Utah looks to build new railroad to tap oil boom

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An early rendering of a bridge on the proposed line.
Utah Department of Transportation
An early rendering of a yard on the proposed line.
Utah Department of Transportation
SALT LAKE CITY – New oil development in eastern Utah could spur the largest railroad-building project in a generation.

The Utah Department of Transportation is looking at building a 100-mile railroad that would connect oil producers in the Uinta Basin with the national rail network. Uinta Basin Rail Project Manager John Thomas tells Trains News Wire that the new rail line would cross a mountain range, and require dozens of bridges and an 8-mile tunnel.

“It’s not flat by any means,” Thomas says. “There is some very challenging topography and geography.”

According to UDOT, oil and gas from the Uinta Basin makes up about 70 percent of the state's output and industry experts suggest that will only grow in the decades to come. A 2013 study stated that there could be upwards of 700 million barrels of untapped crude oil in the basin, located in the extreme eastern end of the state.

In 2012 the state and the Six-County Infrastructure Coalition began studying the needs of the area and found that without adequate transportation oil production may not fully develop. In 2013 HDR Engineering, Inc. began to survey the area and found 26 different routes into the basin. From that list of 26, engineers have gotten the number of routes down to one line that has a ruling grade of 2.4 percent. The route was also selected because it follows three established corridors – U.S. 40, U.S. 191 and Emma Park Road – and thus would have less of an impact on the environment.

According to UDOT, the proposed railroad would split off of Union Pacific's Provo Subdivision near Kyune, west of Helper, on the Solder Summit grade shared by UP and the Utah Railway. From there, the railroad would head east toward Duchesne and Roosevelt. The railroad would include two terminals, one in the middle and one at the end, to serve area oil producers.

Now that the route has been selected, engineers are starting to determine how much it will cost to build the railroad although Thomas says it will likely cost millions.

“The first step was finding out if there was a demand for rail transportation here. Then we had to find a route and now we have to figure out how much it will cost,” Thomas says.

UDOT is also starting to work with the Surface Transportation Board to begin the process of writing the Environmental Impact Statement, which would lead to final federal approval of the railroad. In 2013, the Utah State Legislature allocated $3 million to start the EIS study and in 2014 the Utah Transportation Commission contributed another $5.2 million.

If everything goes according to plan the environmental studies will be completed by the end of 2016.

Thomas says it's too early to know when the railroad might be built or who would pay for it. However, he says that UDOT has met with UP, BNSF Railway, and Utah Railway to discuss the project.

“We're still very, very early in this entire process,” he says.

If the 100-mile railroad into the Uinta Basin were to be built it would mark the largest railroad construction project in the U.S. since the late 1970s, when Burlington Northern built a 126-mile line between Gillette and Douglas, Wyo., to reach coal reserves in the Powder River Basin.

For additional information and to see a map of the railroad, go to www.udot.utah.gov/uintabasinrail.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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