WOTR: My caboose highballs to expanded Western rail
February 5, 2013
I’ve lived for close on 20 years in an old heavyweight Burlington Railroad caboose. It’s grounded in Gilpin County, close to the Continental Divide, near milepost 41.77 on the Union Pacific Railroad’s Moffat tunnel sub – a subsidiary line leading up to the tunnel and through it.
I may have slept in that old baby back when I was a brakeman on the Burlington Railroad. Over the years, life in the old caboose has brought snow up to my butt and coal blowing into my bunk, and more than once the regular 100-mile-an-hour winds have blown out a cupola window or two. Still, a caboose is always been a good place to get lost in railroad visions and dreams. I can’t help but think of rail travel whenever I hear a freight crew just miss making the joint as the engine signals back and forth. I can’t help but think about the future of Amtrak when the California Zephyr shrieks on by, usually running on time these days.
Ed Quillen, who sadly caught the westbound last year, said my caboose was a great place to imagine a future for Western rail. What a guy he was! Ed is the only buddy of mine who’d ever rouse from his bunk in the middle of the night in my caboose. Even after closing down the Stage Stop Bar, he’d pet my black lab, Gus, and stoke up the stove at 4 a.m. You’ve got to listen to an ink slinger like that.
He was right about the Western rail vision and the present dangers it faces, too. A big one is coming up: Rail cars still have to push over Raton Pass, just like in the old Santa Fe Railroad days, but major track work is needed all through Colorado and New Mexico. One of our best trains, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, depends on that rail. If it’s gone, there goes our train to Los Angeles, Chicago and every point in between.
Ed encouraged me to keep going to rail meetings. He was right, even though I felt we’d gotten nowhere working on the Colorado state rail plan, or plotting high-speed rail to Las Vegas or Tucson at those high-speed rail coalition meetings. Yet a number of factors favor a rail future for the entire West.
People, especially those under age 40, seem to like trains – or so they say on Facebook. Western state rail plans are being drawn up, and the feds have $10 billion bucks in budgeting authority for high-speed rail. President Obama and good old rail fan Joe Biden are back in office. California is building high-speed tracks rights now. Rail groups can take heart.
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Ed wasn’t always pleased with the planning results, of course. He argued that the old Rocky Mountain Rail Authority – I was on the board then – needed to switch out and change focus. All of our studies showed great passenger rail potential from Denver west – on to Copper Mountain, Minturn and Salt Lake City. Ed agreed, but thought hauling those happy skiers could never be true high speed; not over a 4 percent grade and not till maglev – high-speed, electromagnetically powered trains – arrive. We’ll see.
There are plenty of naysayers in Congress when it comes to Western rail, but there are some yea-sayers too. Meanwhile, our state rail-passenger groups have made some headway. Believe it or not, the newly redesigned Denver Union Station will have three tracks reserved for long-distance passenger trains. A fight from the Colorado Association of Rail Passengers and a lawsuit against the Union Station Authority threw that high stand switch. Those new passenger tracks will be in use this year.
Meanwhile, life in my caboose goes on. Mama bear checks in regularly and Gus the dog valiantly barks from inside the coal door to protect us. The coyotes howl and the big freights roll by. Soon, more passenger trains will be rolling under the big Western sky. Old Ed Quillen will look down, roll a ciggie and smile.
Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes about rail matters and Colorado history while he watches trains and rides them, too