UPDATE: Colorado tourist line considering sale

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Denver & Rio Grande boxcars in storage at Monte Vista, Colo., in October 2015.
Jim Wrinn
South Fork, Colo.
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SOUTH FORK, Colo. — After 15 years of highs and lows, the scenic Denver & Rio Grande Railroad may be put up for sale, a former official of the Colorado tourist line confirms for Trains News Wire.

"The issue is insurance rates," says Ken Coombs, a former director and treasurer of the tourist line's parent nonprofit, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Historical Foundation. "They quadrupled. It's not viable at that rate; the revenue is not there."

Coombs spoke on behalf of railroad and foundation president Donald Shank, who was not available for an interview due to health issues.

Shank's goal is to preserve the line, Coombs says. Still, offering it for sale raises concerns among friends of the line contacted by Trains News Wire that it might be abandoned and scrapped.

"At the far end that result is possible, but I don't foresee that," Coombs adds.

Shank later contacted Trains News Wire to say the line is not yet officially for sale. 

"It's being discussed, but no definitive decision has been reached," Shank says. That decision will be made soon, he adds.

Shank and partners formed the foundation in 1997 and bought and began rehabilitating what is known historically as the Denver & Rio Grande Western Creede Branch, in 2000. The purchase came after Union Pacific revealed plans to abandon the branch, which hadn't seen traffic since at least 1997.

The 21.6-mile line extends from Derrick just outside South Fork passing through meadows, national forest, wildlife sanctuaries and the narrow canyon at Wagon Wheel Gap to reach Wassen near Creede, all in Colorado. The route represents the farthest the original narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande extended up the banks of its namesake river in the 19th century to reach Colorado silver mines.

Shank is a former vice president and general manager of the Duluth, Misabe & Iron Range Railroad while Coombs is a retired BNSF Railway dispatcher whose boomer roots date to the Erie Railroad.

Passenger operations began in 2009 running to Wagon Wheel Gap and ended with the last runs early in October. Passengers rode an open-air motorcar dubbed the Silver Streak that was initially built for track crews on the Chicago & North Western.

The line hauled rafts on a flat car one-way upstream in conjunction with South Fork outdoor adventure companies for return trips by water.

Privately owned track speeders also operated on the line in excursions affiliated with the North American Railcar Operators Association. Portions of the Disney movie "The Lone Ranger" were filmed there in 2012.

Shank's vision for the line suffered an early setback when a group of Creede residents and business people fought his plan to bring passenger trains into the city. In 2008, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board granted the city's petition for adverse abandonment forcing the D&RG to pull up its last mile of rail within Creede.

And while Coombs notes other tourist lines are wrestling with increased insurance rates, a low-speed collision added to the D&RG's woes. In that incident the motorcar overshot the South Fork station and bumped against parked equipment leading to two passengers filing claims.

Separately Shank's foundation fought and lost a zoning dispute over rail-served property it leases in Monte Vista, 30 miles from South Fork, on shortline San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad. The downtown site had been used to store standard-gauge equipment including a steam engine: former  Florida East Coast No. 148, a partially restored 4-6-2.

Former Florida East Coast 4-6-2 No. 148 sits in a storage line, partially restored at Monte Vista, Colo., in October 2015.
Jim Wrinn
The legal battle arose after Shank brought in truckless narrow-gauge freight cars and put them on blocks. That ran afoul of a recent city ordinance prohibiting storage of railcars not connected to a rail line, and Shank was cited for a violation.

"Under our code it appeared to be a nuisance, and in fact was found by our municipal judge to be a nuisance — twice," Monte Vista City Manager Forrest H. Neuerburg tells Trains News Wire.

After the first court ruling in March 2011, Shank appealed the decision through state courts and eventually petitioned the Surface Transportation Board arguing the railroad's property should be exempt from local regulation. In August 2014, however, the STB found use of the parcel did not constitute transportation within STB jurisdiction thereby making it subject to municipal laws.

The STB rejected Shank's appeal of that decision earlier this year sending the case back to Monte Vista where in May the local judge again upheld the citation and gave him 30 days to clear out the narrow-gauge cars.

"The cars in question of the original charges, if you will, are all gone," Neuerburg adds. "He basically took care of them."

Some were moved to Wassen, but others are now in Antonito, Colo., on tourist carrying line Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, the joint Colorado-New Mexico narrow-gauge steam operation.

"I ended up taking five cattle cars without trucks as a donation from him, and we have moved those to Antonito and have them on trucks," C&TS general manager John Bush says. The C&TS spent a few thousand dollars to move the cars, he adds.

The other equipment Shank stored in Monte Vista remains there and is not in violation of the zoning ordinance, according to the city.

UPDATE: Dec. 5, 2015 4:59 p.m. Central time. CLARIFICATION: The story has been updated to reflect later information provided by foundation president Donald Shank about the status of the railroad. The introductory sentence and headline also reflect the clarification.

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