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There isn’t going to be any oil coming over the rails on Tennessee Pass, according to the CEO of Rio Grande Pacific, the parent company of the small rail operation that filed Dec. 31 to put the long-dormant Tennessee Pass Line back into use. The 163-mile stretch, owned by Union Pacific, runs from Canõn City to Eagle and includes a swath of Chaffee County.

In a letter addressed to the communities on the Tennessee Pass Line, Richard Bertel pointed to a March 15 amended filing with the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), in which Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway Company requested that the Board “restrict the proposed lease of the Line against the transportation of crude oil, coal, and hazardous commodities.” The filing also contends that certain features of the line, including a 3 percent grade over 11 miles, make hauling oil “logistically impractical.”

Image Rio Grande Pacific

Colorado, Midland & Pacific has repeatedly denied any plans to transport oil, despite ongoing questions raised by citizens groups, the press, and communities along the line. And the most recent news hasn’t changed the fundamental views of some officials. Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker met Wednesday morning with members from the government coalition out of Eagle County that formed earlier this year to respond to the Dec. 31 announcement.

Baker serves as vice chair for the San Luis Valley Transportation Planning Region, is on the Statewide Transportation Advisory Committee and is an advisor for Chaffee County Transportation Advisory Board. Despite the numerous claims by Colorado, Midland & Pacific, he hasn’t abandoned his stance on the possibility of hazardous materials coming through the county should the rails come back into use. He says it is very difficult to get federal agencies to place restrictions on what trains haul.

“CMPR must surely know the STB can’t grant their request, meaning this is all either window dressing,” he said, “or a gambit to open a clearer path to transporting oil, coal, or other hazardous materials.”

The railroad’s amended filing with transportation board says that “CMPR will be authorized only to transport passengers and general commodities, except crude oil, coal and hazardous commodities over the Line. While limitations on the scope of the commodities to be handled are not usually imposed, they are not unique.”

The filing goes on to cite a 1996 STB docket concerning the Providence and Worcester Railroad, where operations were limited to the transportation of sand and stone.

Much of the citizen pushback is related to a proposal to build a short rail line in northeastern Utah that would link the vast amounts of oil shale in the region to the larger rail network and to processing plants on the Gulf Coast.

Numerous factions, including Chaffee County, provided comments recently on a draft environmental impact statement concerning the Uinta Basin Railway. Opponents say if the Utah rail project fails to take hold, there would be significantly fewer concerns regarding oil transportation over Tennessee Pass. Colorado, Midland & Pacific called the concerns “unwarranted” in its recent filing.

Meanwhile, Rio Grande Pacific says it wants to engage with citizens here to see how a revived rail corridor might look. “We are eager to explore how rail might help alleviate congestion on state and local roadways and provide more efficient options to transport a growing demand for goods that currently travel by truck,” Bertel wrote, “in a time of rising fuel prices and growing concern about our environment.”

The Tennessee Pass Line has been unused since 1997.