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Driving You Crazy: What is that facility with the trains and cars near I-76 and Hwy 85 all about?

Rail transfer facility
Posted at 4:58 AM, Mar 05, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-05 12:45:06-05

Gary in Adams County writes, “What’s driving you crazy? I am wondering about the car/truck clearinghouse/transfer facility located where Highway 85 merges with I-76. Why do we have such a rail-truck transfer place in metro Denver?”

It's so you can have a fine selection of shiny new cars and trucks at your favorite dealership, Gary. That large parking lot just north of 96th Ave. on the east side of I-76 is Union Pacific Railroad’s vehicle distribution center. They officially call it the Rolla Yard. It is one of more than 40 vehicle distribution centers across the country that Union Pacific operates or accesses. These automotive facilities act as the holding spot for finished vehicles sent from auto makers across the country to major cities before being trucked to local dealerships. Freight rail moves nearly 75% of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S. every year, according to the American Association of Railroads.

New cars and trucks arrive to the Rolla Yard in a unique train car called an autorack. An autorack is a very tall, entirely enclosed rail car designed to protect vehicles when shipped long distances from the elements, vandalism and theft. There are several types of autoracks — bi-level, tri-level and uni-level. Each configuration is designed to handle various vehicle sizes and depending on the configuration, each autorack car could hold 4-26 vehicles. Auto shippers use autorack rail cars to transport their finished vehicles for efficiency, flexibility and safety, according to Union Pacific.

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I watched one day as a bi-level autorack was unloaded at the Rolla Yard. I saw a portable ramp butted up against the autorack car. I saw several porters climb into the rail car, enter a vehicle and drive it off the rail car, down the ramp and into an open spot in the yard. In a separate part of the yard, I watched previously delivered new cars and trucks get loaded on a trailer that are then trucked to a dealership when they are ready for delivery. The truck driver, or porter who works for the dealer, will unload the vehicles off the trailer and into the dealer lot for eventual sale.

“These vehicle distribution centers allow manufacturers to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of rail transportation from the factory to these metropolitan areas, and then use the flexibility of trucks to deliver these vehicles to dealerships, which frequently are not located adjacent to rail lines,” Senior Manager of Communications for Union Pacific Mike Jaixen told me.

The Rolla facility is Union Pacific's only vehicle distribution center in the state of Colorado. However, BNSF has a very large facility in south metro Denver off Santa Fe near Titan Road called the Big Lift facility. You can read much more about that auto rail yard from a very in-depth article from the website Progressive Railroading.

What is that facility with the trains and cars near I-76 and Hwy. 85 all about?

Denver7 Traffic Expert Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on any podcast app including iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify and Podbean.