Union Pacific's winners and losers

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, January 4, 2010

The 1996 merger of Southern Pacific into Union Pacific mothballed the Tennessee Pass line from near Glenwood Springs to Pueblo, Colo., and caused tracks east of Pueblo almost to Kansas City to be torn up or shortlined.
But that same merger brought two other destitute routes back to life. One was the historic Texas & Pacific line west of Fort Worth, part of the all-but-forgotten second transcontinental railroad. The T&P went from one train a day each way to as many as a dozen (pre-recession), as Union Pacific created a competitive new funnel between Los Angeles and the Southeast.
The other, seldom-remarked winner is the former UP Kansas Division mainline, from Kansas City to Denver. During the 1960s, it was populated west of the state capitol of Topeka by the City of St. Louis¸ the Portland Rose, and a mixed freight. Come Amtrak in 1971, and the Kansas Division was lucky to see a train a day. Its automatic block signals were turned off and taken down. So were the pole lines. You could barely find the tracks.
All that changed post 1996. With Tennessee Pass shut down, Union Pacific needed an outlet for the four or five trains of coal sent east each day from mines in western Colorado. The old Kansas Division was reborn, with new rail, new trestles and an ocean of granite roadbed to support the unit trains.
From adjacent U.S. Highway 40 the other day, I got an up-close look at the old/new Kansas Division (actually, the line is part of the Denver and Kansas City Service Units now). I hate to disappoint you, but eastern Colorado and western Kansas are not, as many imagine, one big flat tabletop. There are lots of ups and downs.
From Denver to Salina, Kan., 450 miles, those four or five trains each way are directed by radio-issued track warrants. But the switches at sidings, spaced roughly 20 miles apart, are remotely controlled by the dispatchers in Omaha, Neb., so that trains don’t need to stop to enter or leave. It’s a poor man’s form of Centralized Traffic Control.
As a kid, I learned U.S. geography reading the Official Guide by a bedside lamp, and those Kansas Division station names were branded into my memory: Kit Carson, Cheyenne Wells, and First View in Colorado and Oakley (as in Annie), WaKeeny, Ellis, Sharon Springs, and Bunker Hill across the state line in Kansas. I saw them all for the first time on this drive east. Most of them failed in real life to rise to the stature I once assigned them in my imagination. At First View, I turned around and looked westward. First view of what, I wondered? Not of the Rocky Mountains on this sunny day. But the old station sign and unused grain elevator made for a nice photo.
I spent a long but pleasurable winter day in both bright sunshine and snow squalls, working my way from Denver to Kansas City and listening on the scanner to the dispatchers as they choreographed the leisurely pace of operations. Not so long ago, I never imagined there would still be a railroad across this thinly populated landscape in 2010.
If you are half as enchanted as I am by the names of those old Kansas Division villages – or as taken to learning in advance where trains will meet by listening to track warrants being issued over the airwaves – I recommend that you follow my footprints. The way I see it, the rebirth of the Kansas Division may not last long. Were I Dennis Duffy, Union Pacific’s vice chairman and operations czar, repositioning those coal trains 100-plus miles north, across Nebraska’s Overland Route and then into and out of Denver and Kansas City, would be a tempting economy. – Fred W. Frailey 

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