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Colorado Midland & Pacific strikes deal with UP to run trains on Tennessee Pass

December 31, 2020, 2:30 pm
Tennessee Pass Tunnel.

Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Company, a subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific, issued the following press release on a deal it’s struck with Union Pacific to possibly operate future passenger and freight rail service on the dormant Tennessee Pass Line through Eagle County.

In November, a Rio Grande Pacific representative told RealVail.com that the company was working on a deal with Union Pacific that would include passenger service. This followed an offer earlier in the month by competing Colorado Pacific Railroad to run a year-round, round-trip, daily passenger train from Pueblo to Minturn. Now here’s the full Colorado Midland press release from Thursday, Dec. 31:

Eagle County, Colorado – Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway Company (CMP) has entered into a commercial agreement with Union Pacific Railroad (UP) for the majority of the Tennessee Pass rail line in Colorado owned by UP. CMP has filed for common-carrier authority to operate the Tennessee Pass Line with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroads. 

CMP will assess the interest of the communities served by the Tennessee Pass Line for commuter passenger rail services connecting the residential areas and workplaces of Eagle, Lake, Chaffee, and Fremont counties. If there is interest, CMP will assist public agencies in obtaining funding for establishing passenger rail services. 

CMP appreciates the state and local agency efforts already in progress to bring commuter rail services to the area, and intends to work with transportation agencies, community groups, the State of Colorado, and the cities and counties served by the Tennessee Pass Line to evaluate the feasibility of commuter and passenger rail services. 

CMP President Robert Bach said, “We look forward to engaging in the transportation planning work already underway to determine how the Tennessee Pass Line might play a role. It’s exciting to bring this additional option to the table.”  

CMP also intends to explore development opportunities for freight rail services originating or terminating on the Tennessee Pass Line. 

Track and other infrastructure will require rehabilitation before any service can begin.  

CMP wants the public to be safe and aware: trespassing on railroad lines, even if they appear inactive, is dangerous and illegal. Please report trespassing to local police. For railroad emergencies call: 682-703-8505.

Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Company (CMP) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific Corporation (RGPC), which owns or operates freight and passenger railroads in eight states including the DCTA Commuter Rail “A” Train between Denton and Carrollton, Texas.

RGPC provides a broad range of services to the railroad industry worldwide. RGPC’s expertise and services portfolio includes railroad communications and signaling technologies; railroad, track, and signal construction; railroad maintenance; track machinery remanufacturing; and engineering and consulting services. More information at: www.rgpc.com.

Editor’s note: Here’s a PDF link to Colorado Midland’s filing to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which indicates its annual revenues will not exceed $5 million.

Editor’s note 2: This post has been updated to more prominently reflect the competing passenger-service offer from Colorado Pacific Railroad, which did not immediately provide a comment on the Colorado Midland release.

27 Responses to Colorado Midland & Pacific strikes deal with UP to run trains on Tennessee Pass

  1. Christof Stork Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 7:54 am

    Interesting. I’m confused about “the railroad’s annual revenue will not exceed $5 million”? This is not much and doesn’t justify repairing & upgrading the track. Perhaps they are initially planning on only Gypsum-Minturn, where the track is in pretty good shape.

    For a commuter line to work, it needs to be fast, reliable, comfortable, and frequent. It will be interesting how they accomplish this.

    But, what they may be calling a “commuter line” may end up being an occasional tourist run.

  2. David O. Williams Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Thanks for the comment, Christof. My take is that passenger service is the shiny object to garner support from local entities as UP petitions the feds to maintain control of the line for freight purposes and to keep its options open with its Moffat Tunnel lease with the state expiring in 2025 and costs of maintaining that 6.2-mile tunnel increasing due to water pollution concerns on both sides. With Colorado Pacific proposing a year-round daily passenger train between Pueblo and Minturn in its bid to wrestle control of the line away from UP (again, offering passenger service as an inducement with the main focus being freight), UP couldn’t just keep the line dormant forever and had to come up with its own passenger plan even if it never materializes. Local counties and the state have zero money for this project, and no private company is going to shoulder the losses needed to run actually useful commuter service, so this is years away from happening … if in fact it ever does. Amtrak runs a very popular ski train between Denver and Winter Park but Amtrak is being killed by the pandemic and unless the Biden administration pumps huge money into public transportation infrastructure and/or Colorado residents finally vote to increase taxes for such projects, Eagle County may very well wind up with lots of freight trains and no passenger service whatsoever. This is all about controlling the line for freight.

  3. Steven Kafka Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 12:54 pm

    The whole line will have to be replaced for passenger service. At a cost of at least $1 million dollars per mile. Tennessee Pass alone would likely be at least $3 million per mile. (15 miles)
    I’ve heard these stories at least a dozen times in the last 25 years. First with the Aspen branch of the D&RGW, then the Tennessee Pass line. Only the Royal Gorge line made it happen and, The UP regrets the deal. It’s just a pipe dream.
    Steve K.

  4. relentless cactus Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    Well stated, DOW

  5. Christof Stork Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 5:54 pm

    The line was fully upgraded 30 years ago. The steel rails are heavy duty and in very good shape. Most of the ties are in good shape. There have been a few rock slides. The signaling clearly needs to be totally redone, especially for PTC. It’s not clear how much it will cost repairing the 160 miles. But, it will probably be in the $100-$200 million range.

  6. Christof Stork Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    In my economic analysis, commuter rail in Eagle County could have pretty good economics. You would have several different types of customers: early morning workers, late morning skiers, mid-day excursion tourists, afternoon skiers and workers, evening diners and bar hoppers. Also, the train would make some real estate near stations very valuable. During summer, you can get more excursion tourists.
    But, I agree with DOW, that without major investment, this may be just “shiny object to garner support”.

  7. Bruce w Gillie Reply

    January 1, 2021 at 10:42 pm

    Agree with your analysis. The passenger component is a ‘bait-and-switch’ to delay opposition to the freight option. But didn’t you estimate that the rehab of the track was going to cost over $200 million. Still think the economics is a stretch unless there are some secret government programs to pay for new signals, rolling stock and repairs.

    • David O. Williams Reply

      January 2, 2021 at 9:43 am

      You’re right, Bruce, Soloviev’s Colorado Pacific estimated $278 million to rehab the tracks.

  8. Tom Reply

    January 2, 2021 at 1:30 am

    30 years ago the rail was replaced with heavier rail, yes. 30 years ago there were 10mph slow orders almost the entire trip from Dotsero to Minturn. And again that was 30 years ago. There will need to be a lot of rehab to this main track (ties, sub-roadbed, sidings, bridges, slide mitigation, slide fences (they activate signals that stop trains from hitting the slides) to make it even a colossal 10 mph RR. Not UN-doable. But, I’m telling you it will be a great undertaking. Good thing RGP is a track maintenance/signalling specialist company.

    Another thing that needs to be considered is the massive amount of horsepower it takes to move tonnage over this territory. A 10,000 ton train (small by today’s standards) 30 years ago, it took 12,000 HP to make it to Glenwood (eastward tonnage), another 6,000 was added in Glenwood, to make it to Minturn, then another 16,000 HP was added at Minturn, to make it up the 3.5% grade to the summit of Tennessee pass (TP). I dont think most people know just what kind of horsepower that means, nor the expense it takes to do/maintain that. 30 years ago that meant, 12-14, 3000 HP locos to move a 10,000 ton train east of Minturn.

    OK, lets fast FWD 30 years, with modern AC traction locomotives, that means, 12-14 locomotives can be cut in almost 1/2. Of course this all depends on the kind of tonnage this outfit wants to move, and in which direction. Westward tonnage out of Pueblo requires a fraction of the power to make it to the summit of Tennessee pass, that is based on the minimal (river) grade west out of Pueblo to TP.

    If westward tonnage is expected, they still gotta get down that 3.5% grade, it is kinda short but it is there, and there are volumes of books based on the derailments on that grade.

    Now your talking passenger operations? Which adds another several layers of AAR/FRA (American Association of RR’s, Federal Railroad Administration) mandates for safe operations,and Positive Train Control, signalling and all that goes with (PTC). Crews that operate these trains will need to be trained at FRA approved facilities (thats a good thing). If this not not clear yet, you should understand this is a very challenging/$$ venture. But it is do-able.

    In the words of a very informative and learned author, that maybe spent some time on that TP line, “Americans, used to see opportunity in difficulty, now we see difficulty in opportunity”, a very wise man for sure.

    In reality, the only clear solution to taming TP proper (Minturn to summit) is to electrify that segment of the line, that will eliminate the need for all the fossil fuel locos, and will at least charge the grid upon descent as well. It is doable, feasible, and a good idea, that could also be extended to support commuter services.

    I want to be clear. That I in no way, want to stop this venture, but it is a monumental undertaking. I also think that it can be done. It is daring and confident. And certainly, a worthy undertaking.

    • Christof Stork Reply

      January 2, 2021 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks. Nice summary. Yes, moving 20,000 tons on a 3% grade is a serious endeavor, up or down. Using this route for freight is not trivial, which is why I am suspicious of this proposal.

      I think light commuter rail will do much better on the route, especially Gypsum-Minturn. Yes, electrification makes the most sense.

      • V12Tommy Reply

        January 4, 2021 at 5:39 pm

        Leadville to Minturn might make a good commuter line too, although I highly doubt it would be profitable enough to warrant electrification. Even Gypsum to Minturn would be a huge expense to electrify. I could see service in the future, but would it generate enough revenue to justify the expense? I’d prefer rail over buses any day, but the nice thing about the current bus system is they can get closer to neighborhoods, and they can drive into Vail, whereas with a commuter train, you’d still have to transfer to a bus.

        • Christof Stork Reply

          January 5, 2021 at 12:02 pm

          Well, the train route actually goes through many town centers. By avoiding Hwy-6, the train would be much, much faster. Yes, it is a shame it doesn’t go through Vail, but how about a gondola up from Minturn or Battle Mtn?
          The economics of the train are actually quite good because it would serve many people at different times of the day: workers early in the morning, skiers later in the morning, non-skier tourists mid-day, skiers/workers in the afternoon, then tourists going to restaurants/bars in the evening. There are also a lot of tourists in the summer.

    • Jim Markalunas Reply

      January 5, 2021 at 5:56 pm

      I have always considered the old D&RGW now the UP line between Salida – Buena Vista and Minturn – Dotsero “Orestod” as having great potential as a tourist – dinner train operation. During Winter months for the Vail ski crowds between Orestod and Minturn and during the Summer months between Salida BV and Malta @ Leadville and on up to the historic Camp Hale to the wye at Pando . This RR line has a great potential as a scenic tourist dinner train. Go for it!!

      • Jim Markalunas Reply

        January 5, 2021 at 6:30 pm

        Please post comment above –

  9. A.C. Wilson Reply

    January 2, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    Might UP wish to use Tennessee Pass for westbound freight and Moffat Tunnel for eastbound freight?

  10. Hayden Soloviev Reply

    January 2, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    02 January 2021

    Colorado Pacific Railroad LLC (CXR) will be filing a protest at the Surface Transportation Board asking it not to approve the Tennessee Pass lease agreement announced December 31st between Union Pacific (UP) and Rio Grande Pacific (RGP) on grounds that UP thereby maintains its monopoly stranglehold across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, in defiance of concerns about the Tennessee Pass line stated by the Board in its decision in the 1996 UP-SP merger case. It appears that CXR should also request the reopening of that case, to enable Colorado’s competitive access to the national railroad network.
    Further, RGP has selected a business entity name deceptively similar to ours, in a purposeful effort to confuse the public. This is legally actionable and will not be tolerated.

  11. Tom Reply

    January 3, 2021 at 1:41 am

    Yessir Hayden,

    Go get’em. This is typical Onion Pacific (SP), corporate Mal-intentions on full display. Make no mistake, you have their full attention now 🙂

  12. Christof Stork Reply

    January 3, 2021 at 9:53 am

    As a summary: Much in this vague announcement doesn’t make sense.  There are several high hurdles to reestablishing Pueblo-Glenwood freight traffic, including expensive track refurbishment, likely lack of freight demand, and the rights of the Royal Gorge RR.   
    The proposed passenger service probably won’t have the frequency, reliability, comfort, or speed to be an effective commuter service.  I don’t think a for-profit entity can provide the necessary investment for commuter service nor get effective buy-in from a government entity for the investment needed. 
        The biggest beneficiary from effective commuter service is the community (better housing options, reduced traffic, better managed tourism) and real estate owners.  It makes sense for the community to invest and to tax the real estate whose value will go up significantly.
        So, as David Williams mentioned, perhaps this is just a ploy by UP to tie up Tennessee Pass during the upcoming Moffat Tunnel 99-year lease renegotiation.  

  13. Jesse Truax Reply

    January 3, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    The state of Colorado should use the Moffat Tunnel negotiations as leverage to acquire portions of the line between Pueblo to Eagle County and turn it into a recreational conservation area with bike trails. Instead of the threat of oil tankers through the valley that don’t generate any revenue or jobs for our area, we could instead generate tens of millions of dollars in recreational tourism revenue.

    • V12Tommy Reply

      January 4, 2021 at 5:42 pm

      How would the bike path create “tens of millions of dollars” in recreational tourism? Sure a bike path would be cool, but I don’t see it generating any kind of money. Maybe a few tax dollars as riders stop for lunch in Minturn or something. I know a ton of tourists who ride Vail Pass on a bike, but I don’t think they are traveling here to do it, they are already coming here and pick that as an activity while they are here, so it doesn’t actually produce any extra income. The one exception being the Triple Bypass, but that is 2 days a year.

    • Christof Stork Reply

      January 5, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      Yes, rails-to-trails makes for very nice cheap bike-hike routes. I would enjoy it, but a rail right-of-way is just too valuable. Once you loose it you never get it back. In 50 years, Hwy 6 & I-70 will be jammed. Aspen probably wishes it didn’t give up their rail ROW with traffic getting very bad on 82.
      However, you can have a railroad that is bike friendly by allowing for bike paths along the ROW and perhaps allowing bikes on the commuter train.
      Since Tennessee Pass is a strategic route, the Feds will never allow it to be abandoned.

  14. A.C. Wilson Reply

    January 6, 2021 at 3:22 pm

    Commuter rail is very expensive to start up, and always requires subsidies to operate – in the US, tickets never cover more that 55%. All new transit facilities, which this would be, must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (unless no federal $$ are EVER used). The need for feeder/distributor bus service between stations & workplaces is usually a big limitation, except in dense urban downtowns, as a previous commenter noted. Unlike in urban downtowns, shift start and end times in Vail likely are very variable, which would mean that lots of expensive early AM, midday, and night train runs would be required. If the Leadville-Vail commuting route has very bad traffic congestion, the employees must pay $$ to park at Vail, AND commuter rail stations would be placed at the main employment sites, it could work if somebody(ies) cough(s) up the very significant $$. (Ditto for the Rifle-Vail route, which has a much better highway.)

    My guesstimate is that it would likely be much cheaper, and serve more commuters, to implement dedicated/restricted lanes that only buses could use, perhaps using the railroad right-of-way. (I myself am retired from an urban commuter railroad, and do find riding a train more comfortable than riding a bus.)

  15. John Pradka Reply

    June 29, 2022 at 8:23 am

    I would like to know would there be passenger rail service from Denver/Airport to to Vail? What’s the point of passenger service without it? I would take the train to Vail without hesitation. You want customers, then do this. Customers would clamor for this convenience. In order to do this there will be a big time resistance from the bus and car rental companies. Even the airport may fight it because of the possible deminished use of parking decks. Anyone have thoughts about this?

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