Jump to content

Plan could free-up freight lines for commuters.


Recommended Posts

Heres a good article of a plan to re-route freight trains from metro Denver thus allowing lines for commuter use.

Rerouting rail

Clearing Denver's railroad congestion is one of the goals of a proposal to relocate trains to the Eastern Plains

By John Rebchook, Rocky Mountain News

October 25, 2003

Then came the churches.

Then came the schools.

Then came the lawyers.

Then came the rules.

Then came the trains

and the trucks with their loads.

"Telegraph Road" — Dire Straits


Mark Knopfler of the rock group Dire Straits got it backwards when he penned the lyrics for Telegraph Road — at least in Denver.

The railroads came first here. Specifically, a new line built by city leaders between Denver and Cheyenne in 1870 put Denver on the map.

Until then, Denver was 600 miles from nowhere, growing so slowly that, on average, it added only one person each year from 1860 to 1870.

The city blossomed into the Queen City of the mountains and plains only after the Denver Pacific Railway was connected to the Union Pacific transcontinental line in Cheyenne.

Now, more than 130 years later, Colorado Department of Transportation director Tom Norton is spearheading a statewide effort that, to mix metaphors, represents a sea change in commercial rail traffic in Colorado.

In a nutshell, Norton's fledgling and complex plan would move two-thirds of the freight and coal trains that run through the Platte Valley out onto Colorado's Eastern Plains, far from densely populated Denver.

"This is the most important railroad proposal since the connection between Denver and Cheyenne in 1870," said Ron Thorstad, vice president of the Denver office of engineering giant DMJM-Harris. The state is about to hire the firm to study revamping the railroads.

"This is going to change the face of railroad operations in Colorado," Thorstad said.

Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, in an understatement, called the plan a "big idea."

Blake elaborated: "What I like about this is it is as forward-thinking as (Denver International Airport). It's a great vision."

Plan piques railroads' interest

The goal, however, is not to reroute every freight and coal train from Denver.

Some of those trains would always remain, starting their journeys in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming and thundering through downtown Denver all the way to Trinidad. They deliver coal to power plants in Denver and other cities, and pick up and unload freight in metropolitan areas.

But most of those trains could be re-routed to follow miles of new tracks through the unpopulated Eastern Plains, before heading to Oklahoma and Texas.

The notion of moving the rails out of downtown Denver has surfaced before. What's new is the railroads' interest. Finally, metro- area development is costing them enough time and money to bring them to the negotiating table. For example, Norton noted that many coal trains entering Denver now need to slow from 35 mph to 10 mph all the way through Denver.

Norton does concede that it could take half a century before his entire vision is in place. And the ultimate cost of what would be a public-private partnership could rival the billions of dollars spent to build DIA, he said.

When it was pointed out to Norton that DIA cost about $4 billion, he said it is far too early to put a price tag on the railroad project.

"I don't want to go there," Norton said.

Ultimately, the plan would reduce congestion, improve safety and reduce air pollution, Norton said.

And perhaps most importantly in his mind, the project would ensure that railroads remain a catalyst for growth, creating jobs and bringing industry to some of the economically hardest- hit parts of the state. Warehouses and manufacturing facilities would spring up along new rail lines, just as towns grew along the lines in the 19th century, he said.

"The Denver Metro Chamber was created for the purpose of getting a line from Denver to Cheyenne, so we could build up around it and Denver could be a real city," said Norton, an engineer by training and a one-time gubernatorial candidate. The Greeley Republican also was president of the Colorado Senate.

"That historical basis is true," Norton said. "What is happening now is the same thing. But we have to have the foresight to maintain the economic vitality and allow transportation to change and grow and prosper with our new living styles."

Project's goals

As a first step, CDOT is about to award a $500,000 contract to DMJM-Harris to study a plan to move lines for the two remaining rail carriers in Colorado — Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. New York-based DMJM is a huge engineering and construction firm that, among other things, specializes in rail and transit.

The purpose of the "Public Benefits and Costs Study" is to "identify and in some cases quantify the public benefits, drawbacks and costs" of rerouting trains with a possible partnership among CDOT, other public entities and the two railroads, according to the request-for-proposal document issued by CDOT.

In addition, objectives being sought by the railroads, according to an appendix to the state document, include:

Provide more commuter options on current freight lines throughout the Front Range.

Minimize freight operations in major population centers along the Front Range.

Minimize potentially dangerous rail crossings where trains could collide with cars.

Close various rail yards throughout the area, potentially opening hundreds of acres for development.

Lena Kent, spokeswoman for Burlington Northern, said the railroad is not actively involved with the plan at this stage, although it has no objections to it.

"It's really a community issue and a community decision," she said. "We're more than willing to cooperate."

Historically, railroads haven't always been cooperative with local governments. For one thing, they were here before the masses of people. Indeed, they provided the economic engine, literally and figuratively, that created the municipalities that today must deal with them.

Also, in the past it was difficult to negotiate and reach a consensus because there were so many railroad companies.

For example, in 1979 there were seven railroad companies serving Colorado. Today, there are only two.

Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz was one of the main consolidators in Colorado. In 1984, he paid a bargain $496.5 million for the parent of the century-old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.

In 1988, he paid $1.8 billion for the much larger Southern Pacific Railroad and rolled Denver & Rio Grande into it. In 1996, he sold Southern Pacific to Union Pacific for $5.4 billion, creating the nation's largest railroad.

At that time, Anschutz was the largest shareholder in Union Pacific, but now he is the 17th-largest, owning 3.142 million shares worth about $184 million, according to Bloomberg News.

Anschutz also is the vice chairman of Union Pacific. Qwest traces its roots to Union Pacific, as it was created by burying fiber-optic cable along the railroad right of way a decade ago. Anschutz remains the largest shareholder of Qwest.

Working together

Tom Mauser, who is in CDOT's planning department and is in charge of its latest study, said that railroads across the country are beginning to work more than ever with governments and private enterprise because of the economic benefits to all parties.

Mike Parras, who handles operations for Union Pacific in the Denver area, said his railroad will always have urban customers, such as power plants that need coal.

"Are all the trains ever going to be leaving the central Denver area? No," Parras said. "But the idea is that it will alleviate the congestion in the central area. But you know, it's pretty doggone expensive."

Mauser agreed it's probably impossible to put a price tag on the economic impact of the railroads in Colorado, in part because so many of them are "through" trains that start outside Colorado and continue through the state.

But the railroads already have a big presence here. For example, Union Pacific has 1,800 miles of tracks, 1,500 employees and an annual payroll of $88 million, according to its Web page. Its customers in Colorado include United Parcel Service, General Motors and Schneider National Carriers. Train cars carry grain, automobiles, consumer and manufactured goods, and coal.

Norton said it is important not to "pick the pockets" of the cash- strapped railroads, or burden taxpayers.

But there can be clear financial incentives to railroads and the private sector, he said.

For example, developer Bill Schuck quietly has been talking with Union Pacific for almost two years to build a new train yard — called an "intermodal facility" — on about 750 acres of the 6,300 acres that he and his father, Steve, own around Front Range Airport. It's possible that Burlington Northern also could share the facility.

Such a facility could cost around $150 million, according to early estimates.

"We feel this is an opportunity for the region (to) solve some problems and relieve congestion on our highways," Schuck said. "The railroads are what brought industry to Denver. But now there are these inherent conflicts between cars, pedestrians and trains. Clearly, the downtown area should be freed from as many trains as possible to improve access. And the only way to do that is to move them out."

Dovetailing with RTD plan

To a certain extent, Norton said his plan will dovetail with the Regional Transportation District's FasTracks proposal.

In November 2004, RTD will put a tax before voters to fund FasTracks, a project that, among other things, would provide light-rail or commuter-rail services to Golden, Longmont, Arvada, Boulder and Highlands Ranch, as well as an air train from Union Station in downtown Denver to DIA.

Lauren Martens, executive director of the nonprofit Transit Alliance, said Norton's plan and FasTracks would be "very complementary."

He said the two plans are of a different scope.

"The CDOT plan is statewide and deals with freight as well as passengers, and that is appropriate because that is CDOT's area of responsibility," Martens said.

Martens said freight and coal train traffic in Colorado "certainly has evolved" over the past century.

"There is no inherent reason that they should travel through the middle of a large metropolitan area, other than that the tracks are there," Martens said. "If the freight trains can be shunted around the metro area, that makes a lot of sense."

Norton said that while RTD is concerned about moving people, he also is concerned about moving freight and coal. And the way freight and coal are being transported is not as efficient as it could be, he said.

For example, Union Pacific trains coming through Winter Park into Denver now have to make a V-shaped turn at what is called Utah Junction. Trains get so backed up at Utah Junction, near the southwest quadrant of Interstates 25 and 76, that they sometimes get stalled for hours.

"It's a bottleneck," said Thorstad of DMJM-Harris. "It's gridlock, to use highway terms. It's the Mousetrap of rail lines."

The proposal, among many other things, will look at what it would take to fix Utah Junction, which might include building bridges, he said.

The report also will look at relocating freight terminals for both Burlington Northern and Union Pacific northwest and northeast of downtown, as well as constructing 95 miles of new track on the Eastern Plains.

Thorstad said his six-month study will provide cost ranges, but not precise figures.

Norton's proposal looks at the entire state, as well as the Front Range, while FasTracks is primarily concerned with moving people in the metro area, noted CDOT's Mauser.

"They are two different animals," Mauser said. "FasTracks is a tax proposal to build out more RTD light rail and commuter rail. The object of this is to look at making changes as freight moves throughout Colorado."

The benefit to FasTracks, he said, is that if freight and coal lines are reduced, those lines could be available for commuters during much of the day.

Cal Marsella, head of RTD, said that FasTracks and Norton's proposal "are on the same page" and that there is no conflict between the two plans.

"Denver is here because of the railroads and the chamber did not want us to be bypassed," Marsella said. "But now, more than 100 years later, it is a little incongruous to have 120 to 140 coal trains passing through Denver. A window has opened for a new era of public transportation."

It was Abraham Lincoln, Norton said, who realized that the only way the United States would truly be united was if it could be connected coast to coast by a railroad.

"And everybody kind of said, 'Hey, that's a great idea.' So they figured out a route, and then the communities came along behind it," Norton said. "Well, then the communities got bigger, and the railroads weren't as important to the overall thing. And everybody is kind of saying, 'The damn railroad is in the way.'

"Well, the 'damn railroad' is our economic base for a lot of manufacturing and other things. So it's not really in the way. But we'd like to figure how to work better with it."


Albert (Shoowaa)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 1
  • Created
  • Last Reply


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.