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Opinion: A thorough, dispassionate, millennial plea to revive rail service on Tennessee Pass Line

May 1, 2024, 1:20 pm

I am writing this letter to the editor to vent some thoughts I have on the fate of the Tennessee Pass Line and why I think its revival is inevitable. I have been following your updates on the TPL for many years. I have even started my own YouTube channel (The off-grid urbanist) to talk about it. I’m quite busy at the moment so I haven’t uploaded in quite a while. Winter isn’t the best time for filming. I hope to put more videos out this summer. But I am not here to plug for my own content. 

New info on the fate of the line is scarce. I keep a tab open to Real Vail to keep an eye out for new articles. Other sources seem to be lackadaisical or misinformed about new developments. Your writing has always been pro rail and I like the tenacity you have brought to the conversation. While the quotes from local politicians can be harsh with their doubtfulness or take outright hostile stances, I appreciate the full coverage. 

Needless to say, I am a fan of any potential reactivation scheme.

So, these are some thoughts that I have developed on the matter and why I feel as though we will see service again.

The darkest days are behind us

The line has been dormant for 27 years; if someone were to scrap it, they should have done it when it was cheaper to do so. This isn’t exactly fair, but it is not cheap to rip up almost 200 miles of rail in rough terrain. Yes, Union Pacific still owns it, tried to abandon it, and left it in a dilapidated state, but it’s still their property. It has a dollar value. Anyone who wants to “rails to trails” it will have to pay up for acquisition, demolition, and trail-ification. Even if the state confiscates it and hands it over to local authorities for trail conversion, it will be expensive. While it is still possible that this could happen, it would likely be short sections of track, not the whole line. Long story short: Anyone who doesn’t understand its value as a rail line and wants to convert it to trails doesn’t have the money. Anyone who has the money to convert it to trails understands its value as a rail line.

  • The failings of EVs and the grid

Our obsession with drop-in solutions. EVs are the answer to nothing. They are slightly better than ICE (internal combustion engine) cars, but still cars.

They are not a solution. I’m sure you are aware of the issues of car dependency, car-centric development, the true cost of vehicle ownership, how car infrastructure destroys itself faster than any other infrastructure, how heavier EVs will exacerbate CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) road maintenance, the land-use tragedy of massive parking lots, and induced demand.

Even electric buses will still destroy the roads faster, and everyone’s taxes go to that regardless of whether you drive or not.

I hope people will wise up and stop believing every word that comes from the EV manufacturer’s mouths. They are salesmen with a government that is making their competition illegal. What incentive do they have to be honest?

Our grid is not being scaled up fast enough, we are taking the cheap base-load sources off and replacing them with intermittent sources, which requires massive battery banks. Don’t get me started on the outsourced ethics and carbon costs of lithium and cobalt mining. And we won’t build nuclear to replace base-load capacity.

We are setting ourselves up for failure.

  • New demographics

Squandering our inheritance. The greatest generation left our country with millions of miles of rail. Yet we believed in GM, took federal money and built the interstate system with a 1 to 9 match. GM was subsidized, the highways were subsidized, the oil was subsidized. The railroads were left to rot and be ripped up. France and Japan build highspeed rail. We built super highways. The arrogance.

The younger generation is struggling to stay afloat. Left with only the most energy inefficient and most expensive to maintain form of transit. We bet the country on highways and lost. We have racked up an “infrastructure debt” for the hubris and greed of previous generations and it will be hard to pay it back.

Younger generations are more transit-friendly. Be it for climate reasons or the personal financial cost of car dependency. The older generations that got us into this mess only see the exorbitant cost. A cost that is only exorbitant due to the damage that their negligence did.

Vail and other mountain towns are dependent on the dollars of tourists and multi-millionaire retirees. Younger generations will be less likely to provide the next influx of retirees that can buy into such an affluent area. When the boomers die, who will buy up all the mansions they left behind in Vail? The mansions close to the rail line that they made sure would never reopen because they don’t understand trains and their effect on property values. Because only the poor take public transit. The rich drive Teslas. As for the mansions that are out of all millennials’ budgets, I guess Airbnb? Good luck with what that will do to your affordable housing.

Service industry and hourly workers? The ones that keep your tourist economy alive with their blood, sweat, and tears? The ones you have outsourced to further and further away towns. Driving farther, burning more fuel, or driving that EV they spent their life savings on and tearing up even more of the road network. Great plan.

The younger generations will have to get this done. Because they’re the ones who will need it. I just hope the old and the rich don’t rip it up first. There are already so many other sins of arrogance that need to be atoned for. We have not moved on from the railways. We were just foolish enough to think we don’t need them. In the future, foolishness will be a luxury we cannot afford.

  • State and Federal developments

The reinvestment in Amtrak, Front Range Passenger Rail, and the future national rail network. Isolated rail developments will always fail. What good is a rail system if it can’t take you where you want to go? We need the tide that lifts all boats. For the TPL revival to succeed we need more ski trains to Steamboat, better Amtrak Zephyr service, and the FRPR. All are interdependent on each other to provide a comprehensive system that collectively serves more people. Build it and they will come. This applies on a national level too. Colorado has a lot to offer. There should be no reason why someone can’t take a train from Chicago, Albuquerque, or Salida and end up in Vail.

If it is to take public money, everyone should be able to use it. Not just Denver. We need our projects too. This needs to happen.

Don’t rip it up and force us to buy a self-driving monstrosity from Elon Musk. Give people options. 

  • A plan

We need to start small. Once the line is secured for reactivation, we need to plant a seed. We need to refurbish/reactivate a small but useful section and get service running as soon as possible. This will be done to assure faith in the community. We don’t want to look like California. Even if it is just two stations and one train bouncing back and forth, get it running. This will likely be something in Eagle County. The first full section to be complete should be the Eagle County Regional Airport (in Gypsum) to Vail. Then extend to Minturn, Leadville, etc. The idea is to grow. Don’t wait until the entire system is ready before the first trains roll. With Vail’s new Eagle Valley Regional Transit Authority, I hope they can see the writing on the wall. Especially with Canada’s recent electric bus fiasco. Again, the TPL is our inheritance. The right of way is secure with rails still in the ground. Yes, it needs to be refurbished but so much of the work is already done. Right of way (ROW) is the most expensive part of any transit plan. This is a blessing; it is our inheritance.

  • Don’t waste it

There are a lot of thoughts here, albeit a bit disjointed. I just have this feeling the argument against is losing validity. People are struggling, yes, but we shouldn’t burn yet another gem of our inheritance. We need to see the TPL as our inheritance — something to use to help our communities, not divide them. Highways divide communities if they don’t just bulldoze them first. Trains connect; they provide community. We need to see them as a tool, not a tax. That’s all I have for now. Keep up the good work

Editor’s note: Connor Roth is an aerospace engineer, business owner and homesteader who lives near the dormant Tennessee Pass Rail Line in Coaldale, Colorado, and works in Salida.

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2 Responses to Opinion: A thorough, dispassionate, millennial plea to revive rail service on Tennessee Pass Line

  1. Earle B Kittleman Reply

    May 3, 2024 at 8:20 am

    I see it’s value as a whole thing too, not something to cut up into local projects that don’t fit together. This article has strong ideas. I hope the powers listen.

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