While the economy’s collapse cut intermodal volumes and some rail lines focused on long-term corridor construction, Union Pacific Railroad went tunneling in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Now UP is running its first double-stack container trains across the Donner Pass in Northern California near Truckee, shaving hours off a regional trip and offering a straighter path that will also allow longer box-hauling trains.
The result, the carrier said, is a new service that will be a boon to intermodal operations at the Port of Oakland, Calif., both now and as the economy recovers from its long slump in freight traffic.
Although the pass at more than 7,000 feet high is known for its heavy snow accumulations and fierce storms, UP said it expects less weather disruption than on the lower Feather River Canyon route the railroad had used for intermodal trains in the region.
The UP generally used the Donner route for manifest trains of mixed cargoes and for commodity hauls such as grain. To get it ready for the most efficient container trains, with boxes stacked two high, the railroad had to increase clearances through 15 Sierra tunnels, while keeping the route open for traffic.
The 12-month project cost nearly $30 million, spokesman Tom Lange said. Most tunnels could be bored out to raise ceiling clearance, but two required digging out the tunnel floor and relaying the track and its approaches.
UP inaugurated the Donner route on Nov. 19 with test trains, and two days later began revenue operations.
Donner provides substantial distance and time savings, with a 313-mile route between Roseville, Calif. — where UP operates a large railyard near Sacramento — and Winnemucca, Nev., compared with the 386-mile Feather River Canyon rail line.
“Completing this project will help us better serve our customers while supporting economic growth in Northern California and at the Port of Oakland,” said John Kaiser, UP’s vice president and general manager for intermodal.
“The Donner tunnel project is a great example of how Union Pacific capital investments continue to support our customers’ ability to grow, drive increased operating efficiencies for our railroad and improve America’s transportation infrastructure,” said James R. Young, UP chairman, president and CEO.
The company said it will be able to run stack trains up to 9,000 feet long over Donner, for a capacity of 220 containers per train. The Feather River Canyon route could handle 5,700-foot trains, or about 140 containers each.
But UP did not spend a year re-cutting its high Sierras route only to boost regional traffic. Lange said Donner will handle domestic, international and the highest-value premium intermodal service, and streamline a key piece of UP’s cross-country route that slices off three hours from Northern California to some of the nation’s major rail hubs at Chicago and Memphis, Tenn.
Besides carving out larger tunnel clearances, the project upgraded 30 miles of track to UP’s electronic traffic and signaling system, eliminating its “dark territory.”
The pass itself was first used in November 1844 by pioneers heading west. It earned its fame two years later from the Donner Party wagon train of Midwesterners on their way to a new start in California. Snows trapped them, and before the survivors could get out of the mountains months later, some resorted to cannibalism.
But the gap still had appeal as a transportation route. The first railroad line through Donner Pass opened in 1869, the first long-distance highway in 1913, and Interstate 80 was built near there in 1960.
Snows still harass traffic, at times trapping freight and passenger trains. But UP maintains a fleet of snow-fighting equipment, and said it keeps its Donner Pass line open more than I-80. And it argues that by running high-volume box trains, it can take some trucked loads and road repair costs off I-80.
Lange said the railroad has shifted some manifest trains and a grain train over to the Feather River Canyon line now that stacktrains are running the gap. The Donner Pass will handle 15 to 18 trains daily for the foreseeable future. That’s the same as before the work was done, but the project greatly expanded its container capacity.
Contact John Boyd at email@example.com.