Expanded mountain passenger rail could happen faster than Front Range, Colorado lawmaker says

June 4, 2024, 10:41 am

Amtrak’s California Zephyr in Grand Junction (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline photo).

The flurry of funding bills for passenger rail passed during the recently-completed 2024 Colorado legislative session — dubbed the “year of transit” — will most likely be felt first in an unlikely part of the state, according to a state senator who sponsored several of those bills.

In a recent phone interview with Colorado Newsline, Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts of Frisco touted the near-term possibility of passenger trains returning to Steamboat Springs, his hometown, for the first time since passenger service between Denver and Craig ended in April of 1968.

The last of the rail bills yet to be approved by Gov. Jared Polis, Senate Bill 24-190, is expected to be signed next week in either Craig or Hayden, where railroad giant Union Pacific is looking to replace lost coal-train traffic as coal-fired power plants in both towns shut down in the next few years.

“That bill’s kind of flown under the radar a little bit, but it’s really exciting and could be one of the linchpins for making sure that northwest rail comes to fruition soon, and it is going come to fruition much sooner than Front Range rail, because the infrastructure’s already there,” Roberts said of SB-190, which provides tax credits and creates enterprise zones along the line.

“The goal is to ensure that freight traffic on that rail line continues even after coal transportation drops when the power plants retire in the next few years in Hayden and Craig, because the only way that passenger rail is viable on the mountain rail is if there’s also a healthy freight business,” Roberts added. Front Range Passenger Rail is a long-term plan to connect Colorado’s Front Range cities from Pueblo to Fort Collins, starting with the elusive goal of Denver to Boulder.

Federal passenger rail operator Amtrak already uses part of Union Pacific’s tracks into the Colorado mountains for both its daily, long-distance California Zephyr between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area and its seasonal Winter Park Express ski train between Denver and the city-owned ski area. The goal is for more frequent and less seasonal passenger trains to continue northwest at Bond and head up to Steamboat, Hayden and Craig.

“This bill provides financial incentives to businesses opening in Craig and Hayden, our coal transitioning communities, when they utilize the rail line to haul freight,” Steamboat Springs Democratic state Rep. Meghan Lukens, a sponsor of the bill, wrote in an email statement. “This increase in rail revenue will allow for the mountain passenger rail to be affordable to all, bringing more tourism and business to the Western Slope.”

Moffat Tunnel lease renewal

Roberts addressed language in SB-190 dealing with the Moffat Tunnel, the vital, state-owned, 6.2-mile railroad tunnel beneath the Continental Divide at Winter Park. Colorado Department of Transportation officials are renegotiating the terms of a 99-year, $12,000-a-year lease for the tunnel with Union Pacific that expires early next year, with the tunnel remaining the only active rail route through the Colorado Rockies.

“The reason why there’s some language about the Moffat Tunnel in (SB-190) is because it’s trying to make the negotiation between CDOT and UP more of a level playing field,” Roberts said when asked if the bill is aimed at offloading the state asset. “It’s not because we want to sell the Moffat Tunnel, necessarily, it’s because the changes will actually allow CDOT to refuse an offer from anybody, UP most likely, to buy the Moffat Tunnel, because the way the statute’s currently written, it would make it very hard for the state to refuse an offer if it were at fair market value.”

Union Pacific currently covers maintenance and insurance costs for the tunnel.

Union Pacific did not respond to a request for comment on the current status of the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations. Said to be the highest elevation (9,200 feet) and lowest holing (2,800 feet beneath the Continental Divide) railroad tunnel ever, the Moffat Tunnel was finished in 1927. But in recent years it has been the scene of a wastewater spill and the subject of scrutiny in a pitched battle to slow the roll of Utah oil trains through Colorado. The East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel near Tolland is pictured on June 26, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

The mayor of Winter Park last summer told Newsline the town and the local business community, including Alterra — the Denver-based ski company that owns and operates Steamboat and runs Winter Park for the city of Denver — is focused on increasingly using passenger rail as an alternative to the chronically congested Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 40 corridors.

Besides shuttling tourists, mountain passenger trains are seen as a potential part of the fix for the vexing workforce housing crisis in Colorado ski towns, shuttling employees between more affordable outlying towns and congested resort areas with limited parking.

“Commuters between Craig, Hayden and Steamboat will really help Steamboat address some of their affordable housing issues, because it will make Hayden and Craig a very viable place for folks to live more affordably and still work in Steamboat,” Roberts said. “Same thing with Grand County with commuter service between Winter Park and Granby and Kremmling. So getting it all going addresses both of those uses — the tourism traffic and the commuter traffic.”

Need for speed

Lawmakers this session acknowledged that increased rail traffic, in particular mixing passenger and freight service, presents safety and environmental issues as railroad companies look to increase profits and scale back staffing. Union Pacific pushed back on the need for a new state rail safety office approved by the Legislature this session, pointing to existing federal regulations. But the company says it will continue to work with Colorado as it looks to expand passenger rail.

“We look forward to our continued partnership with rail labor organizations and key state agencies to address issues important to communities and all stakeholders,” Mike Jaixen, Union Pacific’s senior manager of corporate communications, wrote in an email.

Amtrak, as reported by Newsline, is likely to operate the proposed Front Range passenger trains, which could start with Denver to Boulder to Fort Collins service as early as 2029, but an Amtrak spokesman said it’s premature to draw any conclusions about Amtrak running the mountain line.

“(The state is) far from being in a place where they’re going to choose an operator,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in a phone interview. “Certainly, we would be interested in being an operator wherever it makes business sense for us and for the states, or whatever agencies we’re doing the business for. We’re very interested, but they’re not at that point yet.”

Critics of diesel-powered passenger trains sharing tracks with heavy freight say the trains are too slow for today’s car-crazed culture, but since the Yampa Valley Mail (the Denver and Rio Grande Western train carried the U.S. mail in the 1960s) shut down, the state’s population has grown 176%, from 2.1 million in 1968 to 5.8 million last year. Road capacity hasn’t come close to keeping up.

“It’s a pretty horrible drive either up to Boulder, or just going north and south on I-25 (and east-west on Interstate 70],” Amtrak’s Magliari said. “There’s no way to make it wide enough to accommodate everybody, and, especially since there’s existing rail route up and around, use it more.”

One of the reasons passenger service to Craig was derailed was that it took a minimum of six and half hours to travel the 197 miles to Denver by rail. Nowadays, motor vehicle traffic can sometimes take that long or longer given modern congestion and weather-related delays, although in perfect conditions it’s a four-hour drive.

Roberts acknowledges that the success of mountain rail will hinge on convenience, service and, to some degree, the speed of the trains, which can be hampered by conflicts with freight traffic.

“I think that’s a valid concern, but it’s definitely something that people are aware of and is going to be taken into account when they’re coming up with all those plans,” Roberts said.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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