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Plans for the corridor

Sidebar by Allen Best & Ed Quillen

Transportation – January 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Although it appears likely that the Southern Pacific’s Royal Gorge-Tennessee Pass corridor will continue to operate about the same way that it has for the past thirty years, there are still plenty of people with plans for the corridor.

Among the possibilities:


Assuming that the Southern Pacific or some other rail company continued to operate freight trains on the line, then it’s possible, though highly unlikely, for Amtrak to offer passenger service.

State transportation officials have talked to Amtrak about service between Denver and El Paso, Texas. Along the way, this train would serve Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

If a revived Texas Zephyr ran south from Denver, then a passenger route west from Pueblo could connect with other Amtrak trains at Pueblo and Glenwood Springs, and serve Vail at Minturn while exposing passengers to the Royal Gorge.

However, Amtrak, in these days of federal budget-cutting, is retreating, not expanding.

Sporadic Passenger Service

In the late 1980s, the Upper Arkansas Council of Governments contracted with Centennial Rail, a tourist-line operator, to study possible passenger excursions along the corridor.

Centennial proposed six excursions: Minturn-Leadville, Cañon-Salida, Ca$on-Buena Vista, Salida-Minturn, Buena Vista-Minturn, Minturn-Salida. These would run on weekends from late August through September, to take advantage of fall colors.

Passengers would board at loading platforms to ride the leased equipment of the Ski Train that runs on winter weekends between Denver and Winter Park.

Centennial estimated that the trains might attract 63,000 riders in a given year at an average adult fare of $70, and produced a 60-page study for COG.

The study was as far as this train ever went. The Denver & Rio Grande Western, which then operated the line, decided not to cooperate any further.

Other Passenger Service

Southern Pacific could decide to operate passenger trains, or, more likely, entrepreneurs might buy the Southern Pacific line from Dotsero eastward with an eye to passenger service.

One plan: Persuade the Moffat Tunnel Commission to lower the floor of the tunnel so that it could accommodate double-stack container cars. All Southern Pacific through freight could follow that route, and the railroad could sell the Tennessee Pass route to new operators.

They might want some local freight traffic, but “Any buyer would have to look at passenger service,” explained Chris Ford, greenway trail planner in the Colorado Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. “There’s hardly any local freight traffic, so if you’re going to make money off the tracks, you need passengers.”

Passengers could come in several forms. Many Leadville residents now drive over Tennessee Pass to change sheets in the resorts of Eagle County; they might well prefer to commute by rail. So might down-valley commuters tired of the congestion between Eagle, Avon, and Vail.

Vail attracts many European tourists from civilized countries with good rail passenger service. They’re a deep-pockets market for a ski-train network that might link Steamboat Springs, Aspen, Winter Park, and Vail — a network that’s a gleam in the eyes of Dave Ruble, a planner in the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

Add that to some general tourism — railroad buffs, and folks who just want to enjoy passing scenery in comfort — and regular passenger service might be possible and profitable.

At least one company, Vertical Marketing of Avon, is looking into this, with a base there and daily trains connecting Leadville and Glenwood Springs.

“There is a major infrastructure in place, and how can we tap into it?” CDOT’s Ruble asked last year. “Can we take that line and start running European rail cars on it? People want to have a European experience in the region.”

What of the corridor south of Leadville, where people might not be so desirous of a European experience?

As long as we’re speculating about the line’s future, why not small, frequent shuttle trains along the Arkansas? Board the train in Cañon, Salida, or Buena Vista, ride upstream to your drop-off point. The train stops, your guides unload your rafts from a flat car, and you go down the river. When the trip’s over, flag down a passing shuttle train, load the rafts, and head back to where you boarded that morning.

This would enhance the rafting experience by adding a train trip, and it would make the highways of Chaffee and Frémont counties much safer while postponing expensive highway expansion projects.

An Arkansas short line could also haul freight from local shippers to the nearest main-line railheads — another way to postpone expensive highway construction.

Shuttle trains along the river might work, but there are more questions than answers. Who would own and operate the trains? Would this pay for a private enterprise? If it were a public entity, where would the money come from when state and local governments operate under the strictures of Amendment One?

— A.B. & E.Q.