Denver: On A Track for Global Rail Prominence

Colorado has a rich railroad history dating from 1868. That is when Denver’s city fathers refused to be by-passed as the transcontinental railroad was being planned across Wyoming. They financed a connecting line, a high risk but successful enterprise that ensured Denver would indeed become the Queen City of the Rocky Mountain Empire.

The first train from Cheyenne arrived in 1870. A look at the Denver and Rio Grande Western system map from 1896 provides graphic evidence of the vast network of standard and narrow gauge rail lines in and through the Colorado Rockies. These lines connected mountain mining and agricultural communities throughout the state, including places that are now renowned for skiing such as Aspen and Crested Butte. Vestiges of this network remain today of course, and Colorado’s nine scenic lines run over some of the most dramatic and historic track. The majority of the lines are now hiking trails, highway rights of way, or bike paths, however.

As the gold and silver mines played out and ownership of trucks and automobiles became ubiquitous, passenger and freight railroading in Colorado followed the same trajectory of decline as elsewhere in the nation. Twelve freight railroads remain in service, two Class Ones: the Union Pacific and the BNSF Railway; while some ten short lines feed them. Scenic lines andoccasional excursions aside, Amtrak now remains the only passenger service provider with two trains through Colorado, the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief. About 210,000 people board and alight from these trains in Colorado every year. Those numbers would be substantially higher if not for capacity constraints on the two trains. These same problems also limit the state’s ability to capitalize on the trains for tourism purposes. Just five years ago, the famous Ski Train carried Denver passengers to and from Winter Park during the ski season before it met its demise while Denver Union Station underwent redevelopment. Restoring the Ski Train is one of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association’s key building blocks for expanding passenger rail in Colorado. Restoring “Front Range” commuter and intercity rail service to the north and south of Denver make up additional key building blocks. These services would connect with the Southwest Chief at a new stop in Pueblo, under ColoRail’s plan.

In the meantime, the Denver metropolitan region’s tremendous growth over the past 50 years has fueled a new eraof passenger rail construction in Colorado. This system was first envisioned by visionary civic and legislative leaders in the late 1960’s. In 1969, these efforts led to the passage of the “RTD Act” by the Colorado General Assembly creating a state special district (the Regional Transportation District) and authorizing districtwide taxation as allowed under state law. Later amendments created an elected Board of Directors representing 15 separate regions within the district. A constitutional tax initiative subsequently required any tax measure to be approved by a vote of the concerned citizens. Further legislation authorized the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to oversee RTD fiscal matters. DRCOG comprises elected representatives from the local governments within the RTD. It also serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The RTD system’s first rail component opened in 1994. The 5 mile light rail line crossed Denver from a major Interstate junction in the south (I-25 at Broadway) to a business and residential neighborhood to the north (30th Avenue at Welton Street). Connecting bus services are provided along the route and at both terminals. the Central Rail Line served as the proof of concept for the bold, 30 year build out of Denver’ rail network. Six years later the Southwest Rail Line was opened. It ran for about 9 miles and served the suburb of Littleton and 3 other stations connecting them with downtown Denver. Parking for 3,600 cars is an important component of this system, as well as connecting bus service.


The next major test for RTD’s system was the so-called T-REX project or Southeast Rail Line. This 19 mile line connected the burgeoning Denver Tech Center business and residential areas with downtown Denver. The line was constructed in the I-25 corridor with highway improvements in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Transportation. Construction followed the enactment of local property taxes from the communities served by the new line in 1999. The line serves as a mobile billboard for rail transit services as the light rail trains pass automobile traffic often slowed to a standstill by congestion in both directions. The line will be further extended over 2 miles in the near future as a result of the FasTracks initiative, a ballot measure passed in 2004 with great civic support including from ColoRail and its members.

The FasTracks initiative also provided the financial underpinning for major additional rail expansions throughout the Metro area. The West Rail Line connects 12 miles of light rail to downtown from Golden, west of Denver, and 11 other stations. Stops include the Jefferson County Government Center, the massive Federal Center, the Auraria college campus center, and access to Sports Authority Field at Mile HI, home of the Denver Broncos. The line was opened to great fanfare in 2013. The I-225 Line, which runs through Aurora, east of Denver, for almost 11 miles serves this population center which is now the third largest in Colorado. It will soon be extended to provide connectivity with the East Line commuter rail service which is under construction.

The East Line, more popularly known as the DIA (Denver International Airport) Line will run from Denver Union Station 23 miles east northeast to the airport, principally along Union Pacific right of way. This electric rail line will open in 2016. Cars for the line will be on display at Denver Union Station this December. The East Line will herald the electric commuter rail service phase to the Colorado rail resurgence. It will serve 5 additional stops enroute and will be a major link for Denver’s vision of fast, convenient intermodal passenger transportation services. It will also create a new appreciation for passenger rail service throughout the Front Range of Colorado. Perhaps most importantly, it is a public private partnership between RTD and Denver Transit Partners, representing private investors and operators. This model will is and will play an important role in future Denver transit projects.

The communities of Wheat Ridge and Arvada as well as the balance of Adams County north northwest of Denver will be served by commuter rail later in 2016. This 11 mile electric line, known as the Gold Line will have 7 stops for commuters along with ample parking and bus service.

The final, and perhaps grandest commuter lines are still in the hopper though some major segments will be constructed in the next few years. The North Metro Rail Line is planned for 19 miles running north northeast from Denver Union Station through Commerce City to the communities of Thornton and Northglenn. The first 12.5 miles will open in 2018. The balance of the line is currently committed but not funded. The massive Northwest Rail Line remains a 41 mile commuter rail commitment approved by the voters in 2004, but the cost estimates have now exceeded available funding under FasTracks. This line would connect DUS with Longmont to the north, but would run northwest through a number of communities including Boulder before heading northeast to Longmont. RTD has said it can construct about 7 miles of the line to get it out of downtown Denver congestion and as far as Westminster. FasTracks also includes a high performance bus rapid transit (BRT) system along Highway 36 between Denver and Boulder, which is parallel to the planned Northwest Rail Line. This BRT system is scheduled to open in 2016. Arterial BRT is also being considered prior to the completion of the full Northwest Rail, but interim bus and bus rapid transit service is planned until additional funding is secured.

The RTD build out represents a major civic, political and engineering accomplishment. The recently reopened and already renowned Denver Union Station serves as a central hub for this transit network which will elevate Denver to the status of a global center for trade and tourism. First class transit systems inevitably bolster the economies and development of every major metropolis in the world. This is because these expensive to build systems actually reduce costs to citizens and businesses over time and that wealth is reinvested locally.


The author takes full responsibility for the accuracy of information in this report. The author is indebted to:

The Colorado Department of Transportation and its forthcoming Statewide Transit Plan. CDOT has made several presentation to the Colorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail) concerning the information included in this report.

The Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) for several presentations to ColoRail concerning the information included in this report. For a map of the Denver region RTD rail network, see:

Schwantes, Carlos A. and P Ronda, James P. University of Washington Press, The West the Railroads Made, 2008. This publication is a great, illustrated summary of the history of western railroading.