Hey, Spike! enjoys dreamer’s plan to revitalize a mountain train
October 31, 2016
Without visionaries we would not have Araphoe Basin Ski Area, Vail Resort's Breckenridge and Keystone resorts, Copper Mountain, Interstate 70 and its Johnson-Eisenhower tunnels, Denver Water's Dillon Reservoir and railroads crisscrossing the mountains.
These entrepreneurial capitalistic developments were brought to us by folks like Larry Jump, Max and Edna Dercum, Trygve Berge, Sigurd Rockne, Chuck Lewis, Otto Mears, Philip Anschutz and maybe Christof Stork.
He's a Golden research scientist and enterprising guy who is visiting with officials in areas that used to be serviced by the Union Pacific railroad line running from Salida, through Buena Vista and Leadville, then over Tennessee Pass to Eagle near Vail and the I-70 corridor.
Christof lived in Europe for many years and is a regular rail traveler there.
"I like trains. I see what they can do for communities, especially building town centers. I'm also an entrepreneur," he says, adding he started and sold three technology companies.
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Part of his dream is already in place and just sitting there waiting for something to come down those standard gauge tracks.
The last passenger train ran that route out of Salida back in 1967. Regular freight trains ceased running in the Upper Arkansas River Valley in the early '70s.
Christof's dream does have precedence. Currently, there are two tourist trains running on both ends of the river valley: Stephanie and Ken Olsen's Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad and Mark Greksa's Royal Gorge Route Railroad in Cañon City. There is also a tourist train that runs in Durango.
With a huge drop in Colorado coal mining, trains are seeing less and less use.
That's where Christof comes in. He believes a train hauling commuters and tourists will put to beneficial use the 110 miles of track sitting idle today.
A tourist railroad running from Salida to Eagle would take passengers right up and down the Upper Arkansas River Valley and in the middle of Colorado's largest concentration of mountain peaks over 14,000 feet — 20 of them in the Sawatch and Mosquito ranges. These are highlighted by the first and second tallest: Mount Elbert at 14,440 and Mount Massive at 14,421. Along the way that same pleasurable excursion train would serve commuting workers.
Christof visited with the Eagle County commissioners in a Sept. 27 meeting, which got Vail Daily coverage from staffer Randy Wyrick, who reported Christof first approached the Eagle County staff about six months ago, according to Chris Lubbers, director of ECO Transit and Trails.
"Any new idea is worth further study — any idea that means moving people in a multi-modal manner," Lubbers said. "Anyone who comes to us with an idea, we want to be receptive."
After listening to the presentation, the Eagle commissioners asked Christof to keep working on the idea with staffers.
Over in Leadville, Herald Democrat reporter Ryan Fitzmaurice will likely have similar coverage soon when Christof visits with Lake County commissioners, who will hear about the dream and its potential costs.
"I've ridden these trains in the European mountains, in Austria and Norway, and these things can work here," he told Ryan. "I spend a lot of time vacationing in this area, and they can use it. They'll ride tourists up to a nice spot, and they can go hiking, go to a restaurant and then come back home in the evening."
Next on Christof's whistle-stop campaign will be downriver in Salida to pitch his dream to Chaffee County commissioners.
In his presentations, Christof says Colorado coal mining has fallen in production by 50 percent since 2004. Because all coal is transported by train, Union Pacific Railroad might be willing to sell the tracks needed for the project within the next few years.
He readily admits the project will need cooperation among Eagle, Chaffee and Lake counties' governments and residents.
Startup costs for the train, Christof estimates, could be between $20 million and $80 million, with operating costs of $15 million a year. The revenue of the train's tourist/commuter operation could be $30 million a year.
He compares a general cost estimate of $100 million to the $10 billion it could cost to build a rail system from Denver up I-70 — and both are 110 miles.
Christof tells Spike! that "reception is generally positive, but there is a chicken and egg dilemma: local government doesn't want to support it without a careful study, and we can't get a careful study without local government support."
He asks: "The big questions are can it really be economically self-sustaining without subsidy, what are the startup costs and can we get the tracks from UP?"
So, what's the initial response from Union Pacific Railroad, owner of the tracks?
"Union Pacific occasionally receives proposals to utilize or purchase our right of way. When reviewing such proposals, our top priority continues to be maintaining our ability to provide safe and efficient service for our customers, which are providing the raw and finished materials Americans use daily. We do not intend to sell our right of way between Salida and Eagle," said Calli B. Hite, Union Pacific's director of corporate communications.
While appearing to stand steadfast, the Union Pacific did sell 12 miles of track to that Royal Gorge system.
Miles F. Porter IV, nicknamed "Spike," a Coloradan since 1949, is an Army veteran, former hardrock miner, graduate of Adams State College, and a local since 1982. An award-winning investigative reporter, he and wife, Mary E. Staby, owned newspapers here for 20 years. Email your social info to firstname.lastname@example.org
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