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One train still rolls, but not across Tennessee Pass

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

RUMORS HAVE BEEN floating around that the Union Pacific Railroad might resume service over Tennessee Pass this summer, perhaps to alleviate the congestion that has plagued the system since last fall, when Tennessee Pass was taken out of service.

Another variant has it that BNSF is interested in using Tennessee Pass. Burlington Northern Santa Fé has trackage rights on the Moffat Tunnel Line, but it, too, has been congested of late.

But according to Ed Trandahl of the UP’s public-relations department, those rumors are unfounded. He said no changes were planned for Tennessee Pass.

So why, then, are there still trains through Salida and Buena Vista?

Those trains serve the Asarco Black Cloud mine east of Leadville, which ships lead, zinc, and silver concentrates via rail. The shipments start at Malta (the railroad junction where the highway veers away from the main line as you’re coming into Leadville from the south) and go to a smelter in East Helena, Montana.

It is our understanding that the Black Cloud had a long-term contract with the D&RGW and the SP for rail service, and when UP took over the SP, UP was obliged to honor that contract. The terms of the contract, though, are not a matter of public record, and so far, nobody has told us any more.

At any rate, UP provides the service, with two trains a week which originate in Pueblo. The train goes up one day and leaves off the empty cars. The crew stays overnight in Leadville. The next day, the train picks up the loaded cars and returns to Pueblo.

No trains are going over Tennessee Pass. (More properly, they don’t go under Tennessee Pass, or through it, since there’s a tunnel at the top.)

Trandahl said the UP removed pieces of rail from each end (just west of Malta and just east of Sage, where there’s a drywall plant that is a major rail shipper) because federal law requires the railroad to maintain the signals on Tennessee Pass if it remains connected.

Since that part of the line is out of service, the railroad didn’t want to spend money on maintaining the signals.

“The Tennessee Pass route could be brought back into full operation if necessary,” Trandahl explained. “None of it has been abandoned. We could replace the missing pieces of rail in a few hours, something we commonly do when we repair damaged rail anywhere.”

UP has not filed to abandon Tennessee Pass, and it cannot do so until it has demonstrated to the Federal Surface Transportation Board that it can handle the traffic that used to go over Tennessee Pass in a prompt and efficient way that serves shippers.

Given the railroad’s continuing service problems since the merger, now the subject of several federal hearings, that might be a while.

And in somewhat related rail news, the state of Colorado has agreed to purchase the former UP line from Pueblo to Towner (near the Kansas line) for about $10 million, with the idea of leasing it to a private operator.

Gov. Roy Romer signed the bill, even though he was opposed to the state’s “getting into the railroad business.”

But the state has been in the railroad business since about 1970, when Colorado and New Mexico joined to purchase the narrow-gauge line from Antonito, Colo., to Chama, N.M. The state also owns, through the historical society, the rebuilt Georgetown Loop line.

Perhaps Romer’s real objection is that the state shouldn’t be in the railroad business unless the railroads operate as tourist attractions.