A Brief History of ColoRail

by Jon Esty, ColoRail Past President

from our September—October 2014 newsletter

It wasn’t the lack of trains at Denver Union Terminal that bothered Denver city leaders in the late 1980s. It was the potential cost of replacing the aging viaducts across the Platte Valley that led officials to consider closing DUT. Real estate investors also began to eye the unused coach and freight yards between the Platte River and the station for potential development. City planners thought that it might be wiser to move the tracks and trains out of DUT and open the area for re-development including the historic station.

Wynkoop Brewery owner, John Hickenlooper, disagreed with this plan and formed Save Our Station (SOS) in 1987 to keep DUT an active train station. Numerous business and community leaders joined this group that met regularly at the restaurant. The group was co-chaired by Hugh Wilson who would eventually become ColoRail’s treasurer.

A year later, Peter Barkman invited a small group of local passenger rail supporters to form the Colorado Rail Passenger Association. The group supported the efforts of SOS but had a wider vision for passenger rail in Colorado. Mr. Barkman was aware of the fact that previous Colorado passenger rail associations did not have much staying power so he initiated the idea with a certain amount of tentativeness. In the group’s first newsletter (August 22, 1988) he wrote, “Rail passenger advocates have created an ad hoc group to be known as ‘ColoRail’ in order to take part in Colorado issues which effect that mode of travel. Based on previous experiences in Colorado, there is no interest in a formal organization.”

The most pressing problem facing SOS and ColoRail was the proposal from Denver city leaders under the direction of Mayor Federico Pena to move Amtrak out of DUT to a location at 38th Avenue and Fox St. near Prospect Junction. A small station would be constructed with one platform to serve the California Zephyr. Although placement of a station at this location eliminated the Zephyr’s time consuming back up move into DUT, Amtrak officials preferred continued use of the existing station explaining that the 38th Ave. and Fox St. site would not easily accommodate future Front Range regional service or local commuter trains.

Both SOS and ColoRail lobbied Denver city officials with letters to editors, interviews, petitions, and personal contacts. The two organizations touted the benefits of what future passenger rail service to downtown Denver would mean to the overall growth of the city. By the summer of 1989, the Pena administration finally relented and assured station advocates that any development in the area would include trains at DUT. Having achieved its goal, SOS elected go out of business and donate funds raised to ColoRail. By late 1989, ColoRail adopted a set of organizational by-laws and applied for registration as a nonprofit corporation with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. The group invited SOS members and Colorado members of the National Association of Railroad Passengers to join the organization.

Ever since it’s founding, ColoRail has been actively involved in three general areas in its quest to promote passenger rail travel in Colorado: Development of rail transit in the Denver Metro area, maintenance and expansion of Amtrak service in and through Colorado, and creation of a statewide passenger rail network. Though ColoRail has had mixed success in achieving these goals, the organization has formed numerous valuable partnerships and relationships with government, community, transportation and environmental leaders over the past 25 years.

Early in 1990, RTD began looking at the track side of the DUT property as an access route for its bus only lanes under construction on I-25 north of the downtown area. ColoRail became an early supporter of this idea particularly when RTD agreed to have a “whistle stop” for the buses at the station. This initial effort began an ongoing working relationship with RTD during which ColoRail members supported numerous RTD bus and rail initiatives. When Guide the Ride failed to pass in 1997, ColoRail joined the Transit Alliance to elect a pro-rail RTD Board of Directors and actively campaigned for the successful passage of FasTracks in 2004.

ColoRail members embarked on a series of efforts to improve intercity rail service. A DUT station host program was initiated to assist arriving and departing Amtrak passengers at busy holiday times throughout the year. Funds were donated to DUT for an electronic “crawler sign” and for a new arrival and departure board which included connecting intercity bus services at the station. ColoRail worked with the National Park Service to provide interpretive guides on scenic sections of the California Zephyr route. Though no trains were ever added (except for the Pioneer for a couple of years), ColoRail was responsible for the initiation of a daily Amtrak Thruway bus in 1997, which connected Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo with Amtrak’s Southwest Chief at Raton, NM. This service continues to this day.

In 1991, the Colorado legislature replaced the state’s department of highways with a department of transportation, a move strongly supported by ColoRail, in order to provide more of a multi-modal approach to the state’s transportation needs. Since that time, ColoRail has participated in numerous C-DOT advisory committees and studies where supporters have advocated the development of regional passenger rail service. ColoRail members have worked successfully with legislators to preserve rail lines of possible future significance that are threatened with abandonment and have through legislative action and direct persuasion helped C-DOT broaden its mission to include freight and passenger rail as viable part of the state’s transportation system. This effort continues to the present time with the passage of HB-1161 earlier this year which creates a commission to preserve the present route of the Southwest Chief through southeastern Colorado.

Over the past quarter century, ColoRail has become a widely known and respected member of Colorado’s transportation community and most certainly will continue its strong and responsible advocacy for passenger rail and intermodal transportation solutions in years to come.

Jon Esty was ColoRail President from 1993 until 2008. He lives in Ridgway, Colorado.