Why I fear for the Rio Grande main line through the Rockies

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, May 16, 2016

I stood in the middle of the horseshoe curve at Plainview, Colo., last Wednesday morning to watch a short BNSF trackage rights train descend the hill to Denver via the Big Ten Curve. Not long after, the westbound Amtrak California Zephyr came charging into view, and I chased that train to Tolland, just shy of Moffat Tunnel. Right behind the Zephyr was an empty hopper train rolling at a steady clip. And then silence. No more trains on the Front Range for hours. I took off for lunch at a nearby German restaurant in Nederland, a short hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and time to contemplate the fate of the old Rio Grande.

 The former Denver & Rio Grande Western main line isn’t as busy as it used to be. Much through merchandise traffic goes via Union Pacific’s Transcon route through Wyoming. Coal that originates on the Rio Grande is way off and more mines on the route are closing. I can’t help but wonder if the Rio Grande between Denver and Salt Lake City isn’t worth more to BNSF Railway or even Amtrak than it is to the Union Pacific.

 A few days after my visit a buddy posted a shot of the westbound Zephyr leaving Denver. No worries about meets for this train, he said. The only other thing on the route that day was the eastbound Zephyr, which was still hours away. Last fall, I was here and only two westbounds were on the route that day, Amtrak and a UP freight. The Rio Grande of 2016 is about some lonely miles, a lot of track maintenance, and tremendous work for little tonnage.

 A few days before my visit to the Moffat route, I watched dog walkers and mini-bike riders in the old yard site at Salida, Colo., once a busy location on the Rio Grande’s Tennessee Pass route. It’s been closed almost 19 years, but it shows how that changing traffic patterns can quickly lead to rusty rails. (Though, thankfully, they’ve not been lifted, a lesson learned in the 1980s when a few too many main line miles nationwide got torn up, never to return again.)

 A few days after my visit to the Moffat, I was just west of Cheyenne, Wyo., watching an eastbound train on the UP main line take the cutoff between Borie and Speer. After a crew change at Speer, the train turned south to Denver. It showed just how well the UP navigates this area without the Rio Grande, and that’s why I fear for the future of the main line through the Rockies.

 What’s the best and highest use of the Rio Grande in 2016? I cannot help but imagine that planners at UP world headquarters in Omaha are trying to figure that out even as you read these words. It used to take railroads years to contemplate such matters, but today in an era of collapsing coal traffic, declining crude oil shipments, and weak intermodal demand, the process is on a fast track just about everywhere. The Rio Grande has got to be an expensive route to maintain, especially to passenger standards. Maybe it is worth it to keep Amtrak off the busy east-west Transcon through Wyoming. Maybe the Rio Grande will become primarily a passenger main in some of the best scenery in the west. I watch these rails and admire them for what they once were and how spectacular they are, but I worry about how shiny they may be in the future, too.

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