Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Union Pacific to Double-Track the Donner Pass Route Once Again?

At one time the route over Donner Pass was completely double-tracked, from Roseville to Sparks. Portions of this double-tracking were comparatively steep and predominantly reserved for downhill traffic. In fact, the steepest portion of Donner Pass is the original Central Pacific tracking, known now as the #1 track.

Work for the #2 (used for eastbound or uphill traffic) track was originally begun in 1909. Seventeen tunnels and two major bridges were added. A second double-tracking project began in 1923. Here, there were seven more tunnels, four steel viaducts and snowsheds added. This project was completed in 1925 and included what railroaders now call the "Big Hole" under Mt. Judah, the 10,322-foot Tunnel 41 -- at the time, the third longest tunnel in the continental United States.

By this time the Central Pacific and its creators were long gone. The line now belonged to and was operated by Southern Pacific.

Things changed radically, however, when Philip Anschutz purchased Rio Grande Industries in 1984, that being the holding company for the Rio Grande railroad (DRGW: Denver & Rio Grande Western). On August 9 of 1988, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the purchase of Southern Pacific by Rio Grande Industries, who took control of SP on October 13, 1988.

Because of "branding" Anschutz and company decided to keep the Southern Pacific name though, in truth, the SP was gone. **

It was at this time, under the reign of Mr Anschutz, that SP continued its decline. Traffic patterns changed in the late 80s and 1990s, which resulted in SP literally ripping up some portions of the double track over Donner. The last train to run over full double-track territory was in 1993. Information indicates this was done partially to provide more rail for the Sunset Route further west, and because the maintenance of the long snowsheds visible from I-80 over Donner Lake was too costly.

Perhaps at the time it was a money-saving measure, but remarkably short sighted. Any form of double-track then reduced to a single-track creates all kinds of traffic bottlenecks for both east- and-westbound trains. There have been numerous time since 1993 that SP and then UP wished all the double trackage was still in place.

The line is currently single-tracked between these points:

1. Between Switch 9 (MP 171.2) to Shed 10 (MP 178.2), a total of 7 miles;
2. Between West Norden (MP 191.2) to Shed 47 (MP 196.6), a total of 5.4 miles;

Trains clog up going eastbound at the mouth of Switch 9 and Tunnel 41; trains clog up going westbound just prior to Shed 47 and prior to Shed 10.

Now that UP has opened up double-stack traffic, it's considering double-tracking all points again. From SacBee.com:

UP officials say the project is the first of several steps to upgrade the historic corridor, route of the first transcontinental railroad.

UP wants to add a second set of tracks in some mountain sections where there currently is only one, and to make changes in the Roseville railyard to move freight more easily there.

Ironically, the former owner of the line, the old Southern Pacific company, ripped out many double-track sections a quarter century ago as a cost-saving measure when freight rail was on the wane.

I say: Union Pacific couldn't double-track the Donner route fast enough.


NOTE 1: Mr Anschutz, ever the savvy individual, whilst in possession of remarkable trackage right-of-way under Southern Pacific, laid down miles of fiber-optic cable paralleling these tracks over Donner Pass under the name of SP Telecom (later MCI and then Qwest).

NOTE 2: What people also do not know is that live petroleum fuel lines also parallel these tracks, laid down during Mr Anschutz's time as well. Mr Anschutz later served on the boards of the American Petroleum Institute, in Washington, D.C. and the National Petroleum Council in Washington, D.C.

** Also note that, with the merger of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Corporation in September 1996, Anschutz became Vice-Chairman of Union Pacific. Prior to the merger, he was a Director of Southern Pacific from June 1988 to September 1996, and Non-Executive Chairman of Southern Pacific from 1993 to September 1996.

1 comment:

BigTinkerer said...

Hey there,
I'm glad they (UP) have decided to correct the double rail problem. I had heard rumors about the reasons that the double track was ripped out, and the most prominent rumor was that SP at the time was short of cash because of the freightage shortage. Steel prices had increased and so all rail lines that could be ripped up that were not in use could be converted into cash. Old spur lines, abandoned bridges, etc. Anyone that has a brain in their head knows that without the double line over the Sierras that this would be a bottleneck. But the chance to make money was stronger. Now UP has to correct the mistake of past.
Just another twist on the story.
Bryan of Sacramento.