The steam excursion through Salida

Brief by Central Staff

Transportation – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

GO BACK 60 years or so, and the arrival of a steam locomotive pulling a passenger train through Salida would not have been a special occasion — it happened several times every day.

But it certainly drew a crowd on June 22, 1997, when an excursion train powered by the Union Pacific’s No. 844 stopped for lunch on its way to Tennessee Pass after threading the Royal Gorge.

For how much longer, though, will trains of any sort be using the line between Cañon City and Dotsero?

The state’s Office of Economic Development has solicited proposals for the rail corridor, and was supposed to announce a decision in June. That got postponed until July 21, so by the time you read this, there might be a plan — a rail-trail, perhaps, or even a short-line operator.

When the Union Pacific swallowed the Southern Pacific last year, UP planned to abandon this line posthaste, and route traffic through the Moffat Tunnel into Denver, or across Wyoming on its main line.

However, shippers in Utah feared that UP could not handle all that traffic in a timely way. So federal regulators established a timetable for UP:

1) Demonstrate that all our line’s traffic can be handled by other routes to the satisfaction of shippers.

2) Close the Tennessee Pass line, but maintain it in operable condition for at least a year, just in case.

3) After that year, abandon the line and take up the rails.

UP has diverted some regular traffic, but our spies inside the company say that, when UP has tried to stop using Tennessee Pass entirely for a day or two, the Denver yards get snarled and shippers become annoyed or worse.

So the first condition has yet to be met, even though UP wants to quit running trains over Tennessee Pass before winter sets in.

Also, UP could change its corporate mind about abandonment — plans have just been announced for a gravel quarry near in western Frémont County which could generate considerable local rail traffic.

And so, the railroad saga that began in 1877 when the Rio Grande and the Santa Fé went to war over the Royal Gorge hasn’t quite ended yet.