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UP considers (more or less) re-opening Tennessee Pass

Brief by Ed Quillen

Transportation – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Union Pacific Railroad is giving more consideration to re-opening the Tennessee Pass line, but don’t hold your breath.

Recent increases in coal production from Utah and the Western Slope of Colorado have strained capacity on the Moffat Tunnel Route between Grand Junction and Denver. Running through trains across Tennessee Pass could ease some of that congestion, and thus the renewed interest.

After merging with the Southern Pacific in 1996, UP closed the line in August of 1997, and proceeded toward abandonment, with the state government working to convert the 170-mile right-of-way into a trail.

UP halted all service across 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass, the highest through line in the nation, between Sage (a siding that serves a gypsum plant on the west side, a few miles from Eagle) and Malta (the railroad junction a couple of miles west of Leadville).

Rail service — two short trains each week — has been maintained from Pueblo to Malta. The trains haul concentrates from the Asarco Black Cloud Mine to a smelter in East Helena, Montana, where silver, lead, and zinc were recovered.

Last summer, UP sold the dozen miles of track from CaƱon City to Parkdale — the Royal Gorge — to a private operator which will run tourist excursions next summer, and haul gravel from a new quarry. UP did keep “overhead rights” in the sale, which means it can run trains through that area, but cannot serve local customers.

And then UP notified the federal Surface Transportation Board that it was withdrawing its request to abandon Tennessee Pass. Railroad spokesmen hastened to explain that this did not mean UP had any plans to resume through train service, just that the company wanted to keep its options open.

That brings us up to this winter. The only shipper, the Black Cloud, may be running on borrowed time. ASARCO announced that unless more ore is found, the Black Cloud — the largest private employer in Lake County, and Leadville’s last operating mine — will close sometime next year.

But even if metal production is ailing in Leadville, coal production is booming in the North Fork (Paonia area), Yampa Valley (Steamboat Springs area), and the Uinta Field (Carbon County, Utah).

Shipments were up 18% in September and October, and UP has solved many of the operational problems that plagued mines a year ago, when they had to suspend production because they ran out of room to store coal because UP couldn’t provide timely rail service.

Most of this coal goes to utility plants on the Front Range of Colorado and to Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Wisconsin — and UP is running out of capacity on the Moffat Tunnel Route.

So it would make sense to use Tennessee Pass, even though it’s steep and expensive to operate, to haul the empty coal cars back to the mines. That would ease congestion on the Moffat Route, thereby improving service to the coal mines and their utility customers.

Thus UP’s considering re-opening the Tennessee Pass line as a through route — but again, don’t hold your breath.