In the mid 1980s the te struggling Southern Pacific Railroad and the Santa Fe Railway announced their intention to merge. Major steps were taken to implement the merger, but unexpectedly the Surface Transportation Board denied permission, citing duplication of routes and elimination of cpmpetition in markets. The SP was put back on the market and In October of 1988 it was purchased by Rio Grande Industries under Philip Anschutz. The two systems were merged-- at least nominally. In reality, operations remained largely separate until early 1992.
As part of the strategy to unify the systems, a "Central Corridor" was established to provide direct service from Chicago to California. This conisisted of some newly-acquired connections between St. Louis and Chicago, then onto the Missouri Pacific as far as Pueblo (the Rio Grande had received trackage rights on this line, owned by the Union Pacific, in 1982). West of Pueblo the route utilized Rio Grande's traditional mainline over Tennessee Pass as far as Salt Lake. From there the SP's line over Donner Pass. This required significant rebuilding of the D&RGW portion, including the undercutting of tunnels to increase clearance for double-stack container trains.
Prior to 1992, solid sets of Rio Grande power were still common in Colorado and Utah, with representative DRGW locomotives placed on the front of Espee trains system-wide to wave the flag, so to speak. However, the system was losing money and morale was in decline. Outside consultants were brought in and determined that many of the problems were attributable to William Holtman Sr., the GM of the DRGW and now operations head of the entire system. Upper management accordingly promoted him out of the way and the Rio Grande's final illusion of independence vanished. The combined system was now marketed as Southern Pacific Lines, with no mention of the DRGW (or the Cotton Belt, for that matter).
When the merger was originally consummated, a new paint scheme was explored for the combined roads. What emerged around 1991, borrowed elements from Espee and DRGW schemes, using the SP colors and name but with Grande-inspired lettering. It began to be applied to all new units, and many of those being shopped. The last locomotives delivered in Rio Grande colors (and name) were three GP60's that arrived in 1990. One Grande GP40 was repainted in SP Speed Lettering (#3086), as well as about a dozen tunnel motors and seven SD50s.
SP's locomotives had been under-maintained for many years. Beginning around 1989, new power was sourced, beginning with GP60s and followed by rebuilt GP40M's. Motive power improvements were being developed by both major builders, especially in alternating-current traction, but it was not yet proven. Initially SPL experimented with a small batch of SD70M's from EMD. A small number of C44-9W's from GE were also procured. In 1995 the new AC-traction AC4400s arrived from GE, effectively bumping any remaining Rio Grande power from the Minturn helper pool and from nearly all heavy coal trains.
The SPL system was beginning to show a profit, for the first time, which also made it more valuable. 1995 saw the announced intention by Anschutz and the Union Pacific railroad to merge UP with his Southern Pacific Lines. As part of the deal, UP stated that it planned to get rid of the Tennessee pass route, Rio Grande's historical (and re-emergent) backbone.
The merger was consummated in September 1996. Within months, UP rerouted nearly all intermodal and manifest traffic away from former DRGW lines, and as announced the last revenue operations over Tennessee pass occurred in August 1997. The combined UP/SP had severe operational problems for the first couple of years, however, with widespread terminal gridlock. Not all planned operational changes could be implemented immediately, but over time the former DRGW lines were de-emphasized and traffic routed onto the high-capacity UP main line through Wyoming.
From 1996 through 2001 a daily intermodal train ran both ways between Denver and Salt Lake City over former Rio Grande tracks (the ZRODV-ZDVRO). Most days saw a pair of manifests (MRODV-MDVRO) over the same route, with occasional stub trains originating or terminating in Grand Junction. Additionally, the BNSF received trackage rights between Denver and Stockton as conditions of the merger, and began operating a daily manifest freight train over the route. Despite these scattered operations, coal trains from the Delta area and off the Craig branch accounted for the majority of traffic on former Rio Grande lines.
Large AC power in UP and faded SP colors came to dominate traffic on the former DRGW lines, and foreign-road units are not uncommon. The newer units were more efficient and far more powerful than the heritage units, and over time most older locomotives have been retired. The last locomotive operating in full D&RGW paint (not renumbered by UP) was SD40T-2 No. 5371, retired in 2008. However, if one knows where to look, one can still find a few former Rio Grande units hidden under coats of UP Yellow.
The San Luis Valley branch remained relatively active into 2003, with geeps in SP, UP, and DRGW colors leading the way. At that time it was sold to RailAmerica and was named the San Luis & Rio Grande. A few years later it was sold in turn to Iowa Pacific but retained the name, and a tourist passenger operation was established.
The helper pool at Helper, Utah, was a fascinating operation for a number of years following the merger. Helper hosted a real homecoming of remaining tunnel motors and the operations staff there jealously guarded their dwindling flock for over a decade. Even after manned helpers were largely replaced by Distributed Power remotes over the hill, the tunnel motors ran the daily trash trains out to Somerset right up to the end of their lives.
The Rio Grande is long gone as a corporation and an operating entity, but a large part of its system is still a key component in the national rail system, and looks to have a healthy future. One can still see the Amtrak California Zephyr every day; the Ski Train continued to operate up to Winter Park through 2009, and there are a lot of cars lettered for the Grande still out there. And there's an interesting mix of power plying the rails. No matter the paint, it's fun to watch a few thousand horsepower blasting up the 2% at Coal Creek or ripping through the desert below the Book cliffs. Not a bad legacy for the Rebel of the Rockies.
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