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Whistle Stopped

A proposed railroad merger threatens jobs throughout Colorado -- and, up in Minturn, a way of life.

The Turntable Restaurant is in a squat gray building that sits along the railroad tracks running through the small mountain town of Minturn. Just a stone's throw from the Eagle River, the Turntable will never be mistaken for one of the many shops and cafes in Minturn that sell howling coyotes to tourists. A mural that encircles the dining room shows the legendary rail route of the old Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad, running from the bright yellow fields of the great plains up rugged mountain passes and down into the redstone canyons of western Colorado and Utah. The walls are lined with pictures of steam locomotives chugging their way up some of the most treacherous rail lines in North America, shots of the old railroad turntable that gave the restaurant its name, and class photos going back to 1941 from the now-closed Minturn High School.

The Turntable is open 24 hours a day to serve the guests of the Railroad Hotel, a simple two-story building attached to the restaurant. The restaurant is open to the public, but the hotel is open only to railroad workers, two- and three-man crews on long hauls who move freight and coal over the Rockies. Here engineers and conductors for the Southern Pacific Railroad can enjoy the Turntable's famous green chile any time of day.

Chances are those workers will be served by Darla Goodell, who's worked at the restaurant for sixteen years. Goodell is a Minturn native, and her father and grandfather both worked for the railroad. She's one of those people who love nothing more than the sight of a freight train moving with awesome power through the bottom of a sheer Colorado canyon. "I can't imagine Minturn without the railroad," Goodell says with a sigh, a pained expression passing over her round, friendly face.

But the days of trains passing through Minturn may be numbered. As part of the planned $5.4 billion merger between the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, the 170-mile rail line that passes through Minturn and heads up Tennessee Pass and on to Salida, Canon City and Pueblo will be abandoned. The Southern Pacific uses the line as an alternate route to its east-west corridor through the Moffat Tunnel, running sixteen to twenty trains a day. But Union Pacific, by far the dominant partner in the proposed merger, would have no use for it. The historic line, the first to link the Front Range with western Colorado, could be sold to a competing railroad. Or it could become a victim of corporate economics, as Union Pacific and Southern Pacific unite to create a mega-railroad that will have monopoly status in much of Colorado.

The prospect of such a merger has alarmed many Coloradans, from coal miners in Craig to wheat farmers in Kiowa County. But it has support in much more powerful quarters. And concern on the part of shippers and farmers hasn't stopped most of Colorado's elected officials, including Governor Roy Romer, from endorsing it.

The fate of the line through Minturn will be settled next month, when the federal Surface Transportation Board is scheduled to rule on the proposed merger. And while corporate executives, high-powered lobbyists and politicians hold closed-door meetings to ponder the future of the two railroads, those whose lives have been touched by the whistles of passing trains are left to wonder what will come next. "We've got people dealing with this who are sitting behind a desk," says Harold Bellm, who served as mayor of Minturn for eighteen years and frequently dines at the Turntable. "Their concern is what happens to the railroad company, regardless of what happens to the small towns on the route."

Most people in Minturn want the railroad to stay, says Bellm, but they know the ultimate decision will be made 2,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. And the effects of such a decision on Minturn could extend far beyond the railroad right-of-way. If the rail line is closed, eighty acres of land in the Southern Pacific switchyard will come on the market. For old-timers in Minturn, that's a frightening thought: The town is just down the highway from the booming Vail-Beaver Creek corridor, and real estate developers are already stopping by the Turntable to check out the eighty acres, valued at $30 million.

"The vultures are already looking around," says Goodell, who watches all the activity from a small apartment in the Railroad Hotel that's filled with mementos of a life on the rails, including a working model railroad that hangs from her living room ceiling. The company that owns the Turntable Restaurant contracts with the Southern Pacific and other railroads to operate a network of cafes in isolated spots around the country. Goodell has traveled in the cabs of freight trains to work in railroad restaurants in the southern California desert, New Mexico and Kansas. For a woman who'd spent most of her life in a small town, life on the rails was a revelation.

"You get to meet lots of people," she says, recalling the camaraderie of railroad employees who run trains through some of the most remote parts of the country 24 hours a day. "The Rio Grande railroad was like one big family," she says of the fabled rail line that was absorbed into the Southern Pacific in 1988 as part of a $1.8 billion deal orchestrated by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who became a railroad player after making a fortune in oil and gas.

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