Union Pacific Railroad's Donner Pass route, one of the key land bridge rail routes for cargo heading east from the California Bay Area ports, was reopened to double-tracked intermodal traffic on Friday following the completion of a 12-month upgrade project along the 98-mile route.
The estimate $90 million project, financed solely by the Omaha, Neb.-based UP, included nearly 18,000 feet of improved clearance at 15 tunnels to accommodate double-stacked trains and upgrades to more than 30 miles of system signals. The project also increased the length of trains able to operate on the route by 58 percent, from 5,700-foot trains to 9,000-foot trains.
Donner Pass, about 90 miles northeast of the state capitol in Sacramento, was the site of the first railroad track to cut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Known as one of the most formidable railroad mountain crossings, the Overland Route features an extremely long 96-mile eastbound grade rising from the nearly sea-level floor of the California Central Valley to the 7,085-foot-high Donner summit.
Opened in 1869 by the Central Pacific Railroad and later double-tracked in 1925, the original Overland Route– including miles of tunnels, snow sheds and several massive retaining walls– remained in use until 1993, when CPR-successor Southern Pacific, in a cost-saving move, pulled up nearly 7 miles of the first and oldest summit grade track.
By the early 1980s, Southern Pacific’s partner UP had shifted all but a handful of daily trains from the Donner Pass route over the Sierra Nevada to its Salt Lake City-Bay Area line through Feather River Canyon– a route adding 75 miles of additional travel time compared to the Donner route.