Rail could link Carbon - Uintah Basin
Estimated cost set at $2 billion
A proposed rail line through Indian Canyon could connect the Uintah Basin by train for the first time with Carbon County and the rest of the world.
That was the word during the Utah Chamber of Commerce Summer Conference in Vernal the end of last month as the Utah Department of Transportation's engineer in charge of planning for the project spoke about the effort.
"I know it seems odd that UDOT would get involved in planning a railroad, but we are involved," said John Thomas. "There is a large relationship between energy and transportation."
The reason for the preliminary study on building a rail line is the fact that oil tank trucks are filling up not only U.S. Highway 40 as they haul crude oil to the refineries in Salt Lake, but that now the truck traffic has spilled over into Carbon County and U.S. Highway 191 that travels over Indian/Willow Creek Canyon as well. With the construction of four oil load outs that transfer the black material from trucks to rail cars in Carbon the increase in traffic over the 9,000 foot plus summit has become a concern for the state road agency.
The initial study on the rail line was paid for by the Uintah Basin Transportation Special Service District. The money came out of energy funds, similar to what is received by the Carbon County Recreation and Transportation Service District. The district provided $800,000 to look at this possibility as well as to study other transportation needs in the area.
"This was a planning process that included a lot of cooperation between many entities and some private ones as well," said Thomas. "Because of that cooperation the time line for doing the study was cut down significantly."
Thomas and his team began with 26 possible routes in which such a rail line could be constructed. As they went through the study, routes were dropped for various reasons including everything from environmental concerns to possible damage to archeological sites. In the end they came up with one possibility; the Indian Canyon route.
"This route too has its challenges," said Thomas. "But it is the one that is the best."
The train tracks that would be installed would start in a rail yard that would be built just south of Vernal. Then the line would travel largely adjacent to the route Highway 40 now takes through Uintah and Duchesne Counties. When the tracks reach the town of Duchesne itself, they would turn up Indian Canyon.
For many the idea of train tracks up Indian Canyon seems impossible. Trucks can pull grades of eight to 10 percent with heavy loads, but trains can only pull on grades of 2 Â½ percent or less. To go over the canyon's summit would be impossible for a train, But running under it is a different story.
"There would be an eight to 10 mile tunnel put through the mountain," said Thomas.
The estimated cost to construct a tunnel under those mountains would be $800 million dollars, almost half of the estimated $2 billion to build the entire line, which once through the mountain would hook up with rail lines near the Emma Park turnoff where the Union Pacific rails emerge from Price Canyon.
That cost, while being high, say proponents, is nothing to what could be lost if the Basin continues to produce oil the way it is, but can't ship it out economically and safely.
"The estimates are that over the next 20 years, without a way to haul the oil out of the Basin, and at the present production increase rate, $30 billion will be left on the table," said State Senator Kevin Van Tassell, who represents District 26 and lives in Uintah County. He also spoke at the conference.
This increase in production will not only come from more drilling but also from companies that are now beginning to produce oil from oil shale and oil sands.
The study is purely preliminary and now UDOT is working on a draft Environmental Impact Statement about the project. At least one environmental sticking point concerning the building of the tunnel has already raised its head. If the Sage Grouse gets listed as an endangered species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in the next year, as could happen, this could throw a wrench into the plan. Sage Grouse habitat exists in the Emma Park area.
If built the line could also be used for more than just oil transport. Materials and goods could be shipped to the Basin. Proponents see it as another way to replace trucks that are hauling pipe and other drilling materials into the basin as well.
How soon the rail line could be built is not certain. If it clears all the hurdles, it could be within the next decade.