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UP - Tennessee Pass Tunnel


North portal

Photo taken by James Baughn

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BH Photo #101510

Street View 


"The Royal Gorge" Transcontinental Train Journey - 1950's American Passenger Trains

1950s RR film promoting the Royal Gorge Route that also went through Tennessee Pass. Tunnel transit at 7:42.

YouTube user Charlie Dean Archives

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Tennessee Pass was a tough, and therefore costly, railroad to operate. With 3%+ grades on the west side and frequently heavy snowfall, Tennessee Pass was inferior to the ex-D&SL Moffat Route crossing via the Moffat Tunnel. However, the saving grace of Tennessee Pass would be the Pueblo gateway onto the Missouri Pacific. With booming demand for Colorado's cleaner coal in the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the Clean Air Act and the oil embargo, it only made sense to send the product over TP and directly to Pueblo for interchange with the MP, rather than going via the ex-D&SL Moffat Route and then down the Joint Line. However, many, including 1980s Rio Grand President WJ Holtman, argued that having two mainline crossings of the Divide was more than the Rio Grande could really afford.

1987 was the first time the powers that be attempted to shut down Tennessee Pass. Having successfully routed nearly all traffic via the Moffat (which pushed the Moffat Tunnel to near capacity), only two trains per day were left going over Tennessee. The experiment would be short-lived, however.

Philip Anschutz and Rio Grande Industries? purchased Southern Pacific in 1988. Wanting to capitalize on the new, shorter, combined D&RGW-SP Central Corridor route from California's Bay Area to points east, the additional traffic would be more than the Moffat could handle. In addition, some of the tunnels on the Front Range were known to have clearance issues with double-stacked containers. So, a furious effort was made to not only reactivate Tennessee, but bring it in line with modern mainline standards - heavier rail, new ties and ballast, and working on a few problem tunnels to improve clearance. By the end of 1988, the line was officially back from the threshold of death. In only about eight years, the line went from two trains per day between Minturn and the summit to as many as thirty (including light helper sets). Despite traffic having been built up to this level, the beginning of a very quick end was less than a year away.

On 11-Sep-1996, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific merged in order to survive the recently created super-competitor, BNSF. One of the touted cost savings of the merger would be the elimination of Tennessee Pass, since UP planned to route all traffic east out of Denver on an upgraded Kansas Pacific line. The UP (ex-MoPac) line east from Pueblo would then also be abandoned as well, eliminating UP's own duplication between the ex-KP and the ex-MP lines east out of Colorado.

Only just shy of a year after the UP-SP merger, on 23-Aug-1997, the last revenue train went over the pass. The train was OMIGV-19, a westbound unit taconite train with two units on the front and three in the middle. It departed Pueblo at 1125h and pulled into Minturn at 2005h. The Malta Local from Pueblo-Malta continued to run until 9-Mar-1999, and beyond that only a few work trains have plied the east side of the pass.

UP continues to periodically run hi-rail trucks across the pass on the line.


Railroad tunnel under Tennessee Pass north of Leadville on closed Union Pacific RR
Eagle County, Colorado
Embargoed (unused but technically open)
Future prospects
UPRR is keeping this line and tunnel in a condition where it could be returned to service relatively easily. Tracks have not been taken up. There are several proposals to return the Tennessee Pass Line to service for passenger and freight trains.
Built 1945; unused since 1997
- Winston Brothers of Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW)
- Southern Pacific Railroad (SP)
- Union Pacific Railroad (UP)
Total length: 2,550.0 ft. (0.5 mi.)
Approximate latitude, longitude
+39.36619, -106.31105   (decimal degrees)
39°21'58" N, 106°18'40" W   (degrees°minutes'seconds")
Approximate UTM coordinates
13/387059/4358233 (zone/easting/northing)
Quadrangle map:
Leadville North
Inventory number
BH 11850 (Bridgehunter.com ID)

Update Log 

  • March 25, 2022: Photo imported by Dave King
  • March 12, 2022: Updated by Roger Deschner: Replaced deleted video with another copy of same video
  • March 12, 2022: Photo imported by Dave King
  • March 7, 2019: New photo from Geoff Hubbs
  • January 11, 2017: New video from Roger Deschner
  • September 13, 2016: Updated by Roger Deschner: Add photos and street view; update status to "embargoed" per wikipedia
  • February 20, 2014: Updated by Dylan VanAntwerp: Added categories "Southern Pacific Railroad", "Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad"
  • January 6, 2013: Updated by Cody Camps: Updated history
  • February 15, 2010: Updated by Bob Morgan: added map marker

Related Bridges 


  • Bob Morgan - morgans212 [at] att [dot] net
  • Cody Camps
  • Tennesee Pass Tunnel History
  • Wikipedia
  • Roger Deschner - rogerdeschner [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Geoff Hubbs
  • UP: Highest Elevations - This Union Pacific Highest Elevations map identifies the highest and lowest geographical rail elevations on the Union Pacific system, including this tunnel.


UP - Tennessee Pass Tunnel
Posted January 29, 2021, by Roger Deschner (rogerdeschner [at] gmail [dot] com)

Looks like revival is moving along, and trains may once again go through the Tennessee Pass Tunnel.

Union Pacific has been using only its Moffat Tunnel and Wyoming routes for quite a while now, so it doesn't really need Tennessee Pass. The Tennessee Pass line has steeper grades and higher elevation, compared to the Moffat line. If Colorado Midland & Pacific can run passenger trains through Tennessee Pass, I'd like to be on board that train.


UP - Tennessee Pass Tunnel
Posted September 13, 2016, by Roger Deschner (rogerdeschner [at] gmail [dot] com)

Visited in July 2016 and took some pictures. Track appears somewhat maintained, with evidence a hi-rail vehicle has been through here recently. So UPRR has not completely abandoned this line (yet). However all signal systems have been dismantled. The south portal is easily reached on a public county road, from US 24 just south of the pass.

UP - Tennessee Pass Tunnel and Line along the Arkansas River
Posted November 9, 2014, by Stan (stancanpara [at] embarqmail [dot] com)

Just an observation:

Noticed while white water rafting June of 2014, that, in many places, farmers have put up fences directly across the line. A couple of them actually had gates across the tracks but others appeared to be permanent fences.

Tennessee Pass Railroad Tunnel
Posted December 30, 2013, by Dylan VanAntwerp (dylan_vanantwerp [at] live [dot] com)

UP doesn't maintain the line quite as good as you might believe. They have actually removed crossing signals in some areas, and I think it has been quite a while since they have laid any ballast down. I remember seeing something about UP dumping some ballast several years ago, and I believe that was the first time they had done that in years. Also, there are many places along the line where small saplings are beginning to grow up through the ties. Nature is slowly beginning to reclaim the area, and the line has degraded enough to where it wouldn't be immediately available should the Moffat Route go down. A perfect example would be the massive washout that closed it down just recently. UP was not able to re-route any traffic over Tennesse Pass due to its current condition.

Tennessee Pass Railroad Tunnel
Posted November 17, 2013, by Max

UP maintains this line yet does not use it. Not only on this site, but multiple others I have read is reports that they still send hy-rails down it at least once a year to clear rocks, grown brush and even a couple railcars of replacement ballast have been run and dropped in some areas. Also, all railroad grade crossing signals and etc. are maintained and upkept. The only thing on this line that does not function is the ancient block signals due to years of robbing parts to repair other lines.

THEORY: UP is obviously keeping this line in decent shape for a reason, either for a possible spike in business from high coal demand and insane traffic, or just simply a backup. Think about it, the Moffat tunnel is 6.5 miles long, what would UP do if something obstructed the Moffat route, such as a cave in? they would HAVE to resort to this line, its kinda like insurance.

Above all, at least they don't let it fall into disrepair. Being that the same company (Southern Pacific) that owned this line prior to the merger also owned the poorly maintained CRI&P KC-St Louis route for 16 years after recieving it, did absolutely nothing and allowed it to fully return to nature and in the end result, leaving UP with an unusable, decomposed line that would cost hundreds of millions to rebuild, yet if only cleared/checked once a year, would still be in OK shape and could be restored for far less.

Either way, point being: this line is not abandoned and maintained for a reason, otherwise they would not continue throwing money at it. There is some kind of an agenda for this line.....

Tennessee Pass Railroad Tunnel
Posted October 11, 2009, by javsfjssfk;ewsf (j3ti4yuryi [at] bb [dot] net)


Tennessee Pass Railroad Tunnel
Posted January 23, 2009, by Sean (spf150 [at] gmail [dot] com)

The Tennessee Pass line was last officially used August of 1997. The UPRR filed for abandonment and proceded to withdraw it shortly thereafter. Although they don't use the line it is maintained somewhat and hyrail trucks travel the line every so often.