Will the railroad return to the Uintah Basin?

UDOT, 2 counties launch regional transportation study

Published: Wednesday, July 25 2012 6:06 p.m. MDT

John Beaslin, an attorney in Vernal, displays a photo of his late father, also named John, who was a conductor on the Uintah Railroad. The Uintah Railroad operated from 1904 to 1939, hauling Gilsonite, wool and other goods, as well as passengers, along a route that stretched from Watson, Utah, to Mack, Colo. The Utah Department of Transportation, state Permanent Community Impact Fund Board and Duchesne and Uintah counties have agreed to study the feasibility of a new railroad spur in the Uintah Basin to help reduce the heavy truck traffic associated with the transportation of crude oil.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

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VERNAL — The walls in John Beaslin's office are adorned with degrees, awards and pictures.

His law degree from the University of Utah hangs alongside plaques that denote his years of service to the community as a member of Rotary International.

But it's the two black-and-white photos surrounded by simple black frames that remind Beaslin of his childhood.

"My dad always was a good engineer," Beaslin recalls, running his fingers over one of the framed images of his father standing at the front of a steam engine.

"He was a conductor on the Uintah Railway," the long-time Vernal attorney adds.

Founded in 1902, the Uintah Railway transported passengers, livestock and wool between Mack, Colo., and Watson, Utah. The primary cargo hauled over the winding, narrow-gauge track however was Gilsonite — a natural asphalt found only in the Uintah Basin that was used in lacquer paints and electrical insulators.

But when Gilsonite prices went off the rails in the late 1930s, so did the Uintah Railway.

"It was disbanded in 1939," Beaslin said. 

Now, based in part on a desire to cut the number of double-tanker trucks hauling crude oil out of the Uintah Basin, officials at the state and local level will study the current and future transportation needs of the region.

One possibility on the table? A new railroad system.

"I think with the growth in the Basin, and what we're seeing with development in energy, that it's time to look at rail," said Cheri McCurdy, executive director of the Uintah Transportation Special Service District.

One double-tanker truck leaves the Uintah Basin every three minutes, according to McCurdy.

"About 5,000 passenger vehicles are the equivalent of one tanker for the impact it causes on the roadway," she said. "Not to mention the safety concerns."

The district McCurdy heads has $700,000 from the state Community Impact Board — which allocates a portion of the tax money Utah collects on oil and gas production in the state — to commit to the regional transportation study. An additional $200,000 is coming from the Utah Department of Transportation, and Duchesne County and its transportation district are kicking in another $200,000.

The first phase of the study will look at the potential economic impact of the oil and gas industry in the Uintah Basin, according to UDOT spokeswoman Mindy Nelson.

"This involves collecting existing information on energy reserves in the area and better understanding what the range of (oil and natural gas) production could look like," Nelson said.

"We need to understand what economic factors may drive these productions to be increased, and what demands that would place on the transportation system," she added.

UDOT hopes to have a contractor selected for Phase I by September, with a final report completed by March 2013.

Possible transportation modes for meeting the demands identified in the report will be evaluated in a future phase of the study. And while rail is definitely one possibility that will be considered, Nelson said, it's not the only option that will be evaluated.

"We're very, very early on in this process, so we're not narrowing it down to rail at this point," she said.

But Beaslin, who put himself through law school working in the Salt Lake City railyards each the summer, believes that rail cars will one day roll through the Uintah Basin again.

"Maybe not in my lifetime," the 85-year-old said, "but within the next 20 years, possibly."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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