News & Reviews News Wire New proposal seeks to combine efforts to build passenger rail line north of Denver

New proposal seeks to combine efforts to build passenger rail line north of Denver

By Trains Staff | February 25, 2024

‘Northwest Rail’ would bring together Front Range, RTD commuter line planning

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Map of rail route between Denver and Fort Collins, Colo., via Boulder
A new plan is proposing a joint effort to build a passenger rail line connecting Denver, Boulder, Longmont, and Fort Collins, Colo. Front Range Passenger Rail

DENVER — A new plan released last week might finally lead to passenger rail service between Denver, Boulder, and Longmont, Colo., but not exactly as originally envisioned.

That route was part of the Fastracks commuter rail plan approved by voters in 2004, but has never been built out because of a lack of funding. Now, the Denver-area Regional Transportation District, the state Department of Transportation, and the Front Range Passenger Rail District are proposing to work together to build the route connecting those cities, as well as Fort Collins, as an intercity rail route, rather than a commuter line. The Denver Post reports that defining the route in that matter would unlock access to some $102 billion in federal funding not available for commuter projects.

The white paper released by the organizations dubs the effort the “Northwest Rail” project, which would use the existing BNSF Front Range Subdivision route. The agencies say they seek to “start a conversation of the benefits a partnership” between the three organizations to “maximize operational efficiencies and accelerate delivery of two parallel train services contemplated to run on the same existing train tracks,” according to a press release. By combining planning and financing, the three groups might be able to start a service together that they could not manage individually.

“Through a joint powers partnership, we can leverage the strengths, funding, and existing technical work from all of our potential partners to overcome the historic challenges for providing a starter service for Northwest Rail,” said John Putnan, senior advisor to the Department of Transportation. “And at the same time, by expanding the starter service to Fort Collins, we can achieve important passenger rail goals by completing a first phase of the project, unlocking more federal resources, and buying down the total potential cost of Front Range Passenger Rail.”

The Front Range project seeks to create a 160-mile route from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and was among the 69 routes included in the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program announced late last year [see “Full list of passenger routes …,” Trains News Wire, Dec. 8, 2023]. The basic Front Range plan, with six trains a day, is estimated to cost at least $2 billion, the Post reports, making federal funding an essential element.

The full 15-page white paper is available here.

14 thoughts on “New proposal seeks to combine efforts to build passenger rail line north of Denver

  1. I am a Colorado resident. This is an interesting idea.
    There are five main problems:
    1. UP and BNSF operate freight trains on this route. A plan back in the early 2000’s was build a new six lane freeway and rail bypass 20 to 30 miles east of the Front Range – this was a spectacular failure.
    2. What do you do when you get to the city on this fast new train? Only Denver has a semi-decent transit system. Most residents are not going downtown, so they will still drive.
    3. The Fastracks program promised to remove thousands of cars off I25 and I70. This promise was also a fantastic failure. With the waves of new people moving to Colorado in the late 1990’s early 2000′ s,I25 and I70 are almost in a 24 hour rush hour status every day.
    4. For the first time since the oil bust of the mid to late 1980’s, more people are leaving Colorado than moving here. So for the Denver area/Boulder County Democrats that run the state this will mean less tax dollars for you to spend.
    5. Since COVID, the increase of homeless people in downtown Denver, the increase of crime, most workers work remote from home or a cabin in the mountains. The vacancy rate in downtown Denver was around 40% and getting worse. Who will ride these trains?

    Colorado has some major problems: increase of crime, homeless encampments, housing is extremely high, and more people leaving than entering the state, a constant extreme environmental movement that wants to stop all energy production (problem here this is about 35% of the state’s employment), tax increases, unbearable energy/water costs.
    The politicians ( I also blame the Republicans) will never work on the above problems, instead let’s build a train system.

  2. My question is who will use it? Running 6 trains a day is not going to help commuters. For better or worse we on the Front Range are married to our cars. If I want to go to Ft Collins or in the future Cheyenne I would most likely drive there as I would need transportation in those towns and surrounding areas. It is also a single line railroad with few sidings. The bottom line is that passenger service does not pay for itself. So who picks up the tab?

  3. Good plan, but seems to me it ought to go all the way to Cheyenne — might allow for some future long distance connections and expand people’s reach.

  4. “Whatever happened to a nation that could build things and get things done?”

    Things “get done” by either its associated government entity or self made billionaire.

    I won’t debate if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos are the same as JP Morgan or the Vanderbilt’s of their era, but the Roman aqueducts and coliseum weren’t built by private equity and neither was the Great Wall of China. There are some things that our country desires that transcends of what the private sector can supply, so we reach back into what we think is in the public’s best interest.

    Was the first nuclear bomb in the public’s best interest? Was Apollo in the public’s best interest?

    So now we ask ourselves, is rail based passenger service in the public best interest, or like space travel, we facilitate & stimulate the private sector to take a larger role?

    1. Okay, fine, John, I’m with you actually. I just don’t dignify the flatulent rhetoric of Mr. John Putnan of C-DOT as getting anything done.

      My point in my post below is that all of Mr. Putnan’s “partners” seem to feel that if the subsidy is spread amongst the various and several “partners”, then the cost will magically be less than it really is.

      In the closing months of the year 1970, SecDOT John A. Volpe promised us a national rail passenger system in 1971. Which seems to have run afoul of how much each corridor would really cost. So the federals pick the pockets of the states. Then the states pick the pockets of the locals.

      If we’re going to have subsidized trains as you and I (and most people reading this page) advocate, then let’s have a transparent accounting of the true cost of that subsidy.

      PS As a fairly regular patron of DEN Denver International Airport I see the success of air transport in the Centennial State (and the concurrent flop of Amtrak) with each visit. Mr. Putnan of C-DOT isn’t helping.

    2. – Amtrak should be reorganized as an authority like the FAA.
      – Establish design and engineering standards for passenger rail (not unlike airplanes)
      – Setup a national train traffic control system so that Amtrak managed routes provide the least amount of interference with freight
      – Set up service regions and slots and have them bid out to a service provider (just like gates)
      – Run train terminals like airport gates. When someone bids for a service slot, they get a gate
      – Allow multiple providers to serve a service region/slot
      – If a state(s) wants to create a new service slot, they have to pay for it
      – If the slot can maintain 2 bidders for at least 5 years, the slot goes from the state bid authority to the national bid authority
      – If a city want a service slot, and the state won’t seed fund it, the city has to seed fund it.
      – If the city slot can maintain 2 bidders for at least 5 years, then it can go to state bidding, or if the volume warrants it, straight to national bidding.
      By partitioning the bid authority by city, state and national, it allows new routes or low volume routes to be developed but keep large national bidders from pushing out regional bidders to keep new markets from being opened.
      If a city or state wants a slot and they have no existing rail service, it will be up to them to get the needed funding to build the connection via their local highway departments and state DOT’s. Treat new rail service like a highway essentially from a funding perspective. Any routes funded by the state or local DOT’s do not have to pay the “Amtrak Tax” to reimburse legacy railroads for use of their rails.

    3. John Rice,
      Giving AMTRAK or similar government passenger agency a “free ride” at the expense of a freight railroad and its stockholders is a non-starter. It wasn’t their fault that the Federal Government did everything it could to make them run passenger service [of all types] at massive losses long after it became apparent that government policies were destroying passenger rail.

    4. @Steve Foster. In my proposal, Amtrak does not get a free ride. Anyone chartered under Amtrak using a pre-Amtrak service route has to compensate the freight railroad. Only state/city COT created and maintained routes do not pay the freights, because they wouldn’t own it.

    5. John Rice,
      The freight railroads pay state and local property taxes on all their property. Allowing state & local passenger entities to use freight railroad property for nothing while still taxing them is unfair.

  5. As I have previously commented, I can envision a continuous (high speed) passenger line from WY, to and through CO, NM, and El Paso, TX, (ala the City of New Orleans), efficiently maximizing a north-south rail line which is mainly used for just some freight. And extended passenger service to and through Mexico is a possibility as well. And catenary electrification is yet another possibility.

    1. I don’t share your vision. There is no way such a costly system can be built, especially with the Federal Debt problems we now have. That level of debt [many good financial personnel say the current stated Federal debt is understating what the long-term debt actually is] is an anchor around the neck of all governments and can not be solved by the government printing presses.

    2. Hello Steve Foster, “I don’t share your vision. There is no way such a costly system can be built, especially with the Federal Debt problems we now have.”

      I share your concerns. The route I’m suggesting is on existing BNSF
      RoW from El Paso,TX, NM, CO and WY, which could be used more efficiently by both freight and passenger, just like the NE Amtrak corridor. And I believe Amtrak already travels on a short portion of that in NM.

      Of course high speed passenger and freight don’t mix without a lot of improvements, but you have to crawl before you walk, and approach this hopefully profitable experimental venture slowly with caution.

  6. We wake up this Sunday morning to several paragraphs of double plus ungood duckspeak from Colorado.

    If you want a train, then run a train. Spare us the ten tons of verbal garbage. Whatever happened to a nation that could build things and get things done? Oh’ I’ll tell you what happened to that nation. It’s this: nothing gets done without combining taxpayer subsidies from several sources to hide how much the subsidies totals. That’s where the “leverage …… of all our partners” comes into play.

    Imagine this scenario: if the entire cost (capital improvement and operating subsidy) fell to one single entity (be that state, federal or local), this train would never run.

    What we have found since May 1, 1971, is that no one wants to pay for the NATIONAL passenger network that John Anthony Volpe promised Richard Milhaus Nixon. Both men have gone onto their eternal reward (Volpe to heaven, Nixon to wherever) leaving the rest of us to “leverage” funding for a train system that hasn’t met what we hoped for in 1971. Sort of symbolic of a nation that has totally fallen apart in the last five decades. Witness the two presidential candidates this coming November that must make Volpe or even Nixon turn over in his grave.

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