Campaign against more Colorado mountain freight trains advances in litigation and letters
Climate change, other environmental risks spur opposition to proposed Uinta Basin Railway
Anglers fish on the Colorado River near an idle Union Pacific freight train in western Grand County on June 12, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Elected officials in Glenwood Springs are quite certain of two realities facing the largest town between the Denver metro area and Grand Junction on Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line: Freight rail, especially for fossil fuels, is king. And climate change is an everyday reality.
“Glenwood Springs is the poster child for climate change,” said former Glenwood mayor and current City Council member Jonathan Godes, an outspoken opponent of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway oil-train project in Utah. “Something that contributes 53 million metric tons of carbon a year … is absolutely something that our community and every other mountain community in Colorado that relies on it not being 100 degrees every day in the summer or 50 degrees in the winter should be fighting on its face.”
But the fact that the new 88-mile railroad in northeast Utah would send up to five fully loaded, two-mile-long oil trains a day through Glenwood and Denver on their way to Gulf Coast refineries has prompted the Colorado River city of 10,300 in Garfield County to support Eagle County’s litigation opposing federal approval of the project, and, more recently, to fire off letters to federal officials opposing tax-exempt funding for the railway and a Utah loading facility expansion.
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On Aug. 3, Glenwood Mayor Ingrid Wussow wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urging him to “deny issuing funding through tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs) to the Uinta Basin Railway Project. The approval of and funding for the Railway carries grave implications for both the environmental health and economic stability of Glenwood Springs and other communities along the Railway’s corridor.”
Wussow added she’ll be in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18 to 20, with a delegation from the city and requested a meeting with Buttigieg to discuss the oil train project, which would travel along the climate-change endangered Colorado River for approximately 100 miles. In a separate letter dated Aug. 7, Wussow wrote Greg Sheehan, Utah state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to request a full environmental impact statement for an oil truck and rail loading facility on BLM land in Utah rather than a less-intensive environmental assessment.
“Glenwood Springs is a world destination for outdoor recreation and the home for irreplaceable natural wonders,” Wussow wrote. “Given the magnitude of the Railway project, these risks to the natural environment are significant.”
Godes can doom scroll through a long list of climate calamities in Glenwood Springs he says are directly attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, rising temperatures and increased aridification of Colorado. He points to the Storm King Fire in 1994 that killed 14 wildland firefighters, the Coal Seam Fire in 2002 that burned down 29 Glenwood structures, and the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 that scoured Glenwood Canyon and shut down Interstate 70 for two weeks. The following summer, a 500-year rain event hit the burn scar and dumped mud and rock on the highway and train tracks below, shutting down I-70 for another two weeks.
“So climate change, it’s not just, ‘It’s hot in America right now,’” Godes said. “Climate change is something that threatens us in Glenwood Springs on a year-in and year-out basis. It’s ever-present. It is where our insurance rates are determined. It is where we allow houses to be built. It is where streets are contemplated for escape routes.”
One might think the environmental benefits of trains — up to 75% lower greenhouse gas emissions than moving freight by truck, according to the rail industry — would ease some of Glenwood’s concerns, but Godes argues that depends on the freight. The Uinta Basin oil should stay in the ground to begin with, he argues, while also scoffing at the notion of enhanced passenger trains as a potential tourism-boon side effect of increased rail traffic overall.
“My mom comes from Iowa every year on the California’s Zephyr,” Godes said of the daily Amtrak service through Glenwood to Chicago and San Francisco. “She gets on near Burlington, Iowa, and then she comes out here, and it’s always four or five hours late. And most of the time it’s because somewhere in Colorado, and most likely between Denver and here, there was a train with a higher priority, whether it was oil or coal or other materials or commodities.”
While there are specialty tourist trains such as the Denver-to-Moab, Utah, Rocky Mountaineer and the seasonal Denver-to-Winter Park Express ski train — a partnership with federally run Amtrak — talk of a daily Colorado Zephyr from Denver to Grand Junction and back has largely remained just talk. And the broader push for intercity Amtrak expansion under President “Amtrak Joe” Biden is focused on Front Range Passenger Rail.
So climate change, it's not just, ‘It's hot in America right now' ... Climate change is something that threatens us in Glenwood Springs on a year-in and year-out basis. It's ever-present.
– Jonathan Godes, Glenwood Springs City Council member
In 2020, a billionaire New York real estate tycoon and owner of vast swaths of agricultural land in southeastern Colorado promised Pueblo-to-Minturn daily passenger service in his plan to revive the long-dormant Tennessee Pass rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero, but he’s since pulled the plug on that concept.
“I’d love to have some kind of passenger rail like the California Zephyr be able to service the tourism industry to get tourists from the Front Range to Vail, from Pueblo, Colorado Springs, over Tennessee Pass,” Godes said. “That’s all fine and dandy. It’s a really nice, fun idea that could be helpful to our tourist economy. But if it comes with the risk of opening the door, even a crack, to regular freight rail on the Tennessee line, I think that is going to be incredibly — and it doesn’t affect me because we get that freight rail through Glenwood no matter what — but I think that is incredibly problematic for Eagle County, Chaffee County, for all the communities on that line.”
Fears about derailments
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, whose government is the lead litigant in efforts to block the Uinta Basin project from sending oil trains through a corner of the county, was initially open to passenger rail but very leery of freight returning to the Tennessee Pass tracks along the Eagle River, which bisects the county before flowing into the Colorado River.
“If there’s going to be cargo trains and no passengers, then all we have is the impacts of noise and train crossings to deal with again,” Chandler-Henry said in 2020. “But if we also have people moving on those lines, I think this could be a great benefit to us.” A small segment of Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass Line is currently leased by the scenic Royal Gorge Route.
Beginning in the 1950s, the United States government, at the behest of the auto and aviation industries, prioritized interstate highways and airports over passenger rail, relegating rail to primarily freight lines with little tolerance for passenger service. In 1997, the only other rail line through the Colorado Rockies — the Tennessee Pass Line — was mothballed in favor of the Central Corridor. But it had not seen passengers on its tracks since 1964.
Terry Armistead, the Minturn mayor pro tem and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, does not speak for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she does not want to see the revival of either freight or passenger service in the former rail and mining town off the back side of Vail Mountain.
“We’re not Europe. I just was there riding the trains, and it was incredible. But this mountain corridor is really problematic for commuter traffic and any kind of freight traffic,” Armistead said. “I have real fears about derailments, and Minturn is finally recovering from the disaster that was the Eagle Mine, with the river running orange. We can’t afford to do that again.”
The Eagle Mine is an EPA Superfund site.
“People have this romantic idea of it, but they don’t really quite understand the logistics of this rail line. I don’t think it will work for commuter traffic,” even for people who live in Leadville and work in Vail, Armistead said. “If you drove the Leadville 100 at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. back up to Leadville, you’d understand. People aren’t giving up their cars to spend an extra hour on a train every day. I mean, people are not going to do it. They don’t have the time.”
Sal Pace, a former Pueblo County commissioner and state lawmaker who serves on the Front Range Passenger Rail board of directors, said in a previous interview that the primary focus of FRPR is passenger rail along the Front Range between Pueblo and Fort Collins, where more than 80% of the state’s population is located.
But Pace acknowledges his group has been, to a much lesser degree, exploring connectivity to the west, including the passenger trains already using Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through the Moffat Tunnel, but also by connecting to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which cuts through southeast Colorado on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“We’re also going to explore other potential opportunities,” Pace said of currently active segments of the Tennessee Pass Line. “There’s already potential for connectivity from Pueblo to the Royal Gorge Route and it’s not out of the question that individuals could purchase a train ticket from Denver to the Royal Gorge after we build out Front Range Passenger Rail, where in Pueblo they’d change trains. The infrastructure is there, and it’s something that needs to be examined and explored.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation has identified the Tennessee Pass Line as a priority alternative to the Central Corridor line and in the past suggested the state should attempt to purchase the dormant line if it ever becomes available.
But until passenger service becomes the top-line priority over freight on Colorado’s historic rail lines, fears of frequent derailments and toxic spills in headwater rivers will color perceptions in the state’s mountain towns, especially as federal rail safety legislation languishes amid relentless lobbying by the freight-rail industry.
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