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ARCHIVED  November 1, 1997

Great Western chugs along with shortline niche

LOVELAND — The Great Western Railway Co. of Colorado may not be the kind of railroad that folk singers waxed poetic about. It may not be the kind that hoboes hop.But it is important — serving as short-haul link between local manufacturers and the major rail links.
"We provide service to a small customer base," said Dave Lafferty, president of the Loveland-based shortline railroad. "Some customers I do 10 cars in a year, some I do 10 cars a day. But they˜re all equally important."
The Great Western was founded in 1901 by a group of Loveland-area businessmen concerned about augmenting the state˜s economy, which was heavily dependent on mining. Seeing agriculture as vitally important to the economic mix, the businessmen formed the railroad to haul both sugar beets from the farm to processing plants and the finished products to interchange points with the major railroads.
In addition to the railroad, the business group also formed the Great Western Sugar Co.
In "Sugar Tramps," a 1975 book about the railroad, author Don Morgan quoted C.E. Angove, the first superintendent of the Great Western, as saying, "Transportation is the life of any industry, and more so the sugar business."
The railroad˜s original line ran from Loveland to Eaton. It later expanded to include lines to Longmont and Johnstown, where Great Western Sugar, the railroad˜s parent company, had molasses treatment and monosodium glutamate plants.
The rail line, which has always been closely tied to the sugar-beet industry, became known as "The Sugar Tramp Railroad," because Great Western employees, who were routinely transferred to different Great Western plants throughout their careers, came to be known as "sugar tramps."
"There were about three dozen shortline railroads," said Chuck Albi, curator of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. "The Great Western was one of the largest."
Albi said these railroads typically serviced both agricultural towns and mountain mining camps that were off the main line, and unprofitable for railroads such as the Union Pacific, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe to service on a regular basis.
"You think about the big lines," he said, "but they didn˜t go everywhere."
In addition to being one of the larger shortlines, Albi said, the Great Western was well-known for being one of the last railroads to use steam locomotives, keeping them in service into the late 1970s.
In the mid 1980s, the fortunes of the Great Western railroad turned sour. Faced with a crisis in the sugar industry, caused by efforts by the Hunt brothers of Texas to corner the sugar market, Great Western Sugar filed for bankruptcy. In 1986, the railroad was purchased by Denver businessman Pat Broe. In 1993, the Great Western, along with 12 other shortline railroads owned by Broe in Illinois, Kansas and Canada, were consolidated into OmniTrax.
Lafferty said that under OmniTrax, the Great Western continues to service its traditional customers and expand its opportunities in the railroad industry.
"When OmniTrax purchased it," he said, "there was little business here. They˜ve gone about and are starting to attract new industry and expand their customer base."
Alice Saylor, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Shortline Railroad Association, said, "They are a typical example of the kind of entrepreneurs that have come in and taken the lines and are bringing them back."
Saylor said shortline railroads are an increasingly important part of the railroad industry, continuing to serve areas that are not easily reached by the larger rail lines.
"We˜re kind of a growth success story of the industry," she said.
There are about 500 shortline railroads in the country, Saylor said.
Jerry Foster, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies railroads and who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, said the future of shortline railroads is pretty good, as more mainline railroads split off their branch lines and concentrate on the long-haul market.
"I think the future of shortline railroads is excellent," he said, "as they serve an important market niche."
Currently, the Great Western has about 60 miles of track, having recently added a line from Fort Collins to Greeley that had belonged to the Burlington Northern railroad. Customers serviced by the company include Adolph Coors Co., Eastman Kodak Co., Western Sugar, American Coal, Amalgamated Sugar, Agland, Northern Feed and Bean and Universal Forest Products. In addition to sugar, cargo that is hauled by the Great Western includes lumber, fertilizer, pinto beans and sand.
"That˜s 90 percent of the story," Lafferty said.
The Great Western has interchange points with the Burlington Northern at Loveland, Longmont and Windsor, and an interchange point with the Union Pacific at Kelim.
Aside from operating cheaper, Foster said, many shortline carriers have allowed many small towns to continue to exist, by keeping the branch lines open.
Jim Sabourin, a spokesman for Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, said, "The shortline railroads are having a huge impact on the railroad industry. We wouldn˜t be able to offer the type of service we do without them."
Sabourin said that as the major carriers concentrate on more-profitable routes, they are selling off the branch lines to regional carriers who are able to both provide better service to local customers and, in some cases, generate new business on the lines.
"It˜s a win-win situation," he said.

LOVELAND — The Great Western Railway Co. of Colorado may not be the kind of railroad that folk singers waxed poetic about. It may not be the kind that hoboes hop.But it is important — serving as short-haul link between local manufacturers and the major rail links.
"We provide service to a small customer base," said Dave Lafferty, president of the Loveland-based shortline railroad. "Some customers I do 10 cars in a year, some I do 10 cars a day. But they˜re all equally important."
The Great Western was founded in 1901 by a group of Loveland-area businessmen concerned about…

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