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Amtrak plan could boost prospect of revived Tennessee Pass Line rail traffic

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April 5, 2021, 10:03 am

Last week, Amtrak issued a statement and a map detailing its plans for new routes as part of the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, including a new Front Range passenger rail route from Cheyenne to Pueblo.

Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials have for years prioritized both a Front Range passenger rail corridor paralleling Interstate 25 and a connection between Pueblo and La Junta for the Southwest Chief Amtrak route that cuts through remote southeastern Colorado.

Such a connection would then link that route to Denver and Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger route between Chicago and California’s Bay Area via Utah and Nevada. The Southwest Chief travels from Chicago to Los Angeles via New Mexico and Arizona.

Should Amtrak and CDOT succeed in linking the Southwest Chief to Pueblo and starting new Front Range service in Colorado, it would connect both ends of the dormant Tennessee Pass Line to passenger service at both Dotsero in western Eagle County and Pueblo on the Front Range.

CDOT has prioritized maintaining the potential for passenger and freight service on the Tennessee Pass Line as an alternative to the existing Moffat Tunnel Line, and fairly recently suggested the state should purchase the dormant 220-mile line, which is owned by Union Pacific, if it ever becomes available.

A fast-tracked lease proposal between Union Pacific and Colorado Midland & Pacific to explore passenger and freight service on the Tennessee Pass Line was recently denied by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, meaning proposals to revive the line will have to undergo lengthy federal scrutiny.

Rival Colorado Pacific Railroad has been trying to acquire the Tennessee Pass Line to transport grain from southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas to ports on the West Coast. That company has offered to pay for passenger service from Pueblo to Minturn and possibly on to the Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum.

Recent developments on Amtrak funding and national rail infrastructure investment would seem to make full abandonment of the Tennessee Pass Line unlikely, especially in light of the state’s interest in increased passenger and freight surface to take pressure off Colorado’s chronically underfunded and deteriorating highway system.

Besides the soon-to-be-daily-again Zephyr and Chief routes, Amtrak also operates the weekend Winter Park Express ski train between Denver and Winter Park Ski Area in neighboring Grand County. That line was mothballed this winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is expected to resume next ski season.

Here’s Amtrak’s statement from March 31 on the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan proposal:

This afternoon, President Biden released his American Jobs Plan, including plans for infrastructure investment, economic recovery, climate change, and social equity, and $80 billion designated specifically for rail.

Amtrak’s vision to grow rail service and connect new city pairs across America rises to the urgent challenges of our time, and will provide new and improved train service to millions of additional passengers. Additionally, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), a critical transportation link for the Northeast’s major metropolitan economies, has dozens of bridges, stations and tunnels that are beyond their design life and in need of immediate replacement or rehabilitation.

If Congress provides the funding proposed in the President’s plan, Amtrak would be able to bring the NEC to a state of good repair and improve trip times, and would also expand Amtrak to underserved communities across the nation.  This would create jobs, improve the quality of life, reduce carbon emissions and generate economic growth.

From Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn: “President Biden’s infrastructure plan is what this nation has been waiting for. Amtrak must rebuild and improve the Northeast Corridor and our National Network and expand our service to more of America. The NEC’s many major tunnels and bridges – most of which are over a century old – must be replaced and upgraded to avoid devastating consequences for our transportation network and the country. In addition, Amtrak has a bold vision to bring energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service to up to 160 new communities across the nation, as we also invest in our fleet and stations across the U.S.  With this federal investment, Amtrak will create jobs and improve equity across cities, regions, and the entire country – and we are ready to deliver.  America needs a rail network that offers frequent, reliable, sustainable and equitable train service. Now is our time, let’s make rail the solution.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

5 Responses to Amtrak plan could boost prospect of revived Tennessee Pass Line rail traffic

  1. Carl Kem Reply

    April 5, 2021 at 11:37 pm

    So a big corporation, like Amtrak, that has zero concern for the environment or the little man, somehow has prevalence over a much smaller business, like Colorado Midland, that not only is willing to care for the environment but IS the little man, and it’s all okey dokey.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    • Christof Stork Reply

      April 7, 2021 at 10:13 am

      Ah, no. That is not what the article said.

  2. Geoff Guthrie Reply

    April 6, 2021 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for this well-written and researched article- this is the best piece yet that explains the current state of the TN Pass corridor along with where passenger service reactivation is in the Federal process and the fantastic connections to be made at either end with national passenger rail service. I hope everyone in opposition to the reactivation of this rail corridor reads your article and researches further your points made regarding long term CDOT plans in conjunction with President Biden’s infrastructure plans to reactivate and create new passenger rail corridors in Colorado.

  3. Christof Stork Reply

    April 7, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I encourage people to make a distinction between “efficient commuter train service” and “tourist train service”. These lines don’t mix and match well. Tourist service is infrequent, slow, unreliable schedules. The current Amtrak Zephyr and Chief routes are really tourist lines. The proposed Front-Range corridor would be an “efficient commuter train service”. The key to “efficient commuter train service” are dedicated tracks where you can have regular, fast, reliable schedules. This is needed for people to think of the train being an alternative to cars. The route through Eagle county (Gypsum-Leadville) is a good candidate for a local “efficient commuter train service” because Eagle county has a transportation & housing problem that will get worse, the rail route goes through many town centers, and finances are favorable with the rail bed already existing and likely high revenue from visitors.

  4. D Katz Reply

    July 11, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    Are there any updates on what is happening with the Tennessee pass line? I know there was going to be more discussion this summer and haven’t seen any news yet.

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