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