By ANDY BOSSELMAN Denver Post, November 8, 2020
Momentum is building for a new passenger rail line that would extend 191 miles from Fort Collins to Pueblo. According to a survey for the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, such a line has overwhelming public support. Significant federal funding could become available, too.
But don’t imagine yourself zipping around on a high-speed train. The Commission appears to have already ruled out true high-speed rail.
Unless elected officials and the public demand high-speed rail — along with well-located stations — the project will repeat the Regional Transportation District’s most appalling mistake and spend billions building a rail system that few find useful.
“This sounds like they are planning for it to be a failure right from the start,” says Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association.
It’s crucial to note that the Commission is very early in its planning. They have no concrete framework or preferred routes yet. They have mapped three potential lines. But only one appears to be politically plausible. And it’s not good.
This option would cobble together a wimpy commuter train. It would be neither fast, frequent nor reliable enough to attract the ridership needed to reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion meaningfully. In a state where few decision-makers understand the potential of rail, this option gets the politics right. The line would stop in Denver, Boulder and other cities.
But it would require achingly slow turnaround times at Union Station. And it would rely on sharing tracks with existing freight railroads. Sharing tracks would severely slow passenger trains, limit how many could be run per day, and inevitably delay passengers when they get stuck behind freight trains.
This line’s dawdling pace could one day offer somewhat faster travel times than driving in rush-hour traffic on Interstate 25. But according to modeling created for the Commission, it would not be fast or frequent enough to attract more than 15,000 passengers per day.
As for high-speed rail, the Commission depicts a route that could reach speeds up to 220 mph. But it would not stop in Denver or Boulder, making it a phony attempt to persuade elected officials that they considered true high-speed rail — and that it wasn’t realistic.
“Its a huge mistake to spend money on a rail system and then bypass your two big cities,” says Kunz. “Who will use it if it doesn’t serve the main population centers?”
In addition to the omission of major cities, the high-speed rail map appears only to reach the distant outskirts of Longmont, Loveland and Ft. Collins. These blunders repeat the original sin RTD made with its FasTracks rail system: Placing stations in useless destinations.
In recent years, even after the Denver Metro’s population exploded and RTD opened many new rail lines, the agency’s overall ridership fell. People don’t ride trains that dump them where no one wants to go.
Many RTD stations are also in places hostile to pedestrians. Huge parking lots, miles of empty fields and roads designed for high-speed auto traffic surround them. RTD’s Fitzsimmons Station, for example, intends to serve the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. But instead of placing the station on campus, passengers must connect to a shuttle or walk for 20-minutes amid traffic that moves at highway speeds.
Gov. Polis and other elected officials must demand that the Commission avoid repeating these mistakes and redraw its map to create a true high-speed rail system. It must include stops at Denver Union Station, the Boulder Transit Center and in other city centers. And the Commission must locate stations in areas where passengers can walk to restaurants, shopping areas, jobs and housing.
For high-speed rail to reach such places, tunnels are essential. They are common all over Asia and Europe and in the California High-Speed Rail project, which is now under construction. But tunnels are costly, and the Commission already appears to have rejected them.
“Deep and lengthy tunnels have technical and geological challenges, and overcoming these would come with a massive cost,” says Spencer Dodge of the Commission. But Kunz says this is just an excuse.
“You can’t tell me that Colorado is more challenging than the Eurotunnel under the English Channel,” he says. “Or the Alps in the south of France, which they recently drilled through to connect the French and Spanish high-speed rail systems.”
The Commission’s can’t-do attitude also reflects a longstanding American bias against rail transportation, says Kunz.
For example, voters rarely are asked to pass multi-billion dollar highway projects, but they must always approve new rail lines. No one expects roads to make money, but trains must turn a profit. And rail lines are built on the cheap while highways are built to a gold standard.
The Commission also argues that true high-speed rail doesn’t make sense given the 191-mile length of the system, which is too short, they say.
“High-speed rail is less appropriate and efficient for Colorado’s 180-mile long corridor with several stops planned along the way,” says Dodge. But the optimal distance for high-speed rail ranges between 100 and 600 miles, according to industry standards. The Commission also argues that the Front Range does not have the population density to justify the expense of high-speed rail.
Kunz says we should look at California. “They are putting stations in the downtowns of all the tiny towns like Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale, etc.,” he says. “Those are all way smaller than Denver, and probably even smaller than Boulder.”
Today, as the climate crisis intensifies and expanding I-25 no longer makes sense, the Front Range Passenger Rail Commission appears to be pushing its most cowardly option.
“Doing it the easy way will … have low ridership because of the slow speeds and not going into city centers,” says Kunz.
Suppose Colorado wants a rail system that will attract enough riders to reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion significantly. In that case, its leaders must find some courage and set this project on a new track.
“It takes visionary leadership and a real commitment to create a great rail system,” says Kunz. “It does cost more to do it right, but that’s what should be done.”
Andy Bosselman is a freelance journalist and past editor of Streetsblog Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @andybosselman.