Last of its kind: Shipping by rail

By |  February 3, 2015

Rail is the key to viable markets for one aggregate-producing company that calls the Colorado Front Range home.

Few trucks make their way across the narrow bridge suspended over the Arkansas River that separates Front Range Aggregates from U.S. Route 50. It’s simply not economical for most customers to pick up material at the operation, which is located about 12 miles west of Cañon City, Colo.

Still, Front Range’s Parkdale Plant is an ideal source of aggregate material, having an alluvial pit that has about 10 years of life remaining and a 90-acre granite quarry that has yet to be mined. So the most logical way to move material from the operation to the markets where it’s needed is via train. In fact, Front Range President Michael Sheahan says 90 percent of product is railed out.

“We’ll ship 5,000 tons at a time,” he says. “It does require some notice to deliver those tons, but before we know it, we can have it on the ground where it’s needed.”

One reason Front Range ships by rail is because its quarry was the last one permitted on the Front Range of Colorado, Sheahan says. The quarry was permitted in 1998, and obtaining a permit since then in Colorado has been a challenge.

“The primary reason we were permitted was because of our distance from the Front Range market,” he says. “We’re not in the typical Front Range community or where many of the quarries are west of Denver. But we were far enough away that there wasn’t a tremendous opposition to the quarry.”

Front Range’s location provides an opportunity for Rock & Rail Railroad, a sister company that owns about 11 miles of track leading into the operation, to provide transportation. Rock & Rail owns the track with Royal Gorge Route Railroad, a tourism company. The track ultimately connects to a distribution terminal in Colorado Springs, Colo., where most material is currently sold.

Rail gives Front Range access to markets it wouldn’t otherwise reach. Besides Colorado Springs, Front Range material has also freighted to east Denver and parts of western Kansas.

“We have been shipping about four trains per week, but that slows down as winter approaches,” Sheahan says.

Each rail shipment typically involves about 50 railcars, he says. Front Range can accommodate up to 90 railcars. Any more than 90 and the front end of a train would meet the back end of it as railcars pour in to the operation’s looped loading area.

Once railcars reach the Colorado Springs distribution terminal – about a five-hour trip away – material is used for a number of area infrastructure projects such as the two-year widening of I-25 north of Colorado Springs and the repair and replacement of runways and taxiways at the Colorado Springs Airport.
In addition, Sheahan says three asphalt plants and three concrete plants are within sight of the distribution terminal.

“SMA (Stone Matrix Asphalt) 1/2-in. is in high demand this year because the Colorado DOT (Department of Transportation) has spec’d the stone asphalt mix design. The qualification for the rock is pretty high, but we can deliver it.”

In the coming years, Front Range will have the opportunity to transport material closer to Denver.

“We have another rail facility that’s bought, designed and permitted in Douglas County, just southwest of Denver,” Sheahan says. “I would think within a couple years we would see developments starting there.

“We’re not trying to bring rock into markets that already have sufficient quantity and quality rock,” he adds. “We’re aiming our efforts at new or underserved markets.”

Back at the pit

The pit near Cañon City is where everything Front Range Aggregates starts, though. Four private owners bought the operation out of bankruptcy from another group in 2003, and operation under the new ownership began the next year.

According to Sheahan, the western half of the alluvial pit has been completely mined to this point. But another six to 10 years of alluvial pit life remains. The plan is to continue to mine the pit to completion and get the hard rock quarry operation underway within the next few years.

And as the quarry operation begins, Front Range will have already begun restoring the alluvial pit.

“Water storage has been a sought-out end result for many pits, particularly alluvial pits on the Front Range, because of the demand for water and our ability to store it,” Sheahan says. “We have snow in the mountains, and as it melts it runs down. Only so much of that can be retained for later consumption, making new water storage a desirable end use.”

But Front Range Aggregates will continue to mine the pit until that time. One employee is continuously breaking material in the pit with a Surestrike rock breaker, which was purchased in 2014.

It has been an effective tool for the company, Sheahan says, because the material is coarser than the material typically found in sand-and-gravel pits.
“We had a hydraulic hammer before, but it required more maintenance,” he says. “It also wouldn’t break the bigger rock.”

Front Range produces a dozen products in all, from concrete sand and road base to river cobble and boulders. Its crushing plant consists of a Terex Cedarapids 3052 jaw crusher, a 54-in. Cedarapids RC II and a Cedarapids 380 tertiary cone crusher.

Asphalt products are produced on parallel 7-ft. x 20-ft. triple-deck screens, one of which is a JCI and the other, a Cedarapids model. The final process at the Parkdale Plant involves a Cedarapids 7-ft. x 20-ft. triple-deck wash screen over a twin 54-in. Eagle Iron Works sand screw.

Take note

Front Range produces a dozen products in all, from concrete sand and road base to river cobble and boulders.

Photo: Colorado Front Range

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Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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