How much longer for our rail route?

Article by Allen Best and Ed Quillen

Transportation – November 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Some parts of the world specialize in rumors of Elvis sightings. Others prefer the rumors of UFO abductions.

Around here, we tend to the more mundane: Rumors that the Southern Pacific will soon abandon the 147 miles of one-time Denver & Rio Grande Western track between Cañon City and Minturn — the Royal Gorge Route through Brown’s Canyon and across the Divide via the Tennessee Pass Tunnel.

Since about 1890, the railroad has been disinvesting in this part of the world, and why would things change now? For 20 years, rumors have persisted that the line will be abandoned.

Because the Southern Pacific is less than forthcoming about its plans, the rumors are no more than speculation.

The basic equation to solve is fairly simple: Is there enough traffic to justify keeping the line? Or would it be more profitable for the railroad to abandon this corridor, and haul its Colorado traffic through the Moffat Tunnel?

Rail traffic comes in two forms: local and through.

Through traffic can be a “unit train” of coal that goes directly from Utah mine to Texas power plant, or one of those freights that rattles by, a train assembled in Salt Lake City and disassembled in Pueblo, with stops en route only to change crews at Helper, Grand Junction, and Minturn.

Local traffic is for local industry — for instance, a carload of coal to fuel Salida’s Calco plant, or silver concentrates loaded at Malta for shipment to a smelter.

For through traffic, the Southern Pacific has two routes across the mountains. From the west, they diverge at Dotsero, where the Eagle and Colorado rivers join.

The old main line goes up the Eagle through Minturn and across Tennessee Pass to follow the Arkansas down past Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida, en route to Cañon City and Pueblo, where it connects to other railroad systems, as well as a Southern Pacific line east to Kansas City.

The new main line follows the Colorado River upstream from Dotsero, through Gore Canyon and Granby to the Moffat Tunnel and down to Denver, where it meets to other lines — including a Southern Pacific line south to Pueblo and the Kansas City connection.

So in theory, the SP’s through traffic in Colorado could be handled by the Moffat Tunnel line. Since almost all traffic is through traffic, why go to the expense of maintaining and operating the Tennessee Pass line?

That’s essentially what Ed Moyers, the SP’s chief executive officer, asked last year after a tour of the Tennessee Pass line. “I’m questioning the profitability and cost of operating the central corridor,” he told the Wall Street Journal. An informed article in Trains magazine soon thereafter said abandonment would come soon.

Abandoning the Tennessee Pass line would, of course, mean abandoning the track between Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville and Minturn. Track between Pueblo and Cañon City, however, would probably remain intact, due to sufficient local traffic.

The Tennessee Pass line has steep grades: a maximum of 3 per cent as compared to 2.2 percent via the Moffat Tunnel (a 3 percent grade means that the tracks rise, or fall, three feet in elevation for every 100 horizontal feet).

Steeper grades mean more fuel and more locomotives — more expense — to move the same tonnage in the same amount of time. Moyers noted that “it takes a tremendous amount of horsepower to move coal trains over Tennessee Pass” in comparison to the Moffat Tunnel.

The 6.21-mile Moffat apex is 9,239 feet above the tides; the 2,500-foot Tennessee Pass tunnel tops out at 10,242 feet — a thousand feet more to lift every ton of freight.

The Tennessee Pass route is longer — 349 miles from Dotsero to Denver, as opposed to 170 miles on the Moffat Tunnel route. This also translates into higher costs, ranging from locomotive fuel to labor costs to track maintenance.

There’s also the prospect of some big money from land. With the explosive growth of the Vail valley, Minturn is no longer a grimy division point jammed into a sunless canyon, but a hot spot where a trailer lot sells for $35,000.

The railroad owns 121 acres in Minturn. Some could become residential; other land might serve as a new portal for an expanded Vail ski area, with the back bowls linked to lifts that rise from Minturn.

Think of 80 acres of railroad yard cut up into 10 lots per acre at $35,000 apiece, and you come up with 28 million reasons why one railroader at the Turntable Cafe said he didn’t expect to be working out of Minturn for more than a couple more years.

Even so, abandonment might be out of the question if there was an abundance of local traffic along the line. But there isn’t, and some shippers say that the railroad’s poor service seems designed to send them to trucking companies. That means fewer shippers to file protests if the railroad decides to abandon the route.

It’s an old railroad tactic, known well to the SP’s predecessor here, the D&RGW, and the SP might well be following a strategic plan to eliminate local traffic so that it will be easier to abandon the line someday.

Shippers in Los Angeles or Kansas City don’t care which route the railroad uses, and it’s been a long time since the railroad cared about local traffic.

Before World War II, the D&RGW worked to develop industries along its lines, but in 1951, the D&RGW became a “bridge carrier” — its revenues from through traffic exceeded those from locally originated freight.

Since then, in the words of Allen Nossaman, former editor of the Silverton Standard, “all the D&RGW cares about is moving somebody else’s freight cars from Denver to Salt Lake City,” and there’s no evidence that the Southern Pacific merger has altered that attitude.

However, abandonment (the railroad’s public-relations department calls it “rationalization”) may not come for a long time, for several reasons:

1 The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, served by the Southern Pacific, are the busiest in the nation. Standard-sized metal containers come off ships and go onto flat cars for shipment into the interior, and that traffic is a mainstay for the SP.

Since 1987, double-stacked containers on flat cars have become quite popular because the same car can thereby haul twice as much freight.

However, the Moffat Tunnel is only 22 feet high, too low to accommodate double-stacks. The same holds for many of the other 38 tunnels on that route.

Double-stacks will fit on the Tennessee Pass line, although the Belden and Pando tunnels on the west side had to be expanded to accommodate them a few years ago.

If Southern Pacific abandoned Tennessee Pass, it would have to forego double-stack containers, shift them to its Sunset Route through El Paso, or enlarge the Moffat Tunnel — which could cost upward of $25 million. Jake Jacobowski, a Moffat Tunnel Commissioner, said it might be cheaper to build a new tunnel rather than rework the 6.21-mile Moffat.

Thus, the Tennessee Pass Route, even if it’s expensive to operate, could be more profitable than the alternatives.

2 Southern Pacific could be hauling more through freight now than it can accommodate on just one mountain line which terminates in its busy Denver yards.

“If everybody is as busy as we are in Denver, I don’t see how they could get away with just one main line [through Colorado],” said Tom Lell, a car inspector at the SP’s Denver yards, where trains are switched and inspected.

Incoming trains often have to wait until another train leaves because the yards are so busy, he said.

Nationally, rail freight volume has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent in recent years. It shows on this line. Early last summer, it carried about 50 trains a week. Now there are 140, according to the Pueblo trainmaster’s office: 10 trains a day each way, for 20 a day or 140 a week.

If traffic continues at its present volume, or grows, the costs of expanding the Denver yards, or of losing customers on account of delays, would have to be weighed against the expected savings of abandoning the Tennessee Pass route.

3 One reason traffic has picked up recently is that, starting Sept. 1, Southern Pacific is fulfilling a $40 million-a-year contract to haul iron ore from the Midwest to Utah.

The ore starts in the Iron Range of Minnesota and goes by the rails of the Wisconsin Central as far as Chicago. Southern Pacific takes it from there for 1,500 miles to the Geneva Steel Works near Salt Lake City.

The open-top hopper cars then get filled with coal from western Colorado and Utah. After its trip over Tennessee Pass and down the Royal Gorge, the coal goes to St. Louis, where it is transferred to barges destined for power plants. Western coal, because of its lower sulfur content, enables utilities to meet clean-air standards more cheaply.

Thanks to its direct connection east from Pueblo, most easily reached via Tennessee Pass, Southern Pacific is able to keep the cars full for most of the distance, and this back-haul load means it could underbid the Union Pacific — which has the easiest route across the Divide in the Red Desert of Wyoming.

Southern Pacific has its own line east from Pueblo to Kansas City, and when that is taken into account, the Tennessee Pass line looks shorter.

The railroad naturally wants to keep freight on its own tracks for as long as possible, which means hauling eastbound goods to Pueblo, rather than Denver. Dotsero to Pueblo via the Moffat Tunnel is 290 miles, as opposed to 229 via Tennessee Pass. If the freight is bound from Salt Lake City to Kansas City, Tennessee Pass could be the most profitable route for the Southern Pacific.

4 Even if there’s money to be made in Minturn by converting railroad property to other purposes, the railroad could move its yards and engine terminal (extra locomotives, called “helpers,” are attached to the rear of eastbound trains at Minturn for the haul up to Tennessee Pass, where they detach and return to Minturn) to another site — Eagle or Leadville, perhaps.

That would make most of the railroad’s 121 Minturn acres available, while continuing operation over Tennessee Pass. In any case, the value of the land would be a “fairly minor consideration,” according to Steve Hebert, vice-president of Southern Pacific Real Estate.

Given all that, for the near future, it appears that the railroad corridor between Dotsero and Cañon City will continue to function much as it has for the past three decades — frequent rumbling freight trains punctuated by very occasional passenger excursions for millionaires in private rail cars.

Allen Best and Ed Quillen have collaborated on many projects, ranging from a history of the Henricks homestead in Middle Park to an ascent of Mt. Elbert. Best is managing editor of the Vail Valley Times; Quillen performs a variety of chores for Colorado Central.

In the December edition, they will write about possible futures for the rail corridor.