Denver High-Speed Rail

Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State

» No clear source of funds doesn’t seem to concern plan makers. But it’s time for some national decision-making about which lines to prioritize.

If you want clear proof for why we need a national agency to coordinate decision-making about rail route choices in the United States, take Colorado’s $21 billion scheme as evidence.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority has conducted a study of potential high-speed rail corridors in Colorado, considering areas as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, as far south as Trinidad, and as far west as Grand Junction and concluded that the most reasonable, cost-effective option would be to build two new routes: 160 miles north-south along the I-25 corridor between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 150 miles east-west along the I-70 corridor between Denver International Airport and Eagle.

The suggestion is effectively a shortening of a proposal made last year by several states to connect Denver to El Paso along a 720-mile super-link.

The 18-month long study concluded with a projection of 35 million passengers by 2035, generating about $750 million in annual fare revenues, enough to make up operating costs. No way, of course, will it ever pay back its construction costs. That is, if you ignore the cost-benefit analysis of the project, which the Rail Authority claims proves will produce a 150% return on investment in increased economic activity along the affected corridors.

With proposed average speeds of 90-100 mph between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 60-70 mph between Denver and Eagle, the rail line as planned would be no slow-poke; nor, however, would it provide the kind of very fast travel speeds that make switching from private cars into trains an obvious proposition. The Rail Authority would construct its project in a series of stages: from the airport to Colorado Springs, via downtown Denver, in a $3.3 billion first phase, and from Denver to Summit County (location of many ski resorts) in a $9 billion second phase.

It’s a grand plan — but in no way should it be a national priority. With dozens of potential rail routes competing for federal investment around the country but only $12.5 billion allocated to intercity rail projects thus far, someone’s going to have to decide which programs move forward and which ones don’t. Compared to equivalent projects along the West and East Coasts, the Midwest, and Texas, Colorado’s plan would provide service to far fewer people at a more expensive price. Ridership estimates seem massively out of line with reality: other than Denver, there are no metropolitan areas in the affected areas with populations of more than one million people.

But some in Denver still hope to see a “massive influx” of dollars from Washington for their preferred project.

Unfortunately, because of a federal system that prioritizes state planning over U.S. decisions and because of a Congress whose members have a tendency to promote local interests rather than long-term nationwide goals, Colorado seems likely to continue to receive planning funds for the project, whether or not there’s any hope of the system actually being built. And because high-speed rail is in mode today, more realistic alternatives, such as a $3 billion upgrading of the existing lines for improved standard intercity rail between the affected cities, will likely be ignored.

Whether the money would be better used to keep Denver’s local rail expansion program afloat (the project faces a number of financial difficulties) seems to have been dismissed as an unrelated issue. It’s not. Whether they deny it or not, the proposed Colorado system would compete directly with Denver’s planned East Corridor commuter rail line between downtown and the airport. There simply is not enough traffic to justify both projects.

Today’s U.S. Department of Transportation has demonstrated itself to be a qualified and level-headed sponsor of the national rail program and therefore unlikely to find itself sponsoring a project whose advantages are questionable. But what would happen if Colorado’s senators expect funding for their preferred investment in exchange for their support of something else? What if the President chooses to use high-speed rail as a political tool to win support from voters in this swing state?

In no way do I mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Colorado looking to increase infrastructure investment within its borders. The Rail Authority’s contention that Colorado taxpayers will have to sponsor 50% of the costs of the line is a refreshing acceptance of the fact that it makes little since to ask the national government for a full rebate. But until the U.S. commits to a full-scale “Interstate Railroad” program that guarantees a source of funding for projects across the country, there will be limited federal dollars for rail — and the government has a responsibility to ensure that the best projects are funded.

We have yet to see a true national high-speed rail plan from the federal government, which has a tendency to resort to generalities like environmental improvement or commute time reductions when discussing how it will prioritize grant distribution. Never has Washington clearly stated that it wants to fund one line over another. And it won’t: it’s a political impossibility when Congress holds such a strong grip on the way executive department decisions are made. This means that impossible projects like Colorado’s will continue to receive planning funding for years to come.

Image above: Rio Grande Zephyr at Denver Union Station, from Flickr user Sideshow Bruce

62 replies on “Colorado Promotes Two-Line, $21 Billion High-Speed Connections Across State”

The one thing I’d point out is that even at average speeds of 60-70 mph along the I-70 corridor, you’d definitely get some folks to switch from driving – I-70 can be incredibly congested up into the mountains as people try to access the ski resorts in the winter, and it’s not easy driving. I-70 also isn’t exactly the easiest road to just add lanes to – driving through mountain passes will do that.

Also, train frequency would be the bigger issue in getting people to switch.

Those speeds were average speeds, not maximum speeds–doesn’t that make them better than the current Acela? As far as I know, there are no trains in the US that run at an average speed of 100 mph–fast enough to go from Fort Collins to Pueblo in 1.5 hours. For comparison, Google Maps says it takes over 3 hours to drive that route, not taking traffic into account. I don’t know if that necessarily justifies the project, but it sounds technically appropriate, at least.

110mph should still be substantially faster than driving, and more reliable in the winter.

Funding: this is a project where the benefits fall overwhelmingly to the state. Colorado should pay for it itself – $21bn works out at about $5k per person. Spread that over 10-20 years, and there’s no reaosn teh state shouldn’t be able to pay for it.

Yes, but remember the geography – the 110 mph line is the North-South line that traverses the flat lands along the Front Range. The 60-70 mph line goes right into the heart of the Rockies – there aren’t a lot of alternate routes to choose from in there, especially in the winter.

As a Colorado taxpayer, why is a dime of my money going to HSR in California or Florida? The benefits of those projects go overwhelmingly to those states.

because if tourists and intercity business travelers are clogging up I-4 and I-75 and I-95 and I-5 and I-80 and I-40, etc… then the truck carrying your lettuce and oranges can’t get through to CO before they spoil.

As long as you do not rely on petroleum-based transport, you might have an individual argument, but on the other hand, that’s not true of Coloradans as a whole, so the economy of your local area has a stake in a greater ability of any transport market in the country to substitute out of oil in the face of high oil prices.

While has US produces twice the average world per person oil production, we consume five times the world average rate … making us the producer of around 10% of world oil supply and consumer of 25% of world oil demand. We have far more leverage on oil price by reducing our addiction to oil than we do on any marginal policy changes that can be made to accelerate the exhaustion of our oil reserves.

So let me ask again, When some 110-mph routes start throwing off nice-sized operating surpluses, Who should get the money?

References to failed public-private partnerships in other countries are not responsive to the question. We are not talking about private anything here.

Talking about the feds giving money to selected states to build sort-of-high-speed rail routes. When revenues exceed operating expenses on these routes — Florida, Cali, Illinois, Ohio, N.C., pick one — who decides what to do with the surpluses, the feds or the states?

Reportedly the route St Louis-Chicago currently returns a small surplus, with five trains a day each way at “Amtrak speed”, taking about 5 hours 40 minutes. That is, one run of the Texas Eagle, an Amtrak long distance train, and four runs of the Lincoln service that started out with a subsidy from the State of Illinois.

Now the feds are giving almost a billion dollars to Illinois to upgrade that line and get run times down to 4 hours 10 minutes. That would allow the equipment on the Lincoln service to make one more run a day, for seven daily trains each way. Adding one more train would give 10 departures a day. Nice-sized operating surpluses will appear.

Could the surpluses be used to back bonds, something like Villagarosa’s plan in L.A., to accelerate investment in other rail projects? So in this case, should Illinois alone get to use the surpluses? Or isn’t that a return on federal money, that the feds should use, perhaps to improve other lines across the country?

This is an excellent question. At the moment, it appears that the feds aren’t going to require any pay-backs on their grants — probably a mistake. But when you don’t really have national rail operations and you certainly don’t have national track ownership, it’s hard to argue who even at the federal level would get the money back.

Looks like nobody has thought about it much — not out loud in any case. Bruce McF has said that the Ohio Hub plan could fund its later stages with the surpluses after the 3-C’s route gets up to 110-mph speeds. But I don’t know any government official talking about it.

It is a delicious question to put forward even at these early stages. We all all so used to thinking about rail as needing subsidies. This turns that notion upside down. Asking what to do with the coming surpluses could make heads explode at certain “think” tanks, if you know what I mean.

It could certainly get some Congresscritters to take a new attitude to rail as well. Perhaps Congress would be more willing to invest more money sooner than later if they realized that investing now would provide a future stream of funding for more projects later.

The capital grants should be grants, for the exact same reasons that the Interstate Highways were started with grants and civilian aviation had substantial state and federal capital grants in building airports. Transport infrastructure always has a substantial part of its benefit as third party benefits, and third party benefits justify third party funding.

But its a lot more strategic to focus on state governments receiving the surplus on the condition that it is re-invested in fixed guideway transportation. The most direct way to use operating surpluses is to finance revenue bonds for state matching funds for federal grants to continue building out the system. But it could also go to establishing or providing electrification and other improvements to local dedicated transport corridors.

Bruce, This is an unconvincing comparison. Grants to highways and airports are for fixed amounts, because we know they will lose money. HSR, even at 110-mph, is totally opposite: It will lead to flows of revenue of unknowable amounts for possibly decades to come.

I don’t want Illinois, Cali, Florida, or even Ohio to lay claim to massive future revenue by virtue of their being first to win a round of grants alloted in haste. And I don’t think congress should abdicate its responsibility to share that future revenue on a national basis.

Can we get the lines built before arguing over potential profits? Governments routinely overinflate their revenue projections and lowball costs; the lines in question sound like the kinds that even the TGV loses money on.

At any rate, any operating profits would likely go to the operator, i.e. Amtrak. Of the states planning rail improvements, only Florida and California are thinking of going entirely around the Amtrak system.

Woody, don’t over-state the expected operating surpluses … commercial profits are not expected, so that the capital value of the funds that the owners of the corridors will generate from operating surpluses will be less than the total size of the Federal capital grants.

The capital grants are on the basis of expected an economic benefit/cost ratio over 1.00 …so that it is the economic benefits that justify the capital subsidy … and of an expected operating surplus, so that ongoing operating subsidies will not be required to deliver the economic benefits.

Well, the Colorado link is not going to be a 110mph link. It’s going to be a 150mph link, they’re hoping to use ICE technology for the lines. If you’ve ever driven the area, you discover why it’s neccessary. CDOT has said they can’t widen I70 any further, so this project has something rare, state DOT support. And tourism is a big business in Colorado, so they will also ride the train to get around. I think this is a real possibility.

When bus service to the ski resorts is something like $80 pp one way from the airport I think a speedy rail service that doesn’t encounter the traffic of I-70 in the mountains would do remarkably well.

The last study conducted seems to indicate a 220 MPH system as the preferred alternative, contrary to what is being claimed in this article. Such speeds would make sense on a Denver-El Paso HSR line, but would seem to make little sense for a line heading into the rugged, sparsely populated rockies as the study suggests. in my view this line should be built along the I-25 Corridor, with an additional line branching off west to connect to CHSR via Tucson, Phoenix, etc…. I simply don’t see where Yonah Freemark gets the 90-100 MPH, or the 60-70 MPH numbers as a 220 MPH system would surely average much higher speeds. Here is the study :

I think that if Colorado residents where asked to approve a tax increase tomorrow, they would. Being that I live there, I know that a train has been seen as inevitable and been a popular idea for the last decade. There’s a lot of momentum for this to happen, and make it happen ASAP.

With proposed average speeds of 90-100 mph between Fort Collins and Pueblo and 60-70 mph between Denver and Eagle

This is HSR. So many people mix up average and top speed. Average speeds in that range are comparable to other world class high speed rail systems around the world, especially ones that don’t operate as long-distance high capacity transit systems (like Tokyo-Osaka).

For example:

Berlin-Koln: ~345 miles in 4:20, average speed: 80 mph
Koln-Munich: ~355 miles in 4:20, 82 mph
Berlin-Munich: ~360 miles in 5:50, 62 mph
New York-Washington: ~225 miles in 2:24, 82 mph

Even short routes on brand new very high speed lines (300 km/h) have slower average trip speeds than it appears you expect:
Koln-Frankfort: ~115 miles in 1:02, 111 mph
London-Paris: ~290 miles in 2:20, 124 mph
Paris-Koln: ~315 miles in 3:15, 97 mph
Paris-karlsruhe: ~330 miles in 3:00, 110 mph

I think average speed over 60 mph through some of the roughest mountains in the continent sounds pretty good to me!

The statement:

the rail line as planned would be no slow-poke; nor, however, would it provide the kind of very fast travel speeds that make switching from private cars into trains an obvious proposition.

Is false and misleading. These sorts of trip speeds have made switching an obvious proposition all over the world. The fact that Amtrak has not completely taken over the NEC travel market has more to do with capacity (the trains are full) and fare structure (make as much money as possible) than operating speeds.

Jason –

Thanks for your point — I think I exaggerated the speed problems a bit in my post. Indeed, average travel speeds of above 60 mph are not bad. And you’re very right that Amtrak’s inability to garner more market share is far more about capacity than speed.

The real question is whether you want to invest this much money in it in the Colorado market. If you were making a list of national rail corridor priorities, would this link be on it?

I should say, though, that the four routes you point to first (with 82 mph or less average speed) are not true high-speed routes — they’re upgraded older lines with some high-speed segments.

I should say, though, that the four routes you point to first (with 82 mph or less average speed) are not true high-speed routes — they’re upgraded older lines with some high-speed segments.

That matters little to a passenger. Time, cost, comfort, flexibility are all that matter.

I don’t fault the logic of your critique. I’m glad that CO is doing this planning, but it isn’t a big national priority. You also correctly identify the problem with state-led planning.

It would be better from a national standpoint if CO, NE, and KS were to work together to build a Y-shaped high speed line to connect Denver with Omaha and Kansas City. The way we currently think about planning makes this kind of action tough. Sounds crazy, but bleeding edge high speed trains could make that journey in under 3 hours. It could also form the start of a connection to the Texas T-Bone so that there would be a high speed line north and south roughly along I-35 in the south central states. Because of the relatively abundance land and gentle topography, this would not be an expensive proposition on a per-mile basis.

On a strictly technical basis, I don’t think there is a single “corridor” deserving of a new high speed line before all the major metro areas are connected with upgraded lines. (California come very close to this threshold.) But on the basis of politics and the need for a demonstration on American soil, we do need to build something like Cali or Florida. I know what better rail, including new high speed lines can do. I study the stuff for a living. I also use Amtrak hear, and have used HSTs in other countries. But the median voter in the US knows what they encounter in every-day life, and it isn’t currently enough to build a coalition with.

Your critique of the FRA plan is both spot on and out of place. The FRA knows it isn’t a full plan, but rather a framework. If they had put out a full plan in the same timeframe, it wouldn’t have been legitimate, since it would have been completely top down and ignorant of local and regional priorities. The real plan is under development by the states in partnership with the FRA, unfortunately, there is still the issue of state borders getting in the way. It will take some time to see how iterations of national rail planning go forward and whether the feds can help bring the plans together in a cohesive fashion.

I believe the next surface transportation bill is a big chance to help make sure that states find a reason to work with their neighbors to build national infrastructure. Formula grants to state highway departments are certainly not working.

The big question is why are they thinking of spending more money on the I-70 corridor than on the I-25 corridor? First of all, the biggest cities and towns in colorado are all located along the I-25 corridor, and second of all, the corridor has the potential to be an interstate system, extended down south to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Phoenix, etc…, some of the biggest cities in the Western US. Given this, it would be wise for now to only focus on the I-25 project to get it running within 15 years or so. Now, I do think it would be nice to have good train service throughout west colorado, but it will cost a lot more to build a fast train in this region than it will to build an equivalent train that will parallel the front range and have many times more ridership as the inter-mountain train.

In their cost/benefit analysis, a combination of “very high speed electric” in the I-70 corridor and “high speed electric” in the I-25 corridor seems to have had the highest benefit/cost ratios.

The grade on interstates can be up to 7%, and the very high speed electric might be about coping with such high alignment grades and accelerating out of curves and decelerating into them. Its not clear whether they considered an 125mph Class 7 track electric tilt train as an option.

Indeed, when a train line is built in the mountains, strong but relatively lightweight EMU train technology will likely be the best choice for the line(s), understood. However, my point is that Colorado and federal governments should focus funding and effort for now on the I-25 corridor simply because this corridor has several times the population as the I-70 corridor in the state of Colorado alone, in addition to this, the corridor can be expanded southward to form an interstate HSR system with the potential to connect to some of the western US’ fastest growing cities. Also, the line could potentially be extended north and then west over the Front Range to connect to Salt Lake City, UT. I am not saying that the inter-mountain lines should never be built, I am just saying that the I-25 Corridor should be a much higher priority, and deserves much more funding.

I’ve just seen the executive summary and have not had a chance to dig into the details yet, but their combined system had a higher Benefit/Cost ratio than I-25 alone, and the strongest Benefit/Cost ratio they came up with was their “Very High Speed” electric for I-70 and “High Speed” electric for I-25.

The higher cost of the I-70 alignment is therefore due to the incremental benefit versus incremental cost in their comparison of their “Very High Speed” versus “High Speed” electric. It is not an assessment that the I-70 corridor should be staged first.

However, I’ll note that I’m suspecting that they have caught themselves in framing the alternatives in a way that ruled out a candidate for most capital efficient I-70 alignment. Class is tomorrow, but I’ll be looking to dig into the actual report on Thursday or Friday.

The reason for spending more money on the I-70 corridor than the I-25 corridor is because its more expensive.

There are ample details on the basis for their estimates in the appendices to the Business Model:

The critical detail is in the technical memorandum on tunneling. There are five tunnels they talk about including in the feasibility study:

RMR Tunnel: Length of Tunnel
Aspen: 51,000 ft
Georgetown: 14,000 ft
North Fork: 30,000 ft
Breckenridge: 22000 ft
Black Hawk: 6,000 ft

Who has the list of biggest cities/metro areas with no Amtrak service at all, many mentions that Columbus Ohio is at the top? Or the cities with service only in the dark of night, with Cleveland and Cincinnati near the top?

Starting my own list, no attempt to rank them, add Phoenix, Las Vegas, Boise, Wichita, Tulsa, Des Moines, Amarillo, Lubbock, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Louisville, Nashville, Birmingham, Mobile, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and oh yeah, Colorado Springs. Noting also that El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, Palm Springs, Cincinnati, Ashland, and Charleston WVa currently see trains only three days a week.

Then a list of you-can’t-get-there-from-here places with Chicago-Florida at the top, Texas-Colorado right behind, Colorado-the Cascades, and even Albuquerque-Denver near the top.

Well, looks like this Colorado plan has given the same WRONG answer that many others do to the simple question, Should the U.S. expand the national passenger rail system or build High Speed Rail? The correct answer is YES. Both.

The goals can be complementary, not in competition. So YES, go very fast Denver-Colorado Springs. Then try to go faster than now on feeder routes to the north and south — easy to do where trains now move at zero, that is, 0 mph.

As far as I can see, the Colorado plan completely ignores any possibility of improving the Amtrak system, though the core route it proposes could help Amtrak service a lot. The I-25 or FrontRange line needs an extension all the way down to Trinidad. Not at 200 mph or even 150 mph. The 110-speed underway in the Midwest plans would be more than enough for a good start service. Trinidad is a small town, but unlike say Phoenix, it is served by the Southwest Chief, and at reasonable hours, 8:50 a.m. from Kansas City and points east, and 6:30 p.m. from Albuquerque and points west. These good connection times could allow the Chief to feed passengers to the FrontRange line and vice versa.

At the other end, it really should push on those few more miles to reach Cheyenne. One of the more attractive plans to revive the Pioneer service from Denver to the Pacific Northwest had the train go up to Cheyenne and across Wyoming, adding new connections rather than duplicating the Zephyr route through Colorado. I’d say there’s some national interest in extending and improving Amtrak service. And I’ll bet the Senators from Wyoming might agree with that proposition in this case. If the estimate for Fort Collins to Pueblo is only $3 billion or so, two extensions at slower speed shouldn’t be too difficult to add on.

As Jason suggests above, there’s a real need almost nationwide for upgraded passenger rail service. It’s relatively cheap to do and would quickly benefit millions of passengers of every income and social class. As Amtrak speeds up, that will help make the case for even faster trains where they make sense.

O.K., Alon, please don’t have a cow over this. ;-)

Columbus is not at the top, Phoenix (MSA #12) is at the top … Columbus (MSA #32) is 2nd. Its rather that Cleveland/Columbus/Cincinnati is the most densely populated corridor without regular intercity rail service.

60 mph average speed is much faster than driving over long distances, especially thru mountains. When you drive, you have to stop for bodily functions (food, coffee, bathrooms, etc). You can also be delayed by traffic, construction and bad weather.

My recent car trip in California was exactly (!) 300 miles long, with 293 miles of it on I-5, and it took from 1 pm to 8:30 pm, due to stops for snacks and rest areas, as well as some weather over the pass. That’s an average of 40 mph!

Some trips have been slower in the past, when there was snow or construction.

Our whole trip, including getting to LAX and flying to Sacramento on Southwest, took 13 hours door-to-door overall (about as fast driving non-stop, if that were possible), and the driving distance would have been 716 miles. That 55 mph, and half the trip was in a plane.

So, if there were 60 mph average train service from Los Angeles to northern California, we would have been happy to pay $250 per person for this trip. And 220 mph (max speed) service on CAHSR from LA to SF will be better than driving or flying even if it costs as much as current full-price flights.

A direct flight to Oregon would have cost $400 a person and would take 6 hours door-to-door; that’s about 120 mph average, or comparable to older high-speed rail lines in Europe, and significantly slower than several of the new Chinese HSR lines. Not that I expect high speed trains thru the Sacramento Canyon and over the Siskyou’s… but getting 60 mph average should be possible even thru the mountains.

This is looking good. Apparently, they are talking about lightweight non-FRA compliant trains, which makes tremendous sense, particularly for climbing the Rockies. One thing that would get the cost down would be to use the planned RTD commuter rail route tracks to Golden and the Airport (for the route paralleling I-70). While plans for those call for use of FRA compliant trains they are planned to have fully dedicated tracks and so could be converted to non-FRA compliant use. The FRA would probably approve slow speed mixing at Union Station if necessary.

The “preferred technology” in this study is a 220 mph capable FRA non compliant EMU like in california. You need a fast light train so you can go up the steep mountain grades.

Justification for the I-70 corridor: When people go to Colorado, they go to the mountains. Each ski resort is like a little disneyland. Vail and Breckenridge both get something like 8 million visitors a year. Moreover, you get to Vail or Breckenridge parking is a hassle (and often pricy). The resorts are all already walkable villages. You don’t need a car once you get there. You get to downtown Colorado Springs or Pueblo and you need a car. In this case, population is not a perfect substitute for ridership. Moreover, the cost of adding a lane to I-70 is likewise astronomical. Traffic is atrocious on weekends (think I-15 from Victorville to Vegas) and the road is frequently closed in the winter due to snow.

Yonah, it is possible that the connection between DiA and downtown Denver will share track with the East Corridor following improvements. Its an important segment because the whole state uses that airport, and what HSR gives you that the East Corridor doesn’t is a single seat ride for all the mountain resorts (tourists) and locals (Ft. Collins, Pueblo, Castle Rock, Western and Southern Denver, Colorado Springs). It’s at least an hour drive for all of those destinations, and once they get to the airport, they have to pay for parking. A cab to Aurora (the city closest to the airport) can be $70. DIA had 50 million passengers last year and is the 10th busiest airport in the world.

And within Denver, there is a feeder system to funnel traffic to HSR. What are you going to do once you get off the train in Tampa? Unless I’m going from the airport to disneyworld, I’d drive.

Amtrak in Colorado is worthless. It is too isolated. Don’t spend another dime on it. Even service to New Mexico is a questionable proposition.

And just so we’re clear, per google maps. Pueblo to Ft. Collins is a 3 hr drive. Vail to DIA is a 2hr 25 min. Assuming no traffic. And if the weather is good. (and you still have to pay to park once you get there). Pueblo to Vail, 3 hrs, 23 min.

I have to admit the I-25 corridor does have some potentially severe flaws. The biggest towns such as Boulder and Greeley are not linearly located within the corridor. This might spell trouble as the study indicates that many stations will be located away from major towns. Even the cities of Loveland and Longmont that are linearly located within the corridor, would not have stations within city limits. This is likely due to the increased challenges of running HSR through a dense city compared to running it through the countryside.

This plan is from the DOT, formerly known as the Dept of Highways right? So from the folks who brought us the Interstate highways . . .

The favored proposal for the FrontRange line seems to be for greenfield R-O-W well to the east of I-25. The executive summary is all happy talk about a bypass from the airport to the east and south, apparently nevermind Union Station and downtown Denver.

And as a result, they propose a train station in suburban east Colorado Springs, out where the city is sprawling toward the Kansas border. The city seems to have a fairly viable downtown, and attractions like the Pike’s Peak Railway, the Garden of the Gods, the Air Force Academy, the zoo, etc are all west of the downtown.

This routing will do nothing for urban regeneration or livability, and less than nothing for reducing car-dependence and sprawl. Back to the drawing boards, please.

Any details on how they came about to these costs? I’m curious since I would assume that since Moffat Tunnel is full they’re planning on a new bore. But the news out there doesn’t really specify if that’s the case or not. Anyone happen to know?

This isn’t HSR – it’s modern low-speed intercity rail. The same is true for the comparable lines Jason has linked to. HSR on dedicated or fully renovated tracks is much faster; the slowest line I know of, the KTX, averages about 110 mph but a chunk of its route is on legacy rail. Everything else averages about 130 mph or more.

There’s nothing wrong with modern intercity rail. In fact, I can think of an excellent reason why Colorado would be pursuing this – namely, upgrading and using legacy track and running tilting trains would run into UP heel-digging. But even for new track, the proposal is supremely expensive. A comparable Norwegian line cost $11 billion per mile. Laying down rails and catenary isn’t very expensive, not even in mountainous terrain. Even HSR rarely costs as much as what Colorado is planning on spending, which is about even per mile with California HSR, with its three mountain crossings and long urban chunk.

Most people would class services provided by trains that can go up to 220mph as HSR … which is why I think there is something odd about the I-70 corridor proposal.

It is of course an internal contradiction to sneer that the proposed 120mph to 150mph trains that are among the indicated feasible options on the proposed I-25 corridor is “modern low-speed intercity rail”, and then claim, “There’s nothing wrong with modern intercity rail.”

If there was “nothing wrong” with modern intercity rail, the sneering would not be required.

I’m not sneering. It’s a good thing that Colorado is thinking about modern rail operation. The bad thing is that it’s stuck in a rhetorical mindset in which good rail has to be called and sold as HSR to be worthy.

(Lest you think it’s just semantics, I’m pretty sure that if someone told Colorado, “Hey, this is just like German regional rail,” the state would not be proposing a budget comparable to California HSR.)

Well, 150 mph is a hair short of the global definition for HSR, which is 250 km/h on new lines.

The part about ordinary members of the US public is exactly what I’m talking about when I complain about an HSR rhetorical mindset. HSR has a lot of pizzazz, but it’s not always the most appropriate investment. Most intercity rail route-km are low-speed even in Japan.

In the case of Colorado, the importance of this is that the two most sensible investment strategies for Denver-Eagle would employ opposite approaches. One would be a passenger-dedicated line running tilting EMUs on steep grades, with minimal tunneling. Another would be a mixed traffic base tunnel. The first approach would minimize construction costs; the second would not, but it could make up for it with revenue from freight operations.

This isn’t HSR – it’s modern low-speed intercity rail. The same is true for the comparable lines Jason has linked to. HSR on dedicated or fully renovated tracks is much faster; the slowest line I know of, the KTX, averages about 110 mph but a chunk of its route is on legacy rail. Everything else averages about 130 mph or more.

This is simply not true.

The first four trips I listed are high speed trains on mostly mixed infrastructure, some legacy and some high speed. (Acela is all legacy). Look at this map of the German ICE network:

The orange and red lines where built from scratch for the ICE.

The next four I listed are virtually complete trips on high speed lines. (LGV Nord, HS1, LGV Est, & HSL 3). It doesn’t get much faster.

The only time it does is when you have non-stop trips that are completely on new lines. (Like the Tokyo-Osaka line I mentioned, or A TGV to Lyon.)

It looks like you are making an argument that you can’t call something high speed rail if you don’t build all of your infrastructure from scratch. I think that is a ridiculous assertion. It is usually a waste to build systems like that.

I think a better definition of high speed rail is when the train is the faster way from point A to point B.

The LGV Est ends after 300 km; the rest of the way the trains do on legacy lines, in one case involving a big slow zone. The Cologne-Frankfurt line is entirely new, yes, but trains travel a significant stretch at lower speed accessing the line.

The Tokyo-Osaka trip, averaging more than 200 km/h, has multiple stops on the way, and has to deal with a lot of congestion, with timed overtakes of slower trains. When trains run nonstop, average speed isn’t 200; it’s more like 250.

Actually, the Köln – München connection is pretty good, considering that only about half of the distance is covered on new high speed lines (from outside of Köln to Frankfurt Airport at 300 to 330 km/h; outside of Mannheim to outside of Stuttgart at 250 to 280 km/h). On the other hand, Stuttgart is a stub-end station, with rather long (slow) accesses, and a direction change, scheduled at 5 minutes, and there is a mountain railroad section between Stuttgart and Ulm (Geislinger Steige, where speed is limited to (I think) around 90 km/h.

Some “low speed” sections are operated at 200 km/h, however.

“Laying down rails and catenary isn’t very expensive, not even in mountainous terrain. Even HSR rarely costs as much as what Colorado is planning on spending, which is about even per mile with California HSR, with its three mountain crossings and long urban chunk.” –Alon Levy–

Did you really mean to claim that building a railroad through the rocky mountains isn’t very expensive? Did you really mean to back that claim up by citing the project costs for California’s proposed HSR as “proof” even though ginormous public projects (not just rail, Big Dig, etc, etc) like these have a long, long history of turning out to cost 40, 60 and even more than 100% more than originally guestimated?

It all depends on how the railroad is built. If it’s built to HSR specs, then it will be very tunnel-heavy, increasing costs. But even that shouldn’t be too expensive, because only the Denver-Eagle section has any reason to include tunnels. And at any rate, the more likely situation, based on the proposed 60-70 mph average speed in the mountains, is that the railroad would be built at grade, with viaducts and sharp curves instead of tunnels. This has nothing to do with cost escalations; I can cite you actual construction costs from recent tunnel-free or tunnel-light HSR lines in Europe.

To Alon Levy: Hmmm… tunnel not being expensive…. you might look at the cost of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland … if you consider that to be “not too expensive”, then so be it…

I know tunnels are expensive – it’s just that the plan doesn’t seem to have enough tunnels to justify a $21 billion budget. If Colorado really intended to build a Front Range base tunnel between Denver and Eagle it would be something different, but then one would ask how many trains it’s planning to run through said base tunnel.

… but then one would ask how many trains it’s planning to run through said base tunnel.

According to a railfanning site, Moffat Route carries 6-14 trains per day. If you split them to average european size of 500-600 m, you’d get 28-63 trains per day – roughly the same amout to Lötschberg Basistunnel. The line could also see shift of traffic from Wyoming because there would be only one energy-intensive mountain crossing left on run to SLC: the Soldier Summit, especially if the new line is gentle enough to support fast intermodal trains. (Note that UP moved it’s time sensitive trains from Feather River Route to Donner Pass because Donner is three hours faster.)

Is there any plan to run freight through the tunnel?

Besides, why would they shorten the freight trains? One of the advantages of base tunnels is that they use gentler grades, allowing heavier freight trains to pass through. This was one of the selling points of the Gotthard and Lötschberg base tunnels.

No idea. Probably not if they screw the vertical alignment (place some sag inside tunnel) or if FRA doesn’t come to their senses. Otherwise it would be insane to propel 10000t freights to elevations 1100 m higher than necessary.

I’ve “split” the Moffat trains only to make them comparable to numbers of trains on Lötschberg, there was nothing else than that.

Alon, why not come back to us with some numbers instead of empty claims that building through the mountains “isn’t very expensive”. Historically it has been. That’s why railroads avoided the rockies and when they did build in them, they used the less expensive narrow gauge. I understand that these are just blog comments. But you seem to want to insist that it’s cheap without sharing either what constitutes cheap (is $40m / mile cheap? $100m / mile cheap?

And at that, why is it that we are to believe such massive new construction can be done at that cost? Again, I understand if this is a lot to dig up…. but maybe a couple links at least that delve into this?

As for Moffat Tunnel, it was at peak capacity in 2008. It’s not capable of handling many, if any, new traffic without an expensive bore. Or possibly UP could be “persuaded” to go ahead with the long speculated re-opening of their Tennessee Pass route to detour some freight out of Moffat. But that probably wouldn’t be enough to free up space in Moffat.

To Alon Levy: Which tunnel are you referring in that comment “Is there any plan to run freight through the tunnel”?

If it is about the Lötschberg base tunnel, they are currently running one or two freight trains through it per hour and direction. (besides 1 to 2 hourly passenger trains, running at 200 km/h). The capacity is so low because some really stupid politicians wanted to save money and stepped back from double track to single track for some parts, to save money… However, the signalling is set up that trains can follow each other rather quickly, and therefore, it is possible to have up to 5 trains in the tunnel at a given time.

Concerning Moffat tunnel, its biggest drawback is the requirement for ventilation after each train, which slashes the capacity to ridiculous low numbers of trains (no matter how long they are). Besides boring another hole, the only way to considerably increase the tunnel’s capacity would be electification, which would allow together with appropriate signalling — as in the Lötschberg base tunnel — trains to follow each other in braking distance.

To dejv: Maximum train length in Switzerland is 750 m. There have been tests with trains twice this length, but there would be too much changes in the infrastructure to make that length workable.

Also, keep in mind that the Lötschberg base tunnel is essentially a tunnel to nowhere, as the fast low-gradient line ends in the middle of the alps. For north-south transit, there is still the Simplon route with 2.5% gradients south of the Simplon tunnel. It is not as bad, because the main load direction is southbound, which means that the heavy trains will roll downhill, and with a helper at the end, even the heaviest trains can be controlled with regenerative braking (after their newest software update, the Class 460/465 locos can produce up to 6 MW in that mode).

Max, I’m talking about hypothetical plans to run freight through the Denver-Eagle tunnels. I know Switzerland runs freight through its base tunnels. Without such plans, they’d be building brand new tunnels for a few passenger trains per day at the most.

Allen, I don’t have a reference, but if I recall correctly, HSR tunnels in Italy cost about $150 million per km. It’s expensive if the entire route from Denver to Eagle is supposed to be in tunnel, in which case it’s almost certainly more cost-effective to just build the north-south line. If it’s not, it shouldn’t be – it should definitely not raise project costs to $21 billion. (For reference, at-grade construction is $20-40 million per km).

I live in Castle Rock, which is south of Denver in Douglas County. At the moment we have 0 public transportation options out of town to Denver or the Springs since FREX no longer stops here. This plan is nice and all, but planning the N-S line out to the east and not stopping in downtown Colorado Springs would be a major mistake, no matter how much cheaper. Monument too would be effectively skipped, as its not 10 miles east of I-25, its along and west of I-25 about 2 miles south of the Palmer Divide.
As to I-70, those not from CO might not understand its a giant mess. I-70 realistically should never have been built up the canyon through Idaho Springs. You can’t easily widen it, the curves are too sharp for an interstate, etc. Try driving from Denver to even Loveland Ski area at 7am on a Saturday, what should take just over an hour takes usually more than 2, sometimes 3 or more. Same going home. If the major resorts were tied together instead, that would be a huge benignity, image getting on the train in Denver and hopping off at the resort, since most resorts are self contained, you don’t need a rental car. Plus us locals could do the same thing, since a lot of us waste huge amounts of time in traffic on Floyd Hill every year.

Realistically though, this is pie in the sky stuff, it won’t ever happen. There is no money for this, every town and city is broke or nearly so, the state doesn’t have any money, and the political will for a tax increase is nill. In fact, if the three douglas bruce ballot measures pass this fall, they will destroy the state budget, especially cdot’s, and make it illegal to fund projects with bonds, making this even less likely to ever happen.

Put a toll on it. If I-70 is such a mess of traffic, let the tolls pay for building the fast train that will carry the masses of skiers/tourists and get them off I-70.

btw The comments from Colorado readers have been very helpful in giving background and on-the-ground info. Thanks to all.

Putting tolls on things sounds nice, but its political suicide for those who do it. E-470 here in Colorado is the east and south-east portion of the ring road around Denver. Its very expensive, and it underused because of that, I personally only drive it when my employer will pay me back. Coloradan’s will not pay the tolls, they simply will go around, which means they will end up driving the frontage roads, or driving the long way round on US 385 making those roads a disaster instead. Second, the ski industry would spend millions to block such an idea, because it would likely cut the number of skiers, they wouldn’t like that and they have a lot of political power.

Again before anything can seriously be considered, us Coloradans must be willing to pay for it, generally we are not. I seriously think people would rather complain and say how terrible it is (and it is), but would rather do that than actually pay to fix anything. We can’t even maintain the roads and highways we already have. And now there are three measures on the ballot this fall to virtually eliminate auto registration fees, the ability to use bonds to pay for anything, lower all property taxes, etc. If they pass (and they very well might), CO will have to make huge drastic cutbacks that make stuff like turning off the street lights in the Springs or not mowing the parks no big deal.

@Woody, that would help. Having lived in Colorado I have to disagree with David Jones. Some people avoid e470 because they have other options and would rather not pay the toll. Some people, like myself, are willing to pay the toll when needed. We see that reflected in e470 not having any financial problems. In fact they’ve had plenty of revenue generated from tolls to push forward with expansion projects like the flyovers at I70.

A toll on I70, especially one that fluctuated based on traffic would be very useful. It would help reflect the true costs involved with that route. It would encourage people to car pool more, use a bus or travel at different times. Keep in mind that in entire week there are usually 2 to 4 periods of time where traffic is a problem on I70. There’s a lot of a capacity there, just not enough for Vail everyone to leave at 9am on a Saturday morning in their own car.

More so, the tolls could help pay for future improvements. Hot Lanes on the 6 lane strech through X Hill (I’m blanking on it’s name; it’s where I70 drops to 4 lanes) could help pay for future expansion. Yes, there are some dicey parts. But even limited expansion in certain areas would ad a fair amount of capacity.

As for people just driving around to avoid the tolls, it’s unlikely that would generate enough extra traffic on US285 / US 24 for that to be an issue. That’s a couple hours longer. More so, if that were to somehow actually happen it wouldn’t be a bad thing. There is plenty of capacity on those routes and room for expansion for the most part. The thing is, the most heavily trafficked destinations are right along I70. Sure, one can take the long, long way to get to so some but for the most part I70 is the nearly the only realistic choice.

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