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Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway Company (CMP) says that it has no plans to operate oil trains should train service be revived over the Tennessee Pass line.

Chaffee County Commissioner Keith Baker says there’s nothing binding that promise.

The subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific announced Dec. 31 that it had entered into a commercial agreement with Union Pacific Railroad and that it had filed for common carrier authority to operate with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal agency regulating railroads.

Since that time the railroad blogosphere and Colorado media have lit up with the possibility of freight and passenger service coming back to the line from Cañon City to just past Eagle. The line has been dormant since 1997.

There was also speculation among observers that the route could be included as a connection to haul oil-shale crude oil out of northeastern Utah, a proposition that raised the hackles of groups concerned about environmentally sensitive areas on the route such as Chaffee County’s Browns Canyon.

CMP responded to the speculation Jan. 8 with a tightly worded release. “We are concerned about a false rumor that has been propagated about the Tennessee Pass Rail Line,” the release read.

“To be clear, Colorado Midland & Pacific has no plan, intention, or means to operate oil trains across the Tennessee Pass line. CMP has an agreement for a portion of the Tennessee Pass only – that is from Sage to Parkdale. CMP seeks to explore and develop commuter/passenger rail and local freight opportunities within that ~160-mile corridor, and we wish to do so in coordination and consultation with communities and planning agencies in the area.”

Baker was on a call Jan. 7 with a coalition that is developing around the railroad issue and which currently includes representatives from Lake, Eagle and Chaffee counties. He said two attorneys with railroad industry expertise were on the call, and said there is nothing legally binding in terms of CMP not hauling oil.

“I haven’t seen anything thus far that guarantees those restrictions,” he said, adding that railroads are “notorious for making overtures to local communities.”

He also said it is very difficult to get federal agencies to impose restrictions on what gets hauled on trains.

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.

Meanwhile, Colorado Pacific says it isn’t going away

In all the news about the rails on Tennessee Pass, there also has been word that Colorado Pacific Railway, the smaller operation that made an unsuccessful bid for the tracks, was planning to file a protest with the STB.

Colorado Pacific Railroad is controlled by Stefan Soloviev, whose Crossroads Agriculture has considerable cropland in southeast Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico. He gained use of the short-line Towner tracks to serve the grain elevators that dot southeastern Colorado’s plains.

He has argued that the 160-mile Tennessee Pass segment would provide a mountain shortcut for grain producers and better prices for shipping on a shorter route.

In an announcement Jan. 4, Colorado Pacific said it planned to file a protest asking the STB not to approve the Tennessee Pass agreement. Alleging that UP is maintaining a “monopoly stranglehold” across the Rockies, the company also said that Rio Grande Pacific “has selected a business entity name deceptively similar to ours, in a purposeful effort to confuse the public. This is legally actionable and will not be tolerated.”

The Tennessee Pass Line has been dormant since 1997. Colorado Midland & Pacific is now planning to meet with communities along the Tennessee Pass route to determine interest, noting that it will be a lengthy process that does not guarantee trains will once again use the line. The company says it is open to dialogue on passenger and rail service.

The possibility of trains once again rumbling through Chaffee County brought on a variety of reactions. How could passenger service help deliver tourists to the high country and possibly serve as a way to get workers from Leadville to Eagle County? How would the logistics of freight service impact a county that has grown substantially since 1997?

There also have been environmental concerns such as impacts of trains on Browns Canyon. Friends of Browns Canyon continues to urge people to fight the development of the Uinta Basin Railway out of northeastern Utah, which would link oil shale to the national rail network and to national and global markets.

Rio Grande Pacific plans to operate the Uinta Basin Railway, and critics have said the Tennessee Pass Line could provide a link to Texas oil processing.

But as of Jan. 8, CMP said it was saying no to oil being hauled hereabouts. “Any speculation, scenarios or misinformation about oil or other commodities moving on the Tennessee Pass is simply rumor, conjecture and assumption. CMP has no plan whatsoever to operate oil trains on Tennessee Pass.”

Featured image: Can the rails be revived? The Rio Grande passenger train at the station in Salida Colorado sometime in the 1960s.