Architecture Commuter Rail Denver Light Rail

A Grand Gateway for Denver’s Transit Users

» The redevelopment of Union Station has produced debate over the two-block separation between commuter and light rail operations. But that gap could evolve into a brand new neighborhood and better access to areas northwest of downtown.

Denver’s got a bright future ahead for its transit system, with new light rail and commuter rail lines planned to extend in virtually every direction from downtown. Though the recession has reduced sales tax revenues and will likely mean a slower timetable for the completion of the region’s $6 billion FasTracks — and even mean the possible elimination of some components of the capital investment program — one element is unchallenged by the financial difficulties of the contemporary environment, if only because it will serve as the essential core of the planned network: Union Station.

Expected to cost some $500 million to expand and reconstruct, this terminal will undoubtedly become the nerve center for the region’s public transportation commuters as it will serve up to 200,000 daily users, and the city has big plans. Union Station will extend two blocks northwest from a renovated 1914 structure and include an eight-track commuter rail and intercity rail hub, a city-wide bus transfer center, and a light rail station. On the surrounding 20 acres of currently vacant land, a private developer will build up a brand new neighborhood of housing, commercial space, and offices.

There has never been much controversy about making Union Station the center of transit agency RTD‘s expanding system; the local back-and-forth has been over just how the structure is rebuilt.

When RTD and a coalition of stakeholders released a master plan for the station in 2004 after purchasing it in 2001, it envisioned a simple-to-understand project: directly north and south of the old building, underground platforms for rail and bus passengers would be within feet of one another, connected via a street-level concourse. The facility would be a single unit, rather than a series of discrete elements.

What is now planned for a 2012 opening — Alex Block brings this to our attention — is far different in both conception and form. Because of cost constraints and Federal Railroad Administration regulations, the underground platforms for rail services have been replaced by street-level boarding zones, open to the sky above. Light rail and commuter operations are to be split by about two blocks, with a below-grade (but sunlit) linear bus terminal serving as a connector. The commuter and intercity rail station would be the center’s highlight, a magnificent series of arched white canopies serving as a symbol of Denver’s investment in transportation for the 21st century.

Between the two rail stations: a series of newly developed buildings and plazas. Instead of a sealed, one-building-that-fits-all-needs, Denver will get a series of connected public spaces linking together in a new community just adjacent to the city’s vibrant Lower Downtown. It’s certainly an unconventional approach to building a transit center.

Yet, in the process, the city has transformed its vision of its primary transportation hub from a purely mobility-oriented scheme to one that will play a fundamental role in spurring development downtown.

Station area plan Underground bus concourse

RTD cites a number of benefits of the proposal: it will decrease construction costs compared to the wholly underground option and allow the center’s components to be more readily integrated into the surrounding streetscape. The primary drawbacks? A minimal interest in using the historic building as the center’s focus and much-increased transfer times between light rail and commuter trains, as users will now be required to take a 700-foot hike between the two.

But this decision will have primarily good outcomes. According to initial estimates, the vast majority of users will not be transferring: During a typical peak hour, only about 1,000 people will be connecting between light and commuter rail, versus the 14,000 disembarking from trains overall. Though the light rail station will be positioned relatively far from the traditional downtown, it will offer better access to the city’s growing riverfront community and the Highland neighborhood on the other side of I-25. Light rail users will still have the option of riding the system’s other branch to the light rail loop closer to the core of downtown; direct access from Union Station will also continue to be provided by the free 16th Street bus mall shuttle, which runs frequently and reliably.

The connection between the commuter and light rail systems, via the 17th Street tunnel, doubling as a comfortable waiting area for customers boarding city bus lines there, has the benefit of putting bus services at the core of the facility, rather than to one side as originally planned. This effort will encourage rail-to-bus transfers and allow the city to promote all of its transit offerings, not simply those provided on steel wheels.

Most importantly, though, the newly spread-out nature of Union Station will transform the neighborhood by investing its streets with the activity and motion of a major transportation node. The buildings lining 17th Street will offer storefront restaurants and retail to commuters, enhancing both business activity and convenience for travelers. A series of parks will serve as welcoming resting areas during the better parts of the year. The advantages of neighboring a transit station will be multiplied by two.

There is, of course, still work to be done. Some architects have suggested ridding the bus tunnel of the moving sidewalks designed to speed people transferring between light and commuter rail. Doing so would be a mistake, though it will be critical to ensure that said sidewalks don’t get in the way of people waiting around for bus services. Meanwhile, the bridge between the light rail station and the riverfront zone, originally supposed to be in the form of a platform (“kinetic plaza”) connected to a commercial building, has been downsized to a pedestrian bridge. To fully leverage the place-making opportunities offered by this new station, that link must be reinforced.

For those who are concerned about interconnectivity and efficient transfers, the decision to sprawl out Union Station is certainly disappointing news. But the benefits from the perspective of encouraging better and more integrated urban growth should overcome those qualms. Other cities planning to invest in new transit hubs like that planned for Denver’s Union Station could do well in examining how de-hubbing a hub can make it all the more valuable to the surrounding city.

Images above: Denver Union Station, from above, from Denver Union Station

30 replies on “A Grand Gateway for Denver’s Transit Users”

“new light rail and commuter rail lines planned to extend in virtually every direction from downtown”
EXCEPT for vast majority of Denver’s major inner-city neighboorhouds and the 100,000 or so people that live within 2 or 3 miles of Downtown.

If you look at some of the world’s great metros in some of the world’s great cities (New York, Paris, London) there are plenty of places where people have to trek a bit to make a transfer. Times Square, Chatelles-Les Halles, Euston-St Pancras—all of these have long-distance transfers spanning a block or two, which spreads out the activity above. I agree, there’s no real problem in trekking 1/8 of a mile (three minutes or less) between platforms.

…and when Denver reaches the point where they’re operating one “of the world’s great metros,” we can talk. In the meantime, purposefully redesigning the city’s primary passenger railway facility in such a way that many commuters will be required to endure a quarter-mile of additional “trekking” is asinine!

Convenience of passengers had no bearing upon the decision. Potential profit of developers did.

Garl Boyd Latham

Chatelet-Les Halles is a cross-platform transfer station on the RER. The difficult transfers are RER-Metro.

I wonder if more people would be willing to transfer at Union Station if Denver built it as a more convenient transfer, i.e. cross-platform if possible, and with minimal walking if not.

I am a Denver resident and this has been bothering me for a couple of years. I too was disappointed with the planned location of the light rail platform. On the surface, the design looks pretty half-assed and short sighted. But tonight I had an “ah-ha” moment, and I think the master plan is more clever than most people think.
After reading this article, I went back and had another look at the master plan. It seems that the 900-foot underground bus station could someday be converted to a light/commuter rail tunnel. Light Rail can drop below grade and turn right where the 17th street station is now being built. The tunnel looks wide enough for up to four tracks with platforms. From there, the tunnel could be extended under DUS and a subway could be built down 17th Street to Civic Center and beyond! Imagine LRT through service to Colfax or Broadway lines. The bus station would have to be moved, perhaps to a new facility under 16th Street.
I doubt any of this would happen in my lifetime, but it does help explain the long walk and future expansion. If this is indeed what the planners had in mind, we should give them a little more credit.

“If this is indeed what the planners had in mind,” they at least should have made mention of it in their project documentation. As it stands, they – and the project – deserve every bit of the derision received.

Garl Boyd Latham

I, too, think this is a pretty innovative and creative solution to some real issues of limited resources, and in the end will really enhance the value of the new development around Union Station.

At the same time, I’m curious about how they’ll plan on programming the space within the actual station itself. It’s a fantastic old building, and they’re going to great lengths to preserve views of the exterior as a kind of civic monument, but I’d like to know what they plan on doing inside to integrate it into the transit experience.


The “space within the actual station itself” has primarily been used to create a hotel lobby and bar. Amtrak’s operations have been shoved into a glorified closet – and I can’t imagine transit patrons being welcomed anywhere else within the former railway station.

Garl B. Latham

I’m all for the redevelopment, but there doesn’t seem to be any planning for future accomidation of other regional rail lines, say commuter rail or high speed rail to/from the Springs (which is probably 20 or more years off realistically), but without planning now, adding this in the future will only be more expensive.

As for the question is it electric, Yes, the commuter rail tracks will have catenary since the lines to DIA and the Gold Line will be EMU. The line to Boulder will be DMU (supposably) since its a shared freight line, whereas the others will be side by side. The other line north may end up being EMU but as of now is scheduled to be DMU, but then since FasTracks is going to run out of money, and nobody will vote in a tax increase, it probably won’t get built any way.

As for the long transfer, this will only be a problem for those who ride LRT from the West Line (JeffCo) since it will connect to the CPV line and head to DUS, not downtown. Whereas the other existing LRT routes, its easy to transfer to the existing trains that head to 18th/California and 16th/California at I-25 & Broadway, or the 0L bus for those who work at the top of downtown (goes to Civic Center Station).

As already questioned, can anyone weigh in on the actual use of Union Station? I’m glad it’s being preserved, but how much actual use will it receive. Is it going to be an active train station once again, or just a monument, hopefully the former.

Also, why are they building light rail and commuter rail platforms with a huge hole in the roof? It looks cool, but there’s this thing called rain and snow and I would be pissed off waiting for a train in a new station that was built without a roof.


Bottom line? “Union Station” is now a hotel. NO forethought was given to future increases in railway passenger service – especially of the intercity variety.

Denver’s former railroad station has indeed become a monument…to the greed of developers and the politicians they control.

Garl B. Latham

the reason that the commuter rail platforms will not be underground is because amtrak and some of the commuter rail lines will be diesel and underground wait times would probably lead to carbon dixode poisoning. no system in the world allows diesel trains in a completely underground terminal stations. It also cannot be terrorism related because underground eletric commuter rail terminals are being built in SF and 2 in NYC (NJT and LIRR).

So I take it this plan does not turn DEN into a through station? I recall some plans in the past included that. I think that would be important for future uses.

Dang, we have this same problem in Los Angeles. Union Station is not a through station, but a stub-end terminal.

There was supposedly a program in the works to change this called the “Run Through Tracks” Project. However, now that the California High Speed Rail project has some purchase, that project might overwhelm the former proposal, which has not been constructed. The high speed is supposed to be using Union Station, and is supposed to be continuing from there south and north. Right now, all Amtrack trains have to back out of the terminal and go around a loop to connect to the main line.

What has been constructed are through-tracks dedicated to the light rail Gold Line service, so they’ve proved that they can be done. Of course only the Gold Line (and in the future other light rail) can use those two tracks, Amtrack or any future high speed line can’t use them.

“the reason that the commuter rail platforms will not be underground is because amtrak and some of the commuter rail lines will be diesel and underground wait times would probably lead to carbon dixode poisoning. no system in the world allows diesel trains in a completely underground terminal stations. It also cannot be terrorism related because underground eletric commuter rail terminals are being built in SF and 2 in NYC (NJT and LIRR).”

No, that isn’t the reason. Diesel can be accommodated with adequate ventilation, the CN station in Montreal is an example. The planned tracks were raised because the FRA, the federal safety agency, didn’t want a design where tracks descend into a stub end terminal.

Of course going with a stub end design was extremely short-sighted, penny wise and pound foolish. There’s still potential for a through platform west of the light-rail platforms, but the spread out design was driven more by redevelopment priorities than good transportation design. For the rest of our lifetime this will be a case-study in how not to design a transit hub.

Yeah, this may very likely turn into a missed opportunity, which is very disappointing for the first major US transit hub developed since LA Union Station about 20 years ago. No through tracks, not using the station building much, spread out transfers, etc. Do it right the first time, especially with something like this that is so central to the entire transit system and which would be very complicated and expensive later. Transferring needs to be easy and closely located. A lot of transferring is psychological, if it feels like a long distance and isnt direct (nevermind if one of your routes has poor headways), it will be perceived as complicated and you’ll lose potential ridership. No one does easy transfers as well as the Boston Elevated Railway did. The MBTA still has some of these excellent multi-modal transfers (i.e. Harvard Bus Tunnel), though many have been removed and replaced with inferior transfers (old Charlestown Terminal, old Forest Hill, old Ashmont, etc.).

This hub needs to be about transportation first and foremost, with development secondary. Plus I’m not sure residents would really want to live along a pedestrian mall with large crowds storming through. And one of those cross streets on that pedestrian mall is a pretty major street to cross which is another issue. If they need to save money, drop the Calatrava-esque roof which overwhelms the historic station anyway and build simple low clearance platform canopies.

Regarding diseasal exhaust… Ever been to Back Bay Station at rush hour? You might as well be sucking on a 1972 clunker’s tailpipe, the air is thick with exhaust and your eyes water. How Back Bay Station is not a serious health hazard is beyond me. You’d think with all the insanely ridiculous FRA rules they’d be all over it with additional red tape like forbidding people from waiting on the platforms.

No, that isn’t the reason. Diesel can be accommodated with adequate ventilation, the CN station in Montreal is an example. The planned tracks were raised because the FRA, the federal safety agency, didn’t want a design where tracks descend into a stub end terminal.

BS NJT and LIRR are both building stub end terimals deep underground in Manhattan right now. didnt you read my post.

I’m not contradicting you. But I am just pointing out that there is an underground station in the US served by diesels that has inadequate ventilation.

What does NJT & LIRR’s stub end tunnels have to do with Denver decision have stub end terminals? I am not opposed per se to stub terminals just in some situations where I dont think they make sense. If I recall the commuter rail in Denver will all be to the north so the stub terminals will be fine if that is the extent of rail use at the station, once you want to run any through trains (like Front Range or the existing Cal Zephyr) it gets problemmatic.

BS NJT and LIRR are both building stub end terimals deep underground in Manhattan right now.

Yes, and both stub end terminals are going to reduce transit mobility in the region.

Keep in mind that they’re not building stub-end terminals from scratch here, that’s what currently exists for Amtrak and the Ski Train.

Those rail platforms are essentially being left as is.

This is one of those cases where if you held out for through-tracks at the station, you’d be preventing the project from ever moving forward.

The terminal in Denver was originally a through station and was severed at one end in the 1980s or 1990s through one of the stupidest development mistakes ever.

That concourse looks like a drab space. I’d say, get rid of the travelators (they only run a third or so of the length anyway) and fill the centre with cafes, bars, florists, news stands, fruit and veg stands – anything that would be lively, colourful and useful to grab something on the way to work or on the way home. It would certainly make the perceptual distance less for those transferring between LRT and rail. And it would make waiting for a bus a darn sight more pleasant.

Even better would be to drop the whole bus station a level to -2. Then for the current level (-1) have a pedestrian concourse with the aforementioned cafes, etc plus have it lined with shops. This would allow a lot more through access with escalators up to the cross streets, and could be the nucleus of an underground city such as Montreal’s RÉSO or Toronto’s PATH. With all around it being new development from what I understand, there’s a lot that could link in to this. It would also create the social space in wintertime that so many of the architect’s illustrations show on balmier days (I’m not sure how many snow days Denver gets, but there’s not a single bad weather day shown in any of the project illustrations). From the sounds of it, this place is as much a destination (or could be) as a transfer node.

I’m concerned they’re shortchanging themselves on Union Station capacity. Especially if the station is not going to have through tracks, eight tracks are simply not enough for the sort of use they’re talking about. As Alon Levy points out above, it rather parallels the situation in New York where billions are being spent on stub ends that enforce a passenger transfer. The tragic part in Denver is that — unlike in New York, where the plans serve the self-serving attitudes of transit agencies who want to remain in their own little worlds rather than work together — just one single agency is hobbling itself like this. This isn’t institutional turf wars at work, it’s poverty of imagination.

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