Rail Lines and Reality in Leadville Today
All Aboard: UP Talks TP Line with CMP
If it seems like the discussion about the Tennessee Pass rail line between Leadville and Minturn resurrects itself every few years, it’s because it does. One year, it was a young inventor wanting to turn the dormant train tracks into a tourist attraction with one of his custom handpump cars. It fit right on top of the rails, ready to zip you over one of the most scenic passes in the state by your own power. It was a cool idea, but not one owner Union Pacific Railroad (UP) would sign off on.
About 20 years ago a razmataz, snake-oil salesman was making the rounds about town pitching a luxury rail car that would commute workers to their jobs in style, and transport money-laden Vail tourists up to Leadville for a day of lunch and shopping. That fanfare eventually faded like a train whistle’s echo off of a Colorado Rocky Mountain. But there’s one possibility appearing on the horizon that just may stick.
A press release distributed in late November 2020 by the Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Company (CMP) set railroad-visionaries and social media feeds on fire once again. The news prompted a number of stories about CMP’s intention to “explore development opportunities for freight rail services originating or terminating on the Tennessee Pass Line.”
So does the news hold water? Leadville Today reached out to transportation giant UP to get a factual understanding of what the recent agreement with CMP really means, especially for people living in Leadville Today.
“Union Pacific finalized an agreement allowing Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway Company (CMP) to operate rail service on a portion of the Tennessee Pass Line through Eagle, Lake, Chaffee and Fremont counties in Colorado,” explained UP’s Senior Director, Corporate Communications and Media Relations Raquel Espinoza in an interview with Leadville Today. “The proposed service does not interfere with Union Pacific operations, and Union Pacific supports CMP’s efforts to explore passenger and freight rail opportunities in these communities.”
The line has been dormant since August 1997, when Union Pacific shifted its remaining traffic to the lesser grades of the Moffat Tunnel route. The Tennessee Pass line, with grades of up to 3%, was when operating the highest mainline route in the U.S. with its summit at 10,240 feet. will require rehabilitation before any service can begin.
According to the history experts at Trains.com: Rio Grande Pacific is one of two companies which had been negotiating with UP overuse of the line; its interest was first revealed in an unredacted filing to the STB by Union Pacific regarding the other party pursuing the use of the line — Colorado Pacific Railroad and its parent company, KCVN [see “Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass could become short cut …,” Trains News Wire, March 9, 2020]. That filing was in response to an effort by Colorado Pacific to force sale of the line through a feeder line application.
“The Colorado Pacific application was dismissed by the STB shortly thereafter [see “Regulators toss out effort to force UP to sell Tennessee Pass line,” News Wire, March 18, 2020], but the railroad launched another bid late this year including an offer to run passenger service between Pueblo and Minturn, Colo. [see “Colorado Pacific says it would offer passenger service …,” News Wire, Nov. 2, 2020]. At that time, Union Pacific responded to a letter from Colorado Pacific by saying it remained “in active negotiations with Rio Grande Pacific.”
Down The Line
So, will the re-activated Tennessee Pass Line carry workers into the Vail Valley? Will tourists be able to travel through the Arkansas Valley once again by train? What type of freight would be carried on the re-activated line passing through Lake County? They are the same questions that arise each time the topic comes around.
Earlier this month, the railroad experts over at Railway Age had the most comprehensive overview regarding the possibility of the Tennessee Pass Line actually being re-activated and what it would involve. As the headline states: “It’s complicated.” For train buffs, it’s a fascinating read. As for the average person, it summarizes exactly how far down the tunnel the light actually is. In terms of it actually happening, it’s pretty far down there. That was a sentiment respectfully confirmed by UP’s Director Espinoza closing comment:
“Once Colorado Pacific (CXR) completes its interchange track near Boone, CO, their grain shippers will have access to both Union Pacific and BNSF rail lines, providing access to multiple West Coast routes that are faster and more fuel-efficient than the Tennessee Pass Line. The Tennessee Pass Line crosses the Colorado Rockies at 10,220 feet, which is significantly higher than any point on other routes.”
Oh, by the way, LT also asked her about all the “Executive Session” conversations supposedly going on between the Lake County Board of Commissioners legal representative and the UP’s top legal eagles concerning the “eminent domain” status for the property at the southern end of Harrison Avenue, owned for decades by Union Pacific.
Stand by for that story! For now, here’s the official press release distributed by CMP in late November 2020.
CMP Commercial Agreement on the Tennessee Pass Line
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 Tennessee Pass Line, 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.
“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,” said CMP President Robert Bach. CMP also intends to explore development opportunities for freight rail services originating or terminating on the Tennessee Pass Line.
Speculation that RGPC’s interest in Tennessee Pass is for the operation of trains carrying crude oil from Utah is false. RGPC has no plan to operate oil trains over Tennessee Pass. 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’s range of services includes railroad communications and signaling technologies. RGPC constructs railroads and provides track maintenance, machinery, and engineering services to the railroad industry worldwide.
Silver Rails: Railroads of Leadville
Railroad history is fascinating and some of the best stories from Leadville’s Pioneer Days involve a train. If that topic interests you then be sure to check out Christopher James’ book, “Silver Rails: The Railroad of Leadville, Colorado.” In fact, it was Christopher who reached out to Leadville Today regarding the Tennessee Pass Line news, “Sounds like it’s official! Wha-hoo!” Time will tell if that is the case, but LT is glad to bring readers a synopsis of his book along with a link to where you can purchase it on Amazon in return for the news-lead favor. Enjoy!
Here’s the story of three railroads: the Denver & Rio Grande, the Colorado Midland and the Denver South Park & Pacific, as they battled mountains, weather, finances and each other to access the wealth that was pouring from the mines in Leadville, Colorado.
“In the late 19th century, railroads and mining were the linchpins of Colorado’s economy. Nowhere was this more evident than around the booming town of Leadville. In 1880, when over 14 million of silver was pulled from the mines, two narrow gauge railroads reached the town. It wasn’t easy. “To get to Leadville, the Denver & Rio Grande first had to defeat the Santa Fe railroad in the great Royal Gorge War. The Denver South Park & Pacific had to build over two mountain passes and survive financial strife.
By 1887, a third railroad, the Colorado Midland had surveyed and built the first standard gauge railroad into the Rockies. It not only served Leadville but crossed the Sawatch Range with some of the most spectacular railroad engineerings ever attempted. Together, these three railroads helped make Leadville one of the most famous mining camps in the world. First silver, then gold, lead and zinc, and finally molybdenum kept the railroads and the town alive until, one by one, each railroad fell to the automobile and the changing world of mining.
In 1988, a new railroad, the Leadville Colorado& Southern, building upon the ghosts of the past, began carrying Leadville passengers over a right-of-way that was built in 1884. “Silver Rails is the story of Leadville’s railroads, then and now, and the town they helped build.”