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The Caboose: Spring Optimism for us Rail Passengers

By Forrest Whitman

There was a lot of hopeful passenger train talk on my recent trip from Denver to Seattle on AMTRAK. On the first leg of that trip, the California Zephyr carried over 800 passengers. The train up the coast from Sacramento to Seattle looked full too. No one in either train’s lounge car doubted the popularity of passenger rail.

California folks talked about the high speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles now building. That’s hopeful even if a little group of Republican congressmen succeed in halting the already approved federal grant. Folks from the south were excited about the extension of Texas rail. When my turn came I offered hope for our Colorado passenger rail, even for our rail in Colorado Central land.

The Colorado political climate got better for trains recently when the Southwest Chief Commission was put on a fast track to passage. The commission is enlarged to include front range rail and the city of Walsenburg. That commission deserves some of the credit for saving our Southwest Chief train. Of course credit also goes to all the little towns along the way, to three states, and to the BNSF railroad for all chipping in to make it happen. The Obama infrastructure grant helped pay part of the freight too. There were hopeful noises in the bar car about the new administration in Washington. Some doubted that rail infrastructure grants might come from D.C. But, President Trump did make “huge” promises about infrastructure.

Our newly-enlarged Colorado rail commission plans little steps to bring back passenger rail from La Junta to Cheyenne one day. Heck, that could bring back the great rail days of the early 20th century! Even in these highly partisan political days our commission got bipartisan support with a Republican state senator from Alamosa as chief sponsor. Apparently things in Colorado aren’t quite so polarized as they are in Washington.

[InContentAdTwo] Signs of springtime for rail passengers in Colorado Central land are everywhere. Ed Ellis, owner of Iowa Pacific Holdings, has made the San Luis Valley rails hum clear to Walsenburg. He’s busy hauling minerals, potatoes, hops and, yes, passengers. I joined in as we gave him a big hand at the Oxford Hotel in Denver at a Colorado Rail Passengers Association meeting. He’s an optimist who took a looted rail line and turned it around.

Entrepreneur Cristof Stork came by Salida recently with a vision for the old main line of the Denver and Rio Grande. That line hauls happy tourists through the Royal Gorge. But it sprouts only weeds to Minturn. Ever optimistic, he points out reasons to get that great old line rolling again. He thinks the Union Pacific (UP) might consider leasing their 110 “out of service” rail miles one day.

One big reason for the UP to deal is the Moffat Tunnel. The State of Colorado promoted that tunnel in the 1920s after big floods in Pueblo. But what happens when the UP’s lease runs out in less than eight years? Could a revived Rio Grande take some pressure off the tunnel? It would only take around $20 to $80 million to get service going on that 110 miles and Stork thinks revenue would be $30 million a year. He also predicts $100 million in development plus the obvious advantage of getting cars off a dangerous mountain road.

There were reasons why General Palmer fought to keep his railroad out of the hands of the Santa Fe during the great railroad war of 1878. What a fight that was! The Rio Grande set up Fort DeRemer at Spike Buck (near Texas Creek). Bat Masterson and his 60 fighters put up quite fight on the Santa Fe side in Pueblo.

Palmer knew what he wanted. It was all about a mostly three percent grade through the Rockies. Even when last listed in the 1960s the Federal Railroad Authority gave the Rio Grande class 4 trackage (up to 79 M.P.H.) and Class 3 (up to 60 M.P.H.). Those grades are still there.

Stork paints the happy picture of tourists riding the train up to spots like Ski Cooper or reaching summer trail heads just like they do in Switzerland. Springtime is a time for rail dreams.

What’s not a dream is AMTRAK service to Pueblo. That would be the first spike in a rail line to Colorado Springs and one day to the Queen City of the Plains herself. I believe that one day we’ll catch the regular bus in Salida and relax on our way to the lovely old Pueblo station. There we’ll roll off to join the Chief in time for happy hour. Everyone in the lounge car on my trip to Seattle lifted a glass to that springtime vision.