With two power plants set to close in northwest Colorado in the next few years, area leaders are rallying an effort to revive an industry that thrived decades ago.
No, not coal. Passenger rail.
“Operation All Aboard” would repurpose existing train lines in the region that deliver coal to the power plants in Craig and Hayden. Going from coal freight to passenger service could ease the commute for the thousands of workers who currently drive in from nearby towns, allow for rail service from Yampa Valley Regional Airport directly into Steamboat and even create an opportunity to connect one of Colorado’s iconic ski resorts all the way to Denver.
Democratic State House member Meghan Lukens’ district includes Routt County — home to the famous mountain resort — as well as Moffat County, which for years has been the subject of exhaustive profiles detailing the end of coal-town America. She said reviving passenger rail could not only benefit services to one of Colorado’s iconic ski towns, but also provide a lifeline to an area that’s losing its extraction-based bread and butter.
“With that lens, I am always trying to think about how to support diversification of the economy,” Lukens said. “Businesses are more likely to work in areas that have extra support for their workers and a passenger rail is a great example of that … we as a state need to support our coal transitioning communities, whether or not they're in your district because this is something that's happening that will impact the whole state.”
Lukens, along with State Sen. Dylan Roberts, requested that the Colorado Department of Transportation analyze the proposal. Routt County Commissioners sent a similar letter, and as word of the project spreads, Operation All Aboard has gained fans across the region.
“The train conversation is so exciting with what it has done for hope in this town,” said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce.
Holloway has been in plenty of meetings that center around how to save a town that’s losing coal, and therefore its primary economic engine. She said the passenger rail conversation is more feasible to residents in Craig in contrast to ideas like nuclear generation, which could be decades away. It’s even cut through thorny conversations on climate change.
“We had a meeting about eight weeks ago with the state about climate, and it was kind of a contentious meeting,” Holloway said, “ As soon as we brought up the train, the whole energy in the room changed. It also is a huge thing for our morale.”
Proponents of the effort say passenger rail could address some of Colorado’s most discussed problems: affordability; housing; carbon reduction; workforce shortages and safety. And, with major investments in passenger rail pledged from the federal government, the timing could be perfect.
“I will tell you that over the past decade, up until very recently, I have been laughed out of the room consistently for this notion because, generally speaking, what you hear is we've been talking about (passenger rail) forever,” Routt County Commissioner Sonja Macys said. “We have federal infrastructure funding (now) and we have a president who is nicknamed Amtrak Joe, who believes very deeply in passenger rail.”
Quite the commute
Steamboat, like all ski towns in Colorado, struggles to balance worker needs and housing needs. That means a lot of the workforce commutes from other towns, particularly from the west. An estimated 800 a day commute from Hayden and another 2,700 from Craig — all driving on U.S. Highway 40, a winding, mostly-two-lane road.
Eli Vesely is among those daily commuters. He’s a painter in Steamboat but lives in Craig. He says that stretch of road has gotten busier and more dangerous in the 20 years he’s been making that drive.
“I’ve seen lots of aftermath after accidents. Guy hit a bus and he passed away. One of the passenger buses last year. Lots of head-on accidents,” Vesely said. “As you get into wintertime, you see people that just don't notice the black ice and lots of cars flipped over. I noticed in the last few years, it seems like there's more, and I don't know if it's just more people going or just faster vehicles.”
Sarah Jones, Steamboat Ski Resort’s social responsibility director, said housing in mountain towns is tricky. While employee housing is available, it’s not enough to support all employees and workers who are making a career out of the ski industry and who would still like the option to buy property.
“We know we already have employees in Craig, we know we already have employees in Hayden, we know we already have employees in South Routt, so how can we make that easier for them?” Jones said. “We provide quite a bit of employee housing, but we have those year round managers and above who we want to recruit and they can't find housing. So it's those who actually want to buy a home and providing regional transportation rail would be amazing (to give them) opportunities to buy houses.”
The ski area put together a white paper to help get the ball rolling on the passenger rail conversation. That paper noted the history of rail in the area, including when that same train line was used to ship strawberries and cabbage to New York. For the ski resort, such a project could help with employee housing, sustainability and making Steamboat more attractive to skiers flying in.
The Yampa Valley Regional Airport sits outside of Hayden, about a 35-minute drive from Steamboat in good weather. That airport, which saw around 244,000 arriving seats in 2021 according to Steamboat’s analysis, is also right next to the current Hayden power plant, meaning a spur off the main train line meant for dropping off coal is well-positioned to one day pick up tourists.
“Imagining what would be my perfect guest experience, they would fly into Hayden, our airport. They'd hop on a train, they'd take the train to a platform right by the resort, and they'd hop on a gondola that would take them up to the base and they'd check into their hotel and have an amazing experience,” Jones said.
All the way down to Denver
Of course, if Operation All Aboard is fully realized, the Yampa Valley Regional Airport wouldn’t have to factor into tourism plans. In total, the train would connect all the way to Denver, taking a similar route that the Winter Park ski train does.
“That would be Union Station to Winter Park, Kremmling, Bond, and then up here. So that's a little bit of a different rate that you could imagine that would be more of a vacation ski train,” Jones said.
Holloway, with the Craig Chamber of Commerce, said a connection with Denver would be a both literal and figurative link between rural and urban Colorado.
“When you think about big projects and what you could do, it's huge for us. And it's a way to unite the rural and urban and a train physically does that,” Holloway said, noting that it’s refreshing that Gov. Jared Polis has already mentioned this project alongside other rail discussions on the Front Range. “(Polis) just saying both projects in the same sentence shows the rest of the state that, yeah, we all do matter.”
Officials in the region toured the train line earlier this year along with representatives from CDOT. Lukens said the idea has near universal support and they’re hopeful that a deeper analysis by the state will provide details around costs, feasibility and schedules for the train.
A Regional Transportation Authority could help to provide funding for the project, which Jones said has been ballparked in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Macys said a Service Development Plan would determine most of the next steps, but for now she’s not surprised that the enthusiasm is so great in northwest Colorado.
“I'm not surprised. I'm surprised it's taken this long. I'm surprised it's taken this long because it's been sitting right here in front of our faces for all of this time,” Macys said. “It is a historic resource and asset that we have utilized traditionally and historically, so I'm not surprised that people are excited about it.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!