Commuters and gossip on Tennessee Pass

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

What’s ahead for the old Denver & Rio Grande Western rail line across Tennessee Pass, now owned by the Union Pacific and out of service for more than a year?

Depends on which piece of track you’re asking about. On the east end, the UP sold the segment from Cañon City through the Royal Gorge to Parkdale. It’s now in use for freight (the Rock & Rail hauling from a quarry) and passengers (Cañon City & Royal Gorge excursion trains).

On the west side, the Associated Press reports that Eagle County has applied for $43 million in federal transportation funds to run commuter trains that would service resorts at Vail and Beaver Creek.

Initially, the service would run from Gypsum to Avon, with a spur to the airport, and shuttle buses to the resorts. Then it could expand across Tennessee Pass to Leadville, where many resort workers now face an icy drive over a narrow and twisting pass to get to work.

Rep. Scott McInnis sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, and he supports the project. If all goes well in this session of Congress, service might begin as early as 2002.

As for the rest of the line, UP had proposed abandoning it in its 1995 proposal to merge with the Southern Pacific. Then UP withdrew its petition for abandonment, but stopped service on the line. The last trains crossed Tennessee Pass in 1997, and about a year ago, local service between Cañon City and Leadville came to an end with the last concentrate shipment from the Asarco Black Cloud Mine.

UP says it has no plans to re-open the line, although there’s always gossip, generally because many believe coal mines in the Paonia area require improved rail service.

For instance, Tennessee Pass could be re-opened for west-bound empty coal cars, thereby eliminating the need for helper service on east-bound trains from Minturn.

Or if the Paonia coal mines aren’t getting the service they want (UP has reasons to favor the Powder River Basin of Wyoming for coal shipments), then the Federal Surface Transportation Board might consider ordering UP to sell the route.

But again, that’s gossip, and the official word is that UP isn’t doing anything with the Tennessee Pass line.