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The Valley: In Grand Junction, oil train route would retrace Colorado railroad history

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Chase Woodruff



This is Part 1 of Down the Line, a Newsline series tracing the route that eastbound oil trains from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in Utah could soon take through western and central Colorado. Click here for a series overview.

Part 1: The Valley

Part 2: Boomtowns

Part 3: The Canyons

Part 4: Headwaters

Part 5: The City

Click here for an overview of “Down the Line.”

(Colorado Newsline) Five miles due south of the point where Interstate 70 crosses the Colorado-Utah border, a maze of slickrock washes and desert bunchgrass descends into a broad canyon carved out of the sandstone by the Colorado River.

Here, on the high northern banks of a river that supplies water to 40 million people across the Southwest, there is no photogenic sign bidding visitors “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” Campers and mountain bikers can crisscross the border without ever realizing it. Most of the interstate traffic consists of a steady flow of rafters and kayakers floating into Utah through Ruby Canyon, a 25-mile segment of the Colorado River treasured by local guides for its family-friendly flatwater conditions and the billion-year-old rock layers it shares with some of the most scenic stretches of the Grand Canyon, 400 miles downriver.

On a clear, hot morning in mid-May, the only sounds that could be heard in this remote place were the faint rush of a river surging with spring snowmelt, a chorus of birds singing in the sagebrush and juniper trees, and the occasional shout of rafters on the river below.

Then a low rumbling began.

For a minute or so, the noise grew louder and louder, amplified almost to a roar by the canyon walls overhead. Many of the daytrippers paddling leisurely at the waterline probably hadn’t yet noticed the train tracks winding along the elevated riverbank — but now the powerful diesel engines of the Union Pacific locomotive brought it charging around a bend, hauling a mile-long train of fully loaded coal cars behind it.

These tracks have run through Ruby Canyon for well over a century, but traffic has lessened over time. These days, fewer than one train per day on average departs Colorado’s largest remaining coal mine, the West Elk Mine in Gunnison County, bound for points west. They’re joined by irregular assorted freight traffic, also averaging roughly one train per day, and Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger line, which offers service once daily in either direction on its route between San Francisco and Chicago.

Soon, however, freight traffic on this railroad could be more than quadrupled, federal regulators estimate, by the construction of a new railway extension in a remote area of eastern Utah, about 100 miles northwest of this spot along the border. Nearly all of the increase would be made up of what alarmed environmentalists have taken to calling “bomb trains” full of combustible fossil fuels.

The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway would connect Utah’s largest oil field to the national rail network, allowing drillers there to dramatically ramp up production and transport up to 300,000 barrels of oil per day to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Five hundred tankers full of heated waxy crude oil could depart the Uinta Basin daily, and while they could take several possible paths to the Gulf Coast, all eastbound routes run directly through Ruby Canyon, central Colorado and the Denver metro area.

The railway project, years in the planning and backed by a public-private partnership between Utah county governments and industry, needs billions of dollars in financing before it can become a reality. But it has already secured key permits from President Joe Biden’s administration and has signaled it will soon apply for special tax-exempt infrastructure bonds that must be approved by the Department of Transportation.

A coal train crosses the Colorado-Utah border on May 15, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)


The Uinta Basin Railway would be the largest new railroad project built from scratch in the United States since the 1970s. If it’s built, it will be built not to move people — as many passenger-rail advocates renewed their hopes for in the wake of an Amtrak-loving Democrat’s election to the White House in 2020 — but to feed the beast of the global fossil fuel economy, the dominant contributor to human-caused climate change.

Greenlighting the railroad would be the latest — and perhaps the largest — in series of energy-development moves by Biden’s administration that run counter to its stated climate goals.

As an 88-mile new right-of-way purpose-built to haul Uinta Basin crude, the project would rank among the most ambitious sustained efforts to transport oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S. It could singlehandedly more than double the average of around 268,000 barrels per day that were shipped by rail across the entire country last year and increase crude oil shipments originating in a five-state Rocky Mountain region by nearly 1,500%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The increased production in the Uinta Basin would result in as much as 53 million additional tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — the equivalent of opening more than 14 new coal-fired power plants, and double the projected climate impact of the highly controversial Willow Project in Alaska.

“At some point, one would hope that the Biden administration would live up to its soaring rhetoric about what to do about climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because this really just makes a mockery of those commitments.”

The partnership behind the railway says it “brings hope and promise to rural, eastern Utah, its counties and the citizens in neighboring states,” arguing that rail shipment of hazardous materials is “nothing new” and pointing to data showing that trains are a safer mode of transport than trucks. Backers have also downplayed climate concerns, suggesting that compared to other types of crude oil, more of the Uinta Basin’s waxy crude would be used for lubricants and other industrial applications, rather than as fuel.

But the project has drawn opposition from across the political spectrum in Colorado, including from Republican state lawmakers and county commissioners. Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a moderate who has supported drilling on public lands and export infrastructure for Colorado’s natural gas industry, said earlier this year that the project’s approval “would be a black mark on the president’s environmental record.”

With the exception of a small portion that could be routed to the Pacific Northwest or the Midwest, federal regulators predict that nearly all of the increased production would be bound for refineries along the Gulf Coast, including a region in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, where residents are exposed to drastically elevated health risks from the air pollution emitted by more than 200 refineries and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River. Once the oil is refined into gasoline, diesel or other fuels, it could be shipped all over the world, and after being combusted its carbon molecules will drift high into the atmosphere, helping to trap the sun’s heat and cause global temperatures to rise.

But long before all that, the Uinta Basin’s oil will have to make the 300-mile journey through some of the most densely populated and environmentally fragile places in Colorado.

‘When, not if’

Within just a few short years, the Uinta Basin Railway’s construction could result in as many as five fully loaded, two-mile-long oil trains crossing into Colorado through the remote Ruby Canyon every day. Here, on the first leg of their journey through the Centennial State, hugging the north bank of the Colorado River, they will be surrounded on all sides by more than 200,000 acres of protected public lands, including the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness just across the river, where not even mountain bikes are allowed.

But Ruby Canyon, cherished though it is, hardly tops the list of places that Coloradans living along the oil trains’ path are most concerned about.

From there, the trains will travel the length of the Grand Valley, one of the state’s leading agricultural centers, along an exposed road in the heart of Palisade orchard country, where a rail car recently caught fire. They will wind through the narrow Glenwood Canyon, scarred in recent years by devastating wildfires and mudslides, where conditions bedeviled structural engineers for so long that a 12-mile section of I-70 built into its cliffs became in 1992 the last and most expensive segment of the federal highway system to be completed.

The Colorado River flows through Ruby and Horsethief canyons area near Mack, June 9, 2023. (William Woody for Colorado Newsline)


On their eastbound route to Denver over the Rocky Mountains, the oil trains will pass through 16 different Colorado municipalities, 25 water districts and four national forests. They will gain and drop thousands of feet in elevation and spend mile after mile of their journey in areas not accessible by any road. They will travel along hundred-foot cliff edges, around one of the tightest mainline railroad curves in the country, beside two of its most endangered rivers, through a six-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide, and down a watershed that collects into a vital reservoir for the 1.5 million customers of the Denver Water system.

“It threatens water supplies and the environment, should it spill,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, an anglers’ conservation group. “We have more of an attitude of when it spills, not if it spills.”

We have more of an attitude of when it spills, not if it spills.

– Kirk Klancke, president of Trout Unlimited's Colorado River Headwaters chapter

That attitude is backed up by data from federal regulators, who estimated in a “downline analysis” that Uinta Basin oil trains could, on average, cause a rail accident between Kyune, Utah, and Denver once every 13 months. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, regulators predict, will occur roughly once every five years.

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a public body made up of Utah county governments, first sought approval for the railway’s construction in 2019. The Uinta Basin Railway is a “preliminary public-private partnership” between the SCIC, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, a small private rail operator based in Texas. The partnership has said it’s “committed to minimizing and mitigating environmental impacts where possible,” and will comply with “all federal, state, and local environmental regulations.”

The Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the project, after the agency’s Office of Environmental Analysis wrote that it “does not expect that downline impacts would be significant.”

But Colorado’s Eagle County has joined environmental groups in suing to overturn the STB’s decision, which it says was based on a faulty and incomplete environmental review. In a legal brief supporting the suit, attorneys representing a group of 10 Colorado city and county governments called the federal government’s analysis “fatally flawed” and argued that its predicted accident rates — alarming as they already are to many communities along the route — understate the true risk level.

Rafters float down the Colorado River in Ruby Canyon, alongside the tracks of the Union Pacific railroad, near the Colorado-Utah border on May 15, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)


“The release of highly flammable crude oil could ruin this unique region for decades,” the governments wrote. “The Board neither analyzed the profound economic harm these accidents will induce, nor considered (or adopted) any mitigation measures to lessen these calamitous impacts in the I-70 corridor.”

Separately from Eagle County’s lawsuit, Colorado communities dependent on outdoor-recreation industries have lobbied for contingency measures, including emergency response equipment that would be stored locally and an escrow account to cover potential cleanup costs, but so far they’ve received no such assurances.

“You need to have some (resources) in Eagle County, some in Grand County, some in Mesa County, and just do what you can to have a rapid response readily available, because the sooner you can get to spills the better,” Rich Cimino, a Grand County commissioner, said in an interview. “But the reality is, you’re just not going to get there fast enough, and then it’s going to be years of cleanup, and who knows what damage could be done to recreation.”

“If I could go back in history,” Cimino added, “I’d be happy if the train never came through here at all.”

Conquering the mountains

More than just passing through some of Colorado’s most treasured landscapes, the twists and turns on the 300-mile route from Ruby Canyon to Denver retrace more than a century and a half of the Centennial State’s rich railroading history — a history that begins with bitter disappointment.

An article in the Rocky Mountain News on Nov. 24, 1859, predicts the coming of the transcontinental railroad to Denver and west over the Rockies. In fact, it would be more than 70 years until such a route was completed. (Colorado State Library)


Denver’s early pioneers had taken it for granted that the nation’s first transcontinental railroad would run directly through the city and the gold fields that surrounded it. “Already this middle point on the route is fixed, almost as indissolubly as is the Eastern or Western terminus,” declared William Byers’ Rocky Mountain News just a few months after Denver’s founding in 1859. But the engineers of the Union Pacific Railroad Company concluded by 1866 that a route over the Rockies west of Denver would be cost-prohibitive.

Instead, when the famous golden spike was driven home at Promontory Point three years later, it completed a route that passed 100 miles to Denver’s north through Cheyenne, Wyoming, and didn’t enter Colorado at all except for a brief zigzag into tiny Julesburg, in the far northwest corner of the soon-to-be state.

It would be more than 70 years before Byers’ vision of a direct line between Denver and Salt Lake City through the Rockies was fully realized and trains first traveled the route that Uinta Basin oil tankers could take in the near future through central Colorado. Much of that track would be laid down not by the Union Pacific or its top rivals but by a scrappy independent operator called the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company, which over more than a century in business earned a variety of affectionate nicknames, from the “Baby Road” to the “Action Road” to the “Rebel of the Rockies,” or simply the Rio Grande.

Founded in 1870, the Denver & Rio Grande initially expanded south to Pueblo and New Mexico and then into the booming silver-mining region of the San Juan Mountains. Rather than the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches between rails, the Denver & Rio Grande initially built out its system using a 3-foot narrow gauge.

“Right about the time we’re getting to where we can settle on a standard gauge for railroading, the narrow-gauge movement comes along and confuses things,” said Paul Hammond, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. “The Denver & Rio Grande saw this as a way to conquer the mountains, using a new technology that at the time it was believed would be much cheaper to build, and cheaper to maintain.”

A narrow-gauge locomotive of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway pictured in 1889. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-202)


When the 1881 expulsion of the Ute people from their lands in western Colorado abruptly opened up the possibility of a new route to Salt Lake City, the Denver & Rio Grande jumped at the chance — and found a willing partner in the town of Grand Junction, settled at the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, within weeks of the Utes’ forced removal.

From the beginning, the Denver & Rio Grande and Grand Junction understood their value to one another. The railroad’s officers bought half of the stock in the Grand Junction Town Company, and with it half of its land and half of the seats in city government. “The Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company own a half interest in the town site of this place,” crowed the Grand Junction News to prospective residents in 1882. “It is a question of business with them to make this an important town.”

Grand Junction found itself enjoying the kind of “favor and influence” that the Union Pacific had withheld from Denver 15 years earlier. Overnight, the new settlement became a rowdy boomtown as workers arrived to lay track west into Utah. A roundhouse, repair pits, machine shops and smithies to service locomotives and rail cars became some of the town’s first major buildings. With the Utes expelled and forced onto small reservations to the south and west, the Grand Valley became the last of Colorado’s present-day population centers to be settled by white people, who rushed in to claim vast tracts of its fertile, low-lying farmland.

By the end of the decade, the U.S. Census Bureau would declare the American frontier closed. The days of the Wild West were over, and now its fast-growing towns, with the help of the railroads, dreamed of the industrial and agricultural empires they could build in its place. When the Rio Grande’s line to Salt Lake was completed in 1883, the Denver Tribune predicted that the Grand Valley, “capable of astonishing production” of “every variety of fruit and cereal,” was poised to become the breadbasket of the American West.

“The advantages of the country have caused several railroad corporations to look on it with covetous eyes,” wrote the Tribune. “But the Denver & Rio Grande, with its customary enterprise, has made it its own.”

Rules of the road

The track that runs through Ruby Canyon rejoins I-70 near the tiny, unincorporated towns of Mack and Loma, at the westernmost edge of the crescent-shaped Grand Valley. Out here on the edge of the desert, agriculture consists mostly of alfalfa fields and small sheep and cattle operations.

Just ahead of the I-70 Loma exit, tractor trailers hauling freight into Colorado from Utah hit their brakes and turn onto an off-ramp. “All vehicles with livestock must exit,” says one sign. “Weigh and Check Station – Next Right,” says another.

Even trucks that don’t stop here, at one of Colorado’s 10 official ports of entry, pass under an electronic sensor that records their information and checks it against a database to ensure that they have one of several required state-issued permits. Trucking companies that haul large amounts of freight along the I-70 corridor are required to register with the Colorado Department of Transportation, and trucks hauling hazardous materials like crude oil are subject to further scrutiny.

“My permitting system talks to the port of entry’s business system,” said Craig Hurst, manager of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Freight Mobility and Safety Branch. “So when that truck is coming in, say they’re coming into that Loma port … there’s a couple different technology pieces that do electronic screening.”

The Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley near Loma on June 9, 2023. The railroad is visible running across the middle of the frame. (William Woody for Colorado Newsline)


In addition to aiding enforcement by the Colorado State Patrol’s motor-carrier and hazmat divisions, the data that the state collects at ports of entry allows Hurst’s branch to make informed decisions about a wide range of traffic safety measures, from approved hazmat routes, weight restrictions, vertical clearances and where to spend infrastructure dollars.

That stands in stark contrast to freight shipped by rail. Federal laws preempt states’ authority to regulate most aspects of rail transport, and Hurst said that while the state sometimes gets glimpses at “after-the-fact” data voluntarily provided by railroad companies, it’s mostly in the dark about what goods are crossing into Colorado on the tracks just a mile to the north of the Loma weigh station.

“I wouldn’t say trucking data is amazing, but it’s far better than freight rail data, because we can dive down a little deeper on commodities and things like that,” Hurst said. “From a regulatory standpoint, anything that’s being moved on rail, because it’s interstate, that’s all done by the (Federal Railroad Administration).”

Over the centuries, the scope of federal railroad regulation has ebbed and flowed in response to economic and political pressures. In the rail barons’ Gilded Age heyday, regulations were few and monopolistic practices were rampant. Much of Colorado’s enthusiasm for the Denver & Rio Grande’s route through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City stemmed from the hope that it would restore a measure of competition and bring down extortionate transcontinental shipping rates.

“Railroads charged what they charged, and weren’t always the best corporate citizens,” said Hammond.

I wouldn’t say trucking data is amazing, but it’s far better than freight rail data.

– Craig Hurst, CDOT freight mobility and safety manager

Amid mounting public outrage, especially in the West, a series of trust-busting federal laws passed beginning in 1887 created the Interstate Commerce Commission — “the first regulatory commission in U.S. history,” according to the National Archives — granting it broad powers to rein in the railroads’ monopoly powers and eventually to regulate the trucking and utility industries, too. The ICC established the nation’s common-carrier system and enacted regulations to ensure “just and reasonable” shipping rates, helping small- and mid-sized railroads like the Denver & Rio Grande survive all across the country.

Using aggressive marketing campaigns with slogans like “Through the Rockies, Not Around Them,” the Denver & Rio Grande thrived in the 20th century, pioneering the long-haul California Zephyr passenger line, the Ski Train to Winter Park and a “fast freight” philosophy that used shorter trains and multiple locomotives to move swiftly across Colorado’s alpine terrain.

“They knew that they had mountains to conquer, and what they had to do was offer fast, efficient service to compete with the Union Pacific,” Hammond said. “Getting tonnage up and over those mountains is no small thing.”

A Denver & Rio Grande diesel locomotive hauls freight in Colorado in this undated photo from the 1960s. The railway thrived in the 20th century as it pursued a “fast freight” philosophy in competition with the Union Pacific. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, OP-10869)


Carl Smith is a third-generation railroader and the Colorado legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART, which represents about 650 rail workers across the state. After growing up in Pueblo, Smith followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and went to work on the Denver & Rio Grande system in the 1980s, around the time that the company acquired the Southern Pacific Railroad and assumed the better-known railroad’s brand.

Back then, railroad jobs didn’t just pay well — they were plentiful, too.

“It was a good blue-collar job that had a pension, that had health care, that had benefits,” Smith said. “Forty years ago, when there were still cabooses, there was an engineer, and he had an apprentice engineer called a fireman, and there was a conductor, and a rear brakeman in the caboose, and a head brakeman in the locomotive.”

But the railroad business was changing fast. Technological advances meant more automation and fewer workers needed to operate trains. Efforts to deregulate the transportation industry under President Ronald Reagan dramatically weakened the ICC’s authority. And a wave of consolidation put much of the nation’s rail network in the hands of a few small conglomerates, as the number of so-called Class I railroads in the U.S. was reduced from 40 in 1980 to seven today. A new class of private-equity investors — including Colorado oil billionaire Phil Anschutz, who bought the Denver & Rio Grande in the early 1980s — saw in railroads the same financial opportunity that their industrialist predecessors had seen a century earlier.

In 1995, the ICC was abolished. A year later, Anschutz sold the Denver & Rio Grande system to its old foe, the Union Pacific — one of many acquisitions that has made the famed transcontinental pioneer the country’s most powerful corporate railroad giant.

The Colorado River flows through Grand Junction, June 9, 2023. The railroad is visible coming into the city from the left along the river then turning abruptly east. (William Woody for Colorado Newsline)


Today, the Denver & Rio Grande’s Denver-to-Salt Lake stretch makes up the eastern half of the Union Pacific’s “Central Corridor” line. If the Uinta Basin Railway is built, it will connect with the Central Corridor near Kyune, and oil trains heading to the Gulf Coast will travel on Union Pacific tracks at least as far as Denver; from there, they could continue on the Union Pacific system or onto lines operated by its top competitor, BNSF.

With almost every mile of railroad track in Colorado controlled by just two corporate behemoths, the power of state-level authorities like CDOT and the Public Utilities Commission to effectively regulate rail operations has been greatly diminished. Still, safety advocates and rail workers’ unions have called on states to reassert their authority where no federal preemptions exist — especially in the wake of a headline-grabbing derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year.

In the months following the disaster, Ohio lawmakers passed a rail safety law that included a two-person crew minimum for all freight trains traveling through the state, a measure long championed by rail workers’ unions who fear that further automation will impact jobs and operational safety. Colorado Democrats enacted such a law after taking full control of the General Assembly in 2019, over opposition from Republicans and the railroad lobby.

“The railroads generally are opposed to any type of regulation which requires them to spend money and make less of a profit,” Smith said. “We’re seeing lots of talk after the big accident in Ohio, how they’re sorry. ‘Oh, boo-hoo — but we don’t need any more regulation.’”

‘We want to do it safely’

More than 140 years after its founding, Grand Junction today is hardly the railroad town it once was.

Its small Amtrak station shares an outbuilding with a diner and a construction firm on the far southwest edge of downtown, separated from the busy Main Street by an expanse of parking lots and four lanes of high-speed traffic. Next door, the historic Grand Junction Union Depot, built in 1906, lies empty and in disrepair, though a restoration effort is underway.

Though it was once a major crew-change point for trains hauling coal and other freight along the busy Denver & Rio Grande, the decline in coal shipments, especially, has steadily pushed the number of rail workers in Grand Junction even lower.

“It’s actually one of our smallest locals now,” Smith said.

Unlike in many smaller communities along the Central Corridor, the Union Pacific’s tracks here don’t run directly through the busiest parts of town, veering instead into an industrial zone and freight depots to the south — out of sight and out of mind for a city that has mostly sprawled to the north and east, with the exception of regular train horn blasts heard in the distance. Jason Nguyen, a Grand Junction City Council member, said local public awareness about the potential Uinta Basin oil trains is low.

“I haven’t honestly heard much from the community about it,” Nguyen said. “It certainly hasn’t come up in council.”

Left: The Grand Junction Union Depot in an undated 1920s photograph by George Beam. Right: Today, the Union Depot lies empty and in disrepair, though a restoration project is in the works. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)


Determining exactly how much the Uinta Basin Railway would increase rail traffic through the Grand Valley and other “downline” communities in Colorado is made difficult by a lack of solid public data. But summaries shared with local governments suggest that the project would result in a dramatic surge in tanker-car traffic on the Western Slope. Andy Martsolf, director of the Emergency Services Division of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, told Newsline in an email that a “commodity flow study” showed that 550 million gallons of hazardous materials were shipped by rail within the county in 2021.

“Commodity flow studies are classified as sensitive security information as well as trade secrets by the rail industry,” he wrote, explaining that no further information could be released.

The 550 million gallon total represents an average of about 50 fully loaded, 30,000-gallon tanker cars passing through Mesa County daily. Crude oil traffic from the Uinta Basin Railway could result in as much as a tenfold increase in that figure, pushing the average to around 500 tanker cars per day.

The SMART union, representing workers eager to see traffic on the rails rebound, supports the Uinta Basin Railway project — with a big caveat.

“We want to move these Uinta oil trains, but we want to do it safely,” Smith said.

SMART members were one of four rail workers’ unions who voted to reject a contract with the railroads last year over a lack of paid sick leave and other concerns, raising the possibility of a strike before Biden and bipartisan majorities in Congress forced the ratification of the deal, which eight other rail unions had approved.

The tense negotiations, which came just weeks before the East Palestine derailment, exposed a widening rift between unions and railroad management over working conditions in the industry. Under pressure from investors, rail conglomerates have increasingly adopted a suite of shipping practices that are lumped together under the buzzword “precision scheduled railroading,” or PSR.

“Precision scheduled railroading is a Wall Street scheme, a hedge fund scheme, to basically make railroads do more with less,” said Smith.

We want to move these Uinta oil trains, but we want to do it safely.

– Carl Smith, SMART Colorado legislative director

On its website, Union Pacific describes PSR as a model “intended to benefit customers by providing consistent, reliable, predictable service.” In practice, Smith said, it means larger numbers of cars on fewer trains, and fewer crews to work them. Once again, railroads are tight-lipped and solid public data is sparse, but one federal report found that average train length had grown by as much 25%, to roughly a mile and a half, over the decade prior to 2017.

In addition to being harder to slow down, these longer, heavier trains make it more difficult for crews to handle any problems that arise. Smith said that with train lengths often exceeding two miles, the handheld radios that crew members use can’t reliably communicate between the front of the train and the back. Increasingly, trains are too long to use existing “sidings,” the short parallel sections of track that enable two-way traffic on largely single-track routes, leading to a widely reported rise in idle trains blocking traffic at crossings for hours on end in small towns across the country.

Left: Denver & Rio Grande Railway workers demonstrate outside the U.S. Post Office on Stout Street in Denver in an undated photo from the 1910s. Right: An advertising truck in downtown Denver displays messages protesting Union Pacific’s safety practices in April 2023, in the wake of the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year. (Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-5413, Courtesy SMART-TD Local 202)


With the right regulations in place, rail workers are confident that they can do their part to safely transport Uinta Basin oil without accidents. Trains already haul limited amounts of oil and other hazardous materials to and from destinations in the Grand Valley, including a small Suncor Energy oil terminal there, and crews are vigilant about ensuring that there “will never be an issue in the Colorado River,” Smith said.

“We continually talk about making sure, if you get one of the oil trains out of Grand Junction, you’re sure that the air tests have been done properly, any sign of brake malfunction, car malfunction, any type of incident — right away, stop and inspect,” he added. “We’re preaching that to our members on a regular basis, because that’s how important those jobs are to us, until we transition to whatever the new economy looks like for railroad workers.”

In an email, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver wrote: “Union Pacific shares the same goals as our customers and the communities we serve — to deliver every tank car safely. We are required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”

‘It could wipe us out’

Especially in the absence of tighter regulations, however, many communities along the Union Pacific line say the risk posed by the oil trains is too great.

After rolling through the rail yards of Grand Junction, trains pick up speed as they head east out of town onto an arrow-straight stretch of track that cuts through the heart of Palisade orchard country. Here, the growing season is lengthened by a “million dollar wind” that funnels warm air into the valley through De Beque Canyon and the Book Cliffs to the northeast, giving arid Colorado its unlikely status as the country’s seventh-largest peach-producing state.

In addition to the 30 million pounds of peaches its growers produce annually, Palisade has made itself into the state’s top agritourism destination. Bed and breakfasts, boutique hotels and luxury vineyard retreats have proliferated. Visitors can travel the town’s Fruit and Wine Byway by vintage bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.

It can be easy to forget that a railroad that carries dangerous freight bisects this idyllic place along the two-lane U.S. Highway 6. But some residents got a literal wake-up call in early May, when a rail car caught fire in the middle of the night near the Field to Fork Organic Farm a mile west of town. It took crews from five area fire departments two hours to put out the blaze, which started shortly before midnight on May 2 in a car carrying wooden railroad ties.

“I was definitely thinking about an explosion and East Palestine,” Jessica Washkowiak, an owner of the farm, told The Colorado Sun a few days after the fire. “I mean, if there was a spill here, it could wipe us out. It would completely ruin agriculture in Palisade.”

Left: Firefighting crews put out a rail car fire on the Union Pacific tracks near Palisade on the night of May 2, 2023. Right: The scorched car and the wooden rail ties it was carrying lie upturned near the tracks on May 16, 2023. (Palisade Fire Department, Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)


Environmental activists began labeling crude oil trains “bomb trains” in the wake of a series of fires and explosions involving petroleum products in the early 2010s. The worst occurred in 2013 in Quebec, Canada, when a train hauling light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field derailed in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, resulting in an explosion that killed 47 people. Other explosions and major fires involving oil trains have occurred in Oregon, North Dakota, Alabama, West Virginia and elsewhere in Canada.

The Uinta Basin’s waxy crude is less volatile than other kinds of crude oil, making it less likely to cause an explosion, federal regulators wrote in an analysis. But even in minor rail accidents, they concluded, “there is a chance of ignition,” and in general, “accidents involving a loaded oil train could result in several different outcomes and associated consequences, depending on the force of the collision or derailment, the location of the accident, and the number of train cars involved.”

“Union Pacific has a robust emergency management plan in place that is activated in the event of an emergency,” Tysver said. “We also have Hazardous Materials Management teams placed regionally throughout our network to prevent, prepare, and respond to emergency events.”

As trains head east out of Palisade, the railroad again rejoins both I-70 and the Colorado River to wind through the rugged De Beque Canyon.

At this point, eastbound trains have traveled fewer than 50 miles into Colorado. The river and the railroad will continue to follow each other up the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains for roughly another 150 miles, intertwined almost as far as the river’s headwaters, high up on the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Fruit growers and oenophiles in Palisade could soon watch hundreds of oil tankers disappear daily around the bend into De Beque Canyon. But many will fear that one day, the oil in one or more of those cars could spill somewhere upriver and come right back — potentially into the canyon’s Cameo Diversion Dam, the main source of irrigation water in Palisade and most of the rest of Mesa County.

“There’s a lot of concern around the river, especially after East Palestine,” said Kate Christensen, a volunteer with Stop the Uinta Basin Railway, a coalition of Utah and Colorado environmental groups. “The Colorado River has obviously had just a ton of issues with quantity, and this could devastate its quality.”

Christensen repeated what has become a familiar refrain among activists seeking to block the project.

“It’s not if a train derails — it’s just when, and how often,” she said.“If we have multiple trains going through each day, it’s not like this is going to end up well.”

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