STB: Plan to Lease Tennessee Pass Route Needs Deeper Analysis

The Way It Was: A Rio Grande train is seen at the west portal of Tennessee Pass Tunnel in July 1969. Photo by Jim Boyd. 

STB: Plan to Lease Tennessee Pass Route Needs Deeper Analysis

By Justin Franz 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Surface Transportation Board has rejected Rio Grande Pacific’s plan to lease Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass line in Colorado on procedural grounds. 

On March 25, the board wrote in a decision that such a “controversial” proposal to revive the long-dormant rail line in the mountains of Colorado required a more complete analysis instead of the more streamlined process Rio Grande Pacific’s subsidiary, Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway, had hoped to employ. However, the board noted that there was nothing stopping Rio Grande Pacific from trying again.

On Thursday, Rio Grande Pacific’s Sara Thompson Cassidy, a community liaison for the project, told Railfan & Railroad, “We are reviewing today’s decision by the STB and will consider next steps.”

Since Colorado, Midland & Pacific first filed a notice of exemption on Dec. 31, 2020, to lease approximately 163 miles of former Denver & Rio Grande Western, the STB has been flooded with comments — mostly in opposition — about the proposal. Many groups have raised concerns about environmental impacts resulting from the resumption of train service. In an effort to head off those concerns, the railroad asked the STB to prohibit it from hauling hazardous materials, including crude oil and coal. The plan has also been opposed by Colorado Pacific Railroad, another company that has tried to purchase the route in the past and presently owns the Towner Line in the eastern part of the state. In January, the STB announced it would need more time to consider the proposal due to all the interest in it. 

On Thursday, the board decided that ultimately there was just too much controversy surrounding the proposal to simply allow the plan to move forward without further review. One of the board’s criticisms was that the applicant had not provided specifics about its plan for the line. The company had said in the past that it would “assess the interest of the communities served by the Tennessee Pass line” for both freight and passenger service. 

“In light of the substantial controversy and unresolved issues requiring more detailed analysis that has been raised, the class exemption procedures are not appropriate for this case,” the board wrote on Thursday. “The rejection of the notice does not preclude (Colorado Midland & Pacific) from seeking authority to lease and operate the line through more appropriate procedures that would allow for the more comprehensive review required here.”

This article was posted on: March 26, 2021