Riding the rails in Colorado

  Rails may be the most cost- and energy-efficient way to move commodities across our landscape, but they're also a shrinking asset; America's major railroads abandon about 3,200 miles of track every year.

How should state and local governments, and community activists, respond when a railroad files to abandon a line?

Colorado, where rail mileage has declined to half its 1913 peak of 5,764 miles, has come up with some answers in an authoritative and quite readable guidebook, authored by Skye Ridley.

For starters, the Colorado Railroad & Rail Corridor Guide suggests, fight the abandonment. What works best is to get rail shippers to oppose it before the federal Surface Transportation Board. If that fails, look for a short-line operator who might continue rail service; every full rail car is the equivalent of four loaded semis, which damage roads while adding to pollution and congestion.

But by all means preserve the corridor, even if it has no ties or track. It may be needed again someday for rail purposes (local governments are trying to resurrect the Glenwood Springs-Aspen route for mass transit). In the interim, these 100- to 200-foot-wide rights-of-way can serve as trails for hikers, horseback riders and bicyclists.

Further, there are environmental benefits. Railroads scarred the landscape when they were built in the 19th century, but "time heals all wounds."

According to the Colorado Guide, after a century the railroad grades have "become natural and benefit the local ecology." Native plants can thrive, and, "the raised railbed can act as a dam, creating many small wetlands which provide rich plant, animal and bird habitat." Wildlife also migrate along these routes. Community support for corridor preservation is vital, the Guide points out, and so is an informed public.

The Guide explains the abandonment process in common-sense language, rather than the stilted dialect of $500-an-hour railroad lawyers, and it starts with ways to tell whether a line is in danger of abandonment.

There's also a directory that covers everything from federal agencies to potential short-line operators and rail-to-trail conversion experts. Colorado's existing and abandoned rail lines are examined in detail for their survivability and suitability for corridor preservation.

This is a model government report - comprehensive, informative, and above all quite readable, with guidance for action if that becomes necessary. Railroad corridors are as important now as they were a century ago when the lines were constructed, and every state ought to produce a similar guide. This one, though designed for Coloradans, contains much that would be useful elsewhere in the West.

The Colorado Guide is well worth your time if there's a railroad corridor - be it an operating through line or a long-abandoned narrow-gauge spur - near your community.

*Ed Quillen

Colorado Railroad & Rail Corridor Guide was published in 1998 by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the State Trails Program of Colorado State Parks. The guide, published in two parts, with illustrations and maps, is free and can be obtained from Colorado State Parks, 303/866-3437; or Colorado State Parks Trails Program, 1313 Sherman St., Room 618, Denver, CO 80203; or from e-mail: cotrails@aol.com.