Rail Commission presents ideas to legislature tomorrow

The recommended next steps to bring passenger rail to the Front Range and the I-25 corridor will be presented to the State Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, by the Front Range Rail Commission, at 9:45am on Thursday, November 1, 2017 in Denver at the State Capitol Building, Room 271.

In accordance with their mission, the Front Range Rail Commission will be drafting legislation by December 1 to facilitate the Commission’s mission of developing a passenger rail system along the Interstate 25 corridor from Pueblo to Fort Collins, as well as preserving and expanding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief rail service.

 

ColoRail Passenger newsletter gets new editor

Our paper newsletter, the ColoRail Passenger has a new editor, Chris Spitzer. He takes over from Robert Rynerson, who served as ColoRail’s editor since Issue #1 in August 1988 when what was labeled “an ad hoc group” was formed to fight City/developer plans to evict rail service from Denver Union Station. Originally, the newsletter — typewritten on an electric typewriter — had no name. The eventual name was suggested by member Ron Vander Kooi.

Rynerson previously edited the Alberta, Canada rail advocates’ newsletter. His articles and photographs have been published in six countries and in a variety of media formats. He plans to continue writing and editing his history website: www.berlin1969.com.

Chris Spitzer

new editor Chris Spitzer

The One That Got Away… 39971

by Bob Brewster

Sleeping car passengers on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight are familiar with the Pacific Parlour Car, a first class lounge car originally built for the famed Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1956. Of the six lounge cars built, Amtrak still rosters 5 for the Starlight, which is an added attraction for that 36-hour Los Angeles – Seattle coastal route. The car remains a popular enticement to ride the train and special activities further enhance the experience. Swivel parlor chairs complement the lounge-style and table seating offerings. The car is a respite from the confines of tiny roomettes and bedrooms and the overhead dome glass brings the outdoors inside.

However, one of those original lounge cars (39971) was sold many years ago, and it now sits forlorn in a used rail car mecca in Madison, Illinois, awaiting an uncertain future, along with its companion coaches and diners. Originally tagged the Santa Fe Hi-Levels, the bi-level concept led to today’s Amtrak Superliner fleet, the more efficient mainstay of most long distance trains, particularly in the west.

Santa Fe parlor car 39971

Former Pacific Parlour Car 39971 from the Santa Fe Railway. Could this become a Winter Park parlor car?

Though 60+ years old, the Budd Company’s stainless steel construction techniques make them a timeless rail vehicle. The Hi-Level coaches even have the potential to be starter vehicles for other rail services in Colorado – at a far more affordable price than brand new equipment, despite extensive rehab costs. Front Range Rail? NW Rail?

Now, the audacious proposal: Might the 39971 become a first class parlour car for the newly minted Winter Park Express? This would most certainly require private sector participation, likely in exchange for naming rights and other promotional benefits. Perhaps “Google Parlour Car,” “Silver Bullet Parlour Car,” “Winter Park Parlour Car,” “Mary Jane Parlor Car”……..

The car would require extensive mechanical upgrades and interior restoration, requiring likely at least 1/2 to $1million. Would it pay for itself over several years? Financially, probably not. But from a marketing standpoint? Maybe. But the car would offer an upscale experience and amenities such as meals, snacks, beverages and a more sociable and scenic atmosphere would make it an attractive option for special celebrations and events. The critical concern is that it contributes to Amtrak’s bottom line in operating the WPE.

For more background, Google Gateway railcar, Santa Fe Hi-Levels, and Hi-Level 39971.

ColoRail is aware that food and beverage offerings were a major request during the WPE’s first year of operation, and it is hoped that such services will be a part of the 2nd season. But what about an enhanced F&B, especially for those who patronize the WPE for its scenic attraction rather than its recreational purpose?

ColoRail is not shy about throwing out wild proposals, such as in ColoRail Passenger Issue #76 (see ColoRail.org) where it was suggested that Amtrak would be a likely operator of a renewed Ski Train. We know how that wild proposal went.

ColoRail is under no illusions that it would be an easy or even practical task to bring 39971 back to life, but could it do for the Winter Park Express what its sister parlour cars are still doing for the Coast Starlight? Would it make the journey to Winter Park just that much more of a special experience?

B-Line is attracting riders

by Bob Brewster

RTD’s B-Line commuter rail one-stop service to Westminster from Denver Union Station is reportedly counting between 1500 and 2000 boardings per day. Weekends, especially during special events and ballgames, are scoring especially well.

Even better news is that these riders are apparently not being pilfered from the Flatiron Flyer Westminster station some distance away. Can we assume these passengers are new to transit? Wasn’t that the professed allure of rail when voters approved FasTracks 13 years ago? ColoRail wonders how many riders will be attracted to the B-Line when it reaches Boulder and Longmont. Stay tuned and attend the ColoRail meeting in Boulder on September 23

ColoRail would like to see all-day half hour service rather than the current mid-day and evening hourly headways. How many more passengers might that attract?

Bustang gallops from the gate

by Bob Brewster

CDOT Bustang bus

CDOT’s Bustang bus

Congratulations to CDOT’s Transit and Rail Division for its 50% Bustang ridership increase from fiscal year #1 to #2! Transit and Rail leaders are no strangers to ColoRail – they’ve made numerous presentations at our meetings – and ColoRail values their enthusiasm in expanding Bustang routes statewide, filling a void that has existed for far too many years. For example, a 40-year span between the last Colorado Motorway bus that left Ft. Collins for Denver and the first Bustang bus to do the same!

The three routes connect Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, and Glenwood Springs with Denver Union Station, with some intermediate stops. Service to Broncos games commenced last season and the North and South routes have joined the West route with weekend service. Visit www.ridebustang.com for full fares, schedules and route details.

Naturally, ColoRail has a bus wish list as well as a train wish list. And we have it on good authority that the Bustang team concurs with many of the items on it! While ColoRail views some Bustang routes as paving the way and creating a market for future rail services, many are warranted as standalone routes serving particular markets. Bustang routes could also extend the reach of rail routes where tracks don’t go.

ColoRail recommends that Bustang take over operation of Amtrak’s Thruway Bus to Raton, NM, as well as launch a new Thruway route to La Junta, via Pueblo, possibly as a precursor to the speculative “Thru cars” off Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between La Junta and Pueblo. Maybe even service to Cheyenne, connecting with the California Zephyr? Intermediate stops will bolster the demand.

Services to Alamosa, Durango, Trinidad, and Grand Junction are very worthy considerations. Our state and its residents and visitors desperately need alternatives to driving. And the need is now, not later! It is not unreasonable to suggest hourly service all day and evening along the I-25 routes, with peak hour expresses. Attractive fares would no doubt fill those buses, perhaps with some bus-on-shoulder advantages.

Please request greatly expanded funding for Bustang and rail services in Colorado from your local, state, and federal representatives. Colorado needs transportation choices and we have much catching up to do. Our booming economy deserves and demands no less!

Hybrid Rail & Bus System For Northwest Corridor?

Hybrid Rail & Bus System For Northwest Corridor?
by Robert Brewster

So, no passenger trains, as promised, connecting Longmont, Boulder and Denver in our lifetimes? How did we get to this seeming dead end?

A few decades back, ColoRail’s friend and board member, the late Mike Rowe, wrote a number of guest opinions, primarily for the Boulder Daily Camera, extolling the virtues of commuter rail on the existing tracks between Boulder and Denver (now the BNSF Railway). And a frustrated RTD bus driver, often stuck in traffic on a US 36 bridge over the rail line, wondered why there were no passenger trains on those usually empty tracks.

Nothing much came of those musings, although a group called “Citizens for Commuter Rail” emerged which brought attention to the commuter rail concept. Early numbers bandied about suggested that about $60M could produce a handful of peak hour trains to Denver in the morning and back in the evening. As timed dragged on, the number became $100M, then $200M, and so on. But commuter rail eventually earned a spot on the FasTracks map and the ballot proposal was approved by the voters 13 years ago, especially so in Boulder.

Commuter rail, as the name indicates, is largely a peak hour rail service operating when the efficiencies of rail are most pronounced – large numbers of commuters heading to a central core in the same general time frame. Trains are very good at moving large numbers of people when they all want to go to a common destination at the same time. When the highway mode is the most “challenged.” So far, so good.

Passenger trains sharing existing freight rail tracks occurs all the time. It can be economical, efficient, and mutually beneficial. Typically such an arrangement can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of building all new right of way and infrastructure. A perfect solution, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the proposed rail service along the US 36 & SH 119 corridors morphed into an all day/night “transit” service of about 55 trains per day, basically taking over the capacity of the operating host freight railroad, BNSF. Sticker shock soared to $1.7B before settling back a few hundred million. But with a somewhat parallel and good bus service, are 55 trains a day necessary? At least in the shorter term?

Is it time to revisit Mike Rowe’s decades old vision of peak hour rail, when it is most efficient, and leaving the far lighter demand periods to the evolving bus system, when the highways are more fluid and the passenger loads are a fraction of peak hour demands? A hybrid system.

This is precisely how many other commuter rail systems operate. The Minneapolis Northstar: 5 trains in, 5 trains back & special event trains. Altamont Corridor Express (ACE): 4 trains to San Jose, 4 trains back. West Coast Express: 5 trains to Vancouver, 5 trains back. There are many other examples, with varying operating paradigms depending on population and market demand.

Can a peak hour rail service be accomplished in an affordable manner? Can it be done incrementally, as funding is identified? Maybe a portion at a time, such as Longmont to Boulder, before adding the segment to Denver. Since commuter access to Boulder has become a much more demanding challenge, after commuter rail was first discussed as a Boulder to Denver priority, perhaps reviewing travel demand patterns would be instructive to see how rail can be applied most efficiently. Remember ColoRail’s “Building Block” strategy: Minimal, Affordable, Doable, Expandable. The “MADE” principle.

Further, a review of how costs could be held to a minimum is essential. Taking advantage of what already exists is a good place to start. Repurposing, rehabbing, recycling, and restoring various infrastructural requirements would be a very wise exercise, saving money, time, studies, and resources. For example, might the former Burlington passenger train station, built in the 50’s at the end of Bluff St., once again serve its intended purpose and function? A perfect location amidst brand new development and along a straight section of track. SPARKTRAIN at the SPARK Station? Hint….

Finally, is there a private sector entity that sees value in bringing the Northwest Corridor’s rail component to fruition? Possibly in exchange for naming rights or other business advantages? How does the name GoogleTrain sound? That technological behemoth knows full well the value of facilitating its employees commuting needs. First, by way of dedicated motor coaches in San Francisco, and second, the siting of a new workplace complex adjacent to the large Diridon Station rail and bus transit hub in San Jose. Of course, other entities exist that may also see such value.

ColoRail urges the responsible entities, governmental and private, to engage in practical discussions with BNSF Railway to seek an operating formula, with the necessary investment, that improves the operating performance of the freight carrier while simultaneously enabling the operation of at least some peak hour passenger trains that will best serve the market(s); and establish direction for future corridor enhancements for both passenger and freight operations as resources permit

Southwest Chief Commission gets underway

by James Souby

The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission is underway. The thirteen member Commission, created by the 2017 General Assembly, has a twofold mission: sustain and expand Amtrak SW Chief service in southeastern Colorado, and, facilitate the development of front range passenger rail. At its first meeting, the Commission created two committees to advance the mission. A third committee will create a charter for the Commission which will set out the known requirements that must be met to achieve the legislature’s directives. The legislation requires the Commission to draft and submit proposed legislation to advance front range rail to the General Assembly by December 1st. Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace was elected Chair, and Denver Regional Council of Governments Long Range Transportation Planning Chief Jacob Riger was elected Vice Chair. ColoRail helped the Legislative sponsors, Senators Larry Crowder (R – Alamosa) and Leroy Garcia (D – Pueblo) and Representative Daneya Esgar (D – Pueblo) in drafting and supporting the legislation.

The Commission met for the second time Friday, September 8th. Both Committees reported. The Southwest Chief effort is currently focused on obtaining a TIGER grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). USDOT announced the $500 million competitive grant program earlier in the week. Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico are each expected to pledge $1 million in matching funds while Amtrak has pledged $3 million. BNSF Railway was expected to announce its matching amount on Monday, September 11th. The primary applicant for the funds will likely be Colfax County/Raton New Mexico or Trinidad, Colorado. Communities along the line are also expected to provide matching funds. ColoRail has provided matching funds for the past two grants and the Board will take the matter up at its next meeting.

The Front Range Passenger Rail Committee met by conference call September 5th. The Committee identified key questions that must be resolved in order to define a successful passenger rail system. For example, what kind of governance structure would be most suitable to develop and operate the system, and what potential rights-of-way exist for the future service? The Committee also began the process of defining next steps which may become the basis for the legislative proposal. ColoRail provided notes from our scoping meeting last August to help the Committee get its arms around the complex project.

The thirteen member commission includes:

Sal Pace, Pueblo (D), Pueblo County Commissioner; public rail transportation advocate

Sara Rae Thompson Cassidy, Edgewater rep. Class I freight railroad rep: Union Pacific Railroad.

James M Souby, Denver rep. public rail transportation advocate, ColoRail

Peter J Rickershauser, Denver rep. Class I freight railroad rep: BNSF Railway

Richard G Klein, La Junta (D) rep. resident of Huerfano, Las Animas, Otero, Prowers or Pueblo counties, City Manager, La Junta

Jill Gaebler, Colorado Springs,
President Pro Tem, rep. Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments

Jacob Riger, Long Range Transportation Planning rep. Denver Regional Council of Governments,

Phil Rico, Mayor, Trinidad rep. South Central Council of Governments

Terry Hart, Pueblo, Chair, County Commission rep. Pueblo Area Council of Governments

Bill Van Meter, Asst. GM for Planning rep. Regional Transportation District

Becky Karasko, Fort Collins, Regional Transportation Planning Director Rep, North Front Range MPO

Mark Imhoff, Denver, Director, Division of Transit and Rail rep. Dept. of Transportation, ex-officio, non voting

Ray Lang, Sr. Dir., Govt. Affairs rep. Amtrak, ex officio, non voting