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.

 

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

 

New Rail Commission Meets in Denver

The SW Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission held its organizational meeting July 31st. Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace was elected as Chair, and the Denver Regional Council of Government’s Jacob Riger as Vice-Chair. The Commission formed two committees representing the legislatively directed mission: sustaining and improving SW Chief service in Colorado; and, facilitating the development of Front Range passenger rail. The next meeting will be announced shortly.

Three immediate objectives were adopted by the 13 member Commission. Develop draft legislation for the General Assembly by December 1, 2017; adopt a charter to guide its operations: and, prepare an application for federal funding under the TIGER Grant program (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) administered by the US Dept. of Transportation. The Charter will outline additional objectives once approved.

SW Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission Formed

The Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission members have been named.  The Commission will hold its first meeting at Colorado Department of Transportation headquarters July 31st from 2 until 4 pm.  CDOT is located at 4201 East Arkansas Avenue.

The members, and the interests they represent, are:

Salvatore Pace, Pueblo (D)
public rail transportation advocate

Sara Rae Thompson Cassidy, Edgewater (U)
Class I freight railroads that serve Colorado

James Martin Souby, Denver (U)
public rail transportation advocate

Peter James Rickershauser, Denver (U)
Class I freight railroads that serve Colorado

Richard Guy Klein, La Junta (D)
resident of Huerfano, Las Animas, Otero, Prowers or Pueblo counties

Jill Gaebler, Colorado Springs
Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments

Jacob Riger, AICP
Denver Regional Council of Governments,

Terry Sears, Trinidad
South Central Council of Governments

Terry Hart, Pueblo
Pueblo Area Council of Governments

Bill Van Meter, Asst. GM
Regional Transportation District

Mark Imhoff, Denver
Dept. of Transportation, ex-officio, non voting

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