into acquiring the 172-mile Tennessee Pass line for $19.2 million.

However, CDOT executives were directed to “communicate with State Parks and the Governor’s office for the purpose of developing a unified strategy to preserve the corridor for transportation purposes among the affected State agencies.”

Since Colorado’s highways are crumbling, and every full rail car replaces about four full semi trailers, the CDOT policy offers a certain logic: the more freight that moves by rail, the less it has to spend on highways.

When eastbound trains ran over Tennessee Pass, they needed extra locomotives, called “helpers,” to get up the steep grade from Minturn to the 10,242-foot apex of the tunnel at the top. Thus Minturn was a busy railroad town until last August, when UP halted service.

Now UP has proposed developing its 62-acre rail yard in Minturn — 275 housing units, along with commercial development. Some of the parcel could be developed as a ski base area to reach the Game Creek area of Vail Mountain.

But if service resumed, where would the helpers be stationed someday? Perhaps at Malta (the junction for Leadville), according to gossip that was all over the Internet rail-buff sites last spring.

Salida was also a railroad division point in the days of steam, and UP has about 100 acres, once devoted to shops and roundhouses and the like, strung along the river north of the F Street Bridge. The railroad hasn’t announced any development plans, but it did express interest in leasing some of the property when Salida Mayor Ralph Taylor inquired.