Rabbitbrush Rambler: Storing railcars

While some rail fans were visiting this summer, they asked me about a long string of railroad cars they had passed along U.S. 160 in Rio Grande County. I had to admit that I knew little about them, although I frequently pass them, so I’ll share a little of what I have tried to learn.

Although I myself am an ardent railroad buff, most people might prefer to see the scenery without empty freight cars blocking it, but the railroad was here before the tourists and the present residents, so it looks as if we should grin and bear it. A few years ago, there was another string at South Fork that later disappeared. Some towns have idle derelict railroad equipment, too.

Scores of tank cars that now can be seen west of Monte Vista bear no railroad’s name in large print but have letters stenciled in the lower left corner. The code tells whom the car belongs to and, ending with an X, it signifies that it doesn’t belong to a railroad. I’m learning that oil companies or leasers have a lot of idle tank cars.

But back to the tracks. Why are idle cars on the tracks here? The San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad is in business to make money, and one way to make it is by renting out tracks.

The SLRG is an important economic asset in the Valley, carrying commodities and excursionists within the Valley and to and from the Front Range. SLRG’s rail traffic interchanges with larger railroads at Walsenburg and with the short line San Luis Central Railroad at Monte Vista, an important link for agricultural products. The SLRG also occasionally runs traffic between Alamosa and Antonito’s perlite plant, and a couple of trials were made of tourist and commuter trains between Alamosa and Monte Vista or Antonito, although those ideas didn’t seem to work out.  

Railroads also store empties as a way of generating income by leasing tracks to other railroads or corporations. Web sites on the Internet show names of contracting businesses or brokers with lists of tracks that are available for railcar storage leases. Idle railroad tracks in many places around the nation are being used this way, and I predict that a great many more coal cars and oil tank cars will be adding to the surplus as conventional energy industries decline in the future.

Brokers handle the leases, with the rental agreements covering such things as daily rates and switch charges. For instance Iowa Pacific alone lists more than a dozen locations with available railcar storage facilities — from North Carolina and New York State to Oregon and California, Illinois and Wyoming to Texas and Colorado. One of the storage locations advertised by Iowa Pacific is the SLRG in the Valley. Another SLRG storage facility is at Walsenburg, where it has its interchanges with the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

(Sometimes a buff like me needs a bit more explanation about the complexities of railroad ownership: The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad is a short line that was bought by Permian Basin Railways, which in turn is a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns the controlling stock. Ed Ellis is the president of Iowa Pacific with its office being in Chicago, while the SLRG operation’s office is at Alamosa. Iowa Pacific in Chicago offers various railroad-related services, one of which is advertising and arranging leases of empty tracks for railcar storage. At least, that’s the way I understand it.)

Railcar storage in the San Luis Valley will be expanding in the Valley. SLRG has acquired the old Southern San Luis Valley tracks south of Blanca and has plans to upgrade the roadbed and rails so they can accommodate storage of heavier rolling stock than the old empty refrigerator cars that used to sit along those tracks.

And at the former scoria plant near Blanca, metal is being scrapped by a steel and iron recycler, but recycling is another story for another time.