This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Dressed in neon yellow safety vests, Mike Linton and his five-year-old son, Ezra, eyed the rusting line of Utah Transit Authority Comet rail cars stopped on the tracks of the Warm Springs FrontRunner station.
Linton and his son were there on a frigid Monday morning to contemplate bidding on one of the vintage rail cars, which he hopes to renovate and turn into a tiny home. But Linton wasn’t sure he could orchestrate the purchase and maneuvering of a 74,000-pound, 85-foot-long train in the eight days before the auction would close on Nov. 1.
UTA is auctioning off the Comet rail cars to qualify for federal grants that could help the agency purchase new rail cars. Purchasing new gleaming, double-decker, Bombardier train cars, which cost roughly $12 million a piece, is one option under review. However, a final decision hasn’t yet been made.
The old rail cars stopped operating in April. Originally manufactured in the early 1970s for New Jersey Transit, their parts are no longer manufactured, making repairs increasingly difficult to manage. Plus, the rail cars’ finicky doors were becoming a liability.
“Old technology just disappears and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said UTA spokesperson James Larson.
So on Oct. 18, the vintage cars went up for auction through TNT Auction Inc.
Mike McKee, vice president of TNT, has managed thousands of auctions over the course of his 38-year career, he said, but this is his first attempt at trains. Mostly, the company auctions cars and heavy equipment, but has also managed submarine and airplane sales.
“This is kind of a unique thing for UTA and us as well,” McKee said. “I mean, how often do people get rid of trains?”
The lineup of potential bidders was diverse. The Museums at Union Station in Ogden and the Heber Valley Railroad both expressed interest in preserving a car to add to their collections. Diamond Dang, with Sapa Investment Group, which includes in its portfolio Salt Lake City hospitality spots Sapa Bar and Grill and Purgatory Bar, mentioned she was interested in turning a car into an art gallery or event space. “I just don’t want there to be buzz and then the city won’t let us do it. That’s the only issue,” Dang said. “But we’re interested. We’re very interested.”
Dang added: “We would not scrap it, we would preserve it. The other guys here are scrappers. They want to put them in little pieces. So that’s who we have to outbid.”
While some held idyllic visions of preserving the vintage rail cars, the most highly interested bidders on site were the scrappers: the recycle guys.
Standing in a semicircle wearing worn leather boots, the five men were circumspect about what they might pay for the cars, and what the scrap metal might be worth.
“We’d cut them up into pieces and run them through a shredder and process them that way,” said Scott Epperson, from Western Metals. The shredded train parts would then go to an aluminum and plastic sorting facility and eventually be shipped to a recycling company or smelter.
“We recycle boxcars, rail cars, up at our facility in Plymouth quite frequently,” Epperson said.
Glancing at his recycling business peers, Jason Bradshaw of Clearfield Recycling, said, “You go to any auction and see these guys and know it will be more expensive.”
Already worried about the prospect of seeing all 25 train cars shredded, Dang, with Sapa, was thinking about how much it would cost to outbid the scrappers plus the thousands of dollars a crane rental might cost to transport her purchase from the UTA train yard to its next life.
“The biggest cost is transportation,” said Linton, the dad with the tiny home dreams. To move a single rail car could cost upwards of $8,000, he said. Not to mention, city permitting would likely be a pain. Linton hoped to move the train-car-turned-tiny-home to an undeveloped piece of land around Cedar City and rent it out as an Airbnb.
“The problem is water and building a well,” Linton said.
“Yeah,” five-year-old Ezra chimed in.
“A well costs ten to seventy-thousand dollars,” Linton continued.
As the morning wore on, prospective bidders chatted each other up, attempting to assess what the trains were worth to one another. Linton tried to suss out whether another prospective buyer would take a hulking train car off his hands if his permitting and well-digging machinations fell through.
UTA’s Larson stood inside a car, looking out in the dim light at the rows of faux leather seats.
He thought about the many mornings he spent on Comet rail cars commuting from Roy in Weber County to Salt Lake City. “It was just nice and peaceful,” Larson recalled. “Almost like sitting in a library just relaxing and reading a good book.”
Correction, Oct. 25, 11:42 a.m. • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified how Comet car auction proceeds would be used. The UTA has yet to finalize how funds from the auction will be used. New Bombardier cars are just one potential option still under review.