The tiny Denver Rock Island Railroad doesn't have a cowcatcher on its lone diesel locomotive, but it may need one soon.

The obscure, thirteen-mile-long railroad is engaged in a ripsnorting feud with the National Western Stock Show, which the Rock Island's operator accuses of trying to put him out of business. The result: Area merchants are skittish and the federal Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) may have to step in.

The Denver Rock Island--named for the legendary Rock Island Line, whose freight and passenger trains once plied these rails--wouldn't appear to be much to fight about. Operated by Commerce City steel plant owner and Continental Airlines pilot Tom Mars, the railroad does switching work on thirteen miles of track in Denver and Commerce City. Its single engine, one boxcar and one caboose plod along at a top speed of seven miles per hour, making deliveries to a handful of customers in the industrial area near the stock show complex.

But the railroad operates on property the stock show would love to use for expansion, says the 56-year-old Mars. "They want the railroad gone, and they're going to blade it nice and flat and use it for parking," he says.

On November 17 stock show attorney Peter J. Crouse wrote Mars a letter demanding that railroad operations on stock show property "be terminated" unless the Rock Island obtained expanded insurance coverage. Mars, who subsidizes his railroad with his Continental paycheck, says he responded by telling Crouse that if the railroad has cars to move, "we will surely move them." The stock show's complaints about insurance, Mars contends, "are just a ploy."

Attorney Crouse could afford to talk tough: Thanks to a sale by a previous owner of the railroad, the stock show actually owns the land on which the Denver Rock Island runs. But though Mars may not own his own right-of-way, he does have the federal authority to operate over it. And according to Mel Clemens, chief of operations in the ICC's office of compliance, that means Mars has a statutory responsibility to keep providing service.

The stock show could conceivably take action to keep Mars from running the railroad, says Clemens. But if it does so, its officials would inherit the burden of serving shippers--and, like it or not, "they would become a railroad."

National Western executive director Pat Grant says he doesn't want to comment on his spat with Mars because "it could be a matter for litigation."

"We own the land and we own the tracks, and beyond that I don't want to say anything," says Grant, a former state legislator who helped promote a $30 million bond issue for stock show expansion approved by Denver voters in 1989.

The stock show is a nonprofit organization. But a nearby businessman who has to worry about making money says National Western's campaign against the railroad makes life difficult.

"This isn't the first time they've attempted to shut this railroad down, through whatever means they could conjure up," says Carey Vincent, owner and president of Power Assist Company. Before Mars took over the railroad in 1993, says Vincent, he and other shippers went without service for three months. The stock show has also taken out tracks "without any advisement to people," says Vincent, whose company imports methanol from Oklahoma and elsewhere for windshield-washer fluid and other products. "There's just hostilities about this thing ever since Mr. Grant has come on."

Vincent says he and other shippers have met with stock show officials to discuss the problem and have sent letters to the ICC insisting that rail service not be interrupted. "I think Mr. Grant realizes now that he's dealing with a public utility," says Vincent. "It's just like the gas company."

And, in fact, says the ICC's Clemens, federal regulations prevent the stock show from just shutting down the Rock Island. National Western's purchase of the railroad, he says, "does not alter the fact that it is part of the rail system and must remain part of the rail system until relieved of that responsibility."

Such relief could come only through abandonment proceedings before the ICC. Clemens says it would be "very uncommon" for his agency to give a green light to abandonment when shippers--and the company that's actually operating the railroad--want the trains to keep rolling.

That means that, for the time being at least, the stock show will have to put up with Mars and his slow-moving locomotive. "I'm willing to cooperate with them," says Mars. "But they can't walk on the railroad just because we're little. They can't do that.


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