Issues Identification Report for the
Carlin Rail Route Option


Potential transportation modes and routes, including regional highway and rail options that may be used to transport high-level wastes to the site of a potential Yucca Mountain repository, are being studied in Nevada by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). According to DOE, highway routes will be identified from among existing highways in accordance with current U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations. However, the potential repository site in Nye County, Nevada currently lacks rail service and an existing railroad right-of-way. Therefore, DOE has been investigating the development of a railroad through a number of potential corridors.

A DOE Preliminary Rail Access Study (U.S. Department of Energy 1990) discussed selected aspects of the rail transport option. The report identified ten broad corridors from various railheads to the repository site. Figure 1 shows the approximate alignment of the major rail options, together with existing rail lines in Nevada and California. Included among the preliminary corridors is the so-called Carlin route option which would bisect Eureka County.

DOE's stated intent is to give affected units of local government, including Eureka County, an opportunity to participate in the development of the rail transport option. Consequently, Eureka County has initiated a program of study to develop its own analysis, formulate policy, and interact directly with DOE with respect to the potential development of a rail spur within Eureka County. The purpose of the first task in the program of study has been to identify areas and issues of potential environmental and socioeconomic concern that warrant further study in subsequent tasks and to provide recommendations on prioritizing the concerns. This report presents the results of the first task.

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of DOE's rail access studies and descriptions of existing and abandoned rail routes in central Nevada. Chapter 2 describes the Carlin route option as it currently stands and the current status of the route in DOE's study process. Chapter 3 identifies issues for consideration by Eureka County now and as DOE's rail access study progresses. Conclusions are presented in Chapter 4. Chapter 5 includes both references cited as sources in the text and general references that may be of interest to the reader. Overlay maps plotted on transparency film sheets have been provided to the Eureka County Yucca Mountain Information Office for use in exploring the interaction of the route with selected combinations of socioeconomic and environmental characteristics of Eureka County.

Overview of DOE's Rail Access Study

DOE studies of potential rail access to Yucca Mountain are still in an early stage. To date, they have focused on the physical planning and analysis of route options and collection of data on rail accident risks. Socioeconomic and environmental issues associated with route options have only been considered in a preliminary fashion. "Town Forums," sponsored by Eureka County, were held in the towns of Eureka and Crescent Valley, Nevada, in the second half of fiscal year 1992 (U.S. Department of Energy 1992, p. 2-23), but local issues have not yet been fully worked into the DOE analysis.

Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), as amended, DOE, through the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) would design, develop, and implement a system for the transportation of high-level nuclear waste from commercial reactors and DOE facilities to the Yucca Mountain repository or to other facilities in the waste management system. The base for a nuclear waste transportation system already exists, according to DOE, in the form of procedures and technologies used by DOE, electrical utilities, and the transportation industry. New transportation equipment, procedures, and infrastructure will be developed by OCRWM as necessary. This includes cask development and operational procedures, including the physical transport of the waste from the source to the repository.

Transportation activities in Nevada are focused on the development of rail access to the Yucca Mountain site, evaluations of potential transportation impacts in Nevada, coordination with other DOE transportation activities, and response to transportation issues raised in Nevada. A Nevada Transportation Studies Plan will be developed to describe these activities (U.S. Department of Energy 1990, p. 2).

To date, the Nevada Transportation Studies have been hampered by under-funding. Funding levels requested for fiscal year 1994 are adequate to maintain a minimal staff, participate in outreach activities, attend meetings, and monitor and provide input to national programs, including the national transportation and cask development programs. The effect of under-funding on rail access studies has been to delay further investigation of route options, including the Carlin route option (Grassmeier 1993).

Historical and Existing Rail Routes in Central Nevada

Two main line routes, one owned by the Southern Pacific Transportation Company (SP) and one owned by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), operate in central Nevada. Nevada's only remaining shortline railroad, the Nevada Northern, also is located in central Nevada. DOE's studies to date have considered the location of existing and now-abandoned railroads, as one factor among several, in order to identify potential rail access options to Yucca Mountain (U.S. Department of Energy 1990, p.3).

Rail experts advise caution when considering a historical rail route as an option for development today. For one thing, many historical rail routes of central Nevada were narrow gauge railroads whose engineering requirements were significantly different from those of a modern standard gauge railroad. For another, conditions along a historical rail route in terms of land ownership, land use, and the natural environment may be significantly different today than in the past. Also, many current concerns regarding rail alignment were not considered in the past (Standish 1993).

Nevertheless, historical rail routes are part of the background for a rail access study. Because the mountain ranges in Nevada are predominantly north and south, north-south routes generally have more favorable topography for railroad construction than east-west routes. Sections 1.2.1. through 1.2.4 describe the historical north-south routes that take off from the Humboldt River Valley between Battle Mountain and Wendover. The routes are illustrated in Figure 2. Sections 1.2.5 through 1.2.7. describe existing railroads in central Nevada -- the SP, the UP, and the Nevada Northern Railway.

Eureka & Palisade Railroad

Of the historical north-south shortline railroads, only the Eureka & Palisade Railroad passed through Eureka County. For about half the distance traveled in Eureka County, the Carlin route roughly parallels the historical railroad, a narrow-gauge that fed traffic to the SP and then Western Pacific (WP) trunk lines in the Humboldt River Valley. The Eureka & Palisade was completed in 1875. Reorganized as the Eureka Nevada Railway in 1912, the railroad finally was abandoned in 1938 (Myrick 1962).

Nevada Central Railroad

A second historical north-south route taking off from the Humboldt corridor to the west of Carlin was the Nevada Central Railroad, a narrow-gauge from Battle Mountain to Austin. This railroad was completed in 1880 and abandoned in 1937 (Myrick 1962). Late in its existence, a southward extension of the Nevada Central was proposed as part of a plan to join six Nevada shortlines into one system to be called the Mid-Pacific Railroad. The proposed extension, named the Los Angeles & Nevada Railroad, would have run from Ledlie (west of Austin) to Millers (west of Tonopah) on a route passing through the Ione Valley, crossing the Ione Mountains at Railroad Pass, and then down the Reese River Valley. As proposed, the route would have included a 1.4-mile tunnel at the summit of the pass. However, the Mid- Pacific Railroad promotion never proceeded beyond the stage of a thoroughly researched report presented to prospective developers in 1932 (Myrick 1962).

Historical Nevada Northern Railway

A third rail route, located to the east of Carlin, is the Nevada Northern Railway, a standard gauge completed in 1906. The Nevada Northern was operated until 1983 by Kennecott Copper, successor to the railroad's original developer, Nevada Consolidated Copper Co. The Nevada Northern right-of-way from the mainline to the vicinity of Cherry Creek was purchased from Kennecott to ensure rail access to a coal fired power plant planned for the Cherry Creek Valley sometime in the future. The trackage is owned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). Kennecott donated the Ely depot, several miles of track, and the railroad rolling stock to the City of Ely in 1983. These remnants of the Nevada Northern in Ely are operated today as a museum and excursion route (Northeastern Nevada Recreation Guide 1993).

Historical Cortez Mines Adjunct

One more historical railroad operation is worthy of mention, in spite of its small size. Cortez Mines, Ltd., operated an isolated mine-to-mill railroad near Tenabo, in the Crescent Valley in Lander County, about 30 miles southeast of Battle Mountain and about 20 miles south-southwest of Beowawe. Solely an adjunct to mining operations, a single locomotive (built in 1890) moved cars over less than a mile of track, long since abandoned (Myrick 1962). The locomotive may be seen today in front of a casino in Clark County on the road to Hoover Dam (Wyatt 1993).

Overview of Existing Railroads in Central Nevada

The SP operates the Overland Route serving Reno/Sparks, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Elko, with branches to Fallon and near Hawthorne. The UP owns the Feather River Line, the former Western Pacific Railway (WP) route, which runs parallel to the SP overland route through central Nevada. A short branch of the Feather River Line extends to Reno. The former Nevada Northern Railway trackage also exists between the mainline and Ely.

SP and UP Joint Trackage Segment

Between Weso, just east of Winnemucca, and Alazon, just west of Wells, the SP and UP operate joint trackage. The segment essentially functions as double track with eastbound trains of both companies normally using UP rails and westbound using the SP line. East of Weso, the UP and SP follow the Humboldt River Valley, with the UP line initially on the north side of the river. Just east of Barth, the Humboldt River flows through Palisade Canyon. There the two railroads are forced close together, and the two lines switch sides of the river, with the UP "flying over" the SP. In the next 20 miles, the railroad passes through four short tunnels necessitated by the canyon walls. Curves in the canyon limit train speeds to 45 mph. The UP remains to the south of the SP the rest of the way to Alazon, although the two railroads remain in close proximity.

Other operating characteristics of the main lines in the joint trackage segment are as follows: Carlin is a crew change point for the SP and the site of a small freight yard; Elko is the change point for UP crews and also the site of a small freight yard. In the joint trackage segment, the lines are block signalled only for the direction of traffic, and reverse movements are rare. Although the railroads are roughly parallel, their rights-of-way often diverge for several miles. The UP line is slightly shorter than the SP line (178.2 versus 183.0 miles). Crossovers to allow detour movements are located at points where the lines are in proximity (U.S. Department of Energy 1991, p. I-1-12).

Existing Nevada Northern Railway

As noted above, the City of Los Angeles DWP owns the former Nevada Northern railway, which extends northward from Ely to connect with the UP at Shafter and the SP at Cobre. Although not officially abandoned, this line has not been operated since 1983 when the copper industry around Ely shut down. The line is mothballed pending the construction nearby of a DWP generating station, which will receive trainloads of coal. The trackage still exists, although it would require rehabilitation and upgrading for use in the future.

Besides being intended for coal train use by the current owner, the upper portion of the Nevada Northern right-of-way (about 92 miles) is identified by the DOE as potentially part of the Cherry Creek Rail Route Option, Option 9, for access to Yucca Mountain (U.S. Department of Energy 1990).


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Last Updated 08/2003