CDOT says Denver-to-Steamboat train could be years, not decades, away

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Wild Goose at the Granary Coffee in Hayden, housed in a partially renovated grain elevator on the railroad tracks that’s more than130 years old.

Coloradans have dreamed for decades about new passenger rail lines to the mountains — and they’ve always gone unfulfilled. 

But a new project could be different. 

Colorado’s Department of Transportation Executive Director Shoshana Lew said in an interview with CPR News that new rail service from Denver to Steamboat Springs and beyond could start in less than a decade. The train would use existing Union Pacific freight tracks from Denver through the Moffat Tunnel to Winter Park, Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig and would complement existing CDOT-sponsored bus service and Amtrak’s Winter Park Express.

“As northwest Colorado grows, it would do so in a way where it could be anchored by public transit rather than driving being the only way to get there,” Lew said. “It would also help places like Craig and Hayden achieve a more modern economy where they're very focused right now on what to do when the coal plants close.”

Ski resorts and local government officials approached CDOT about the project in August, Lew said. They and Union Pacific all spoke with “one voice,” she said, about the need for the project. 

“We always kick the tires on things,” she said. “And we couldn't think of a reason why this isn't possible and feasible.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A Union Pacific freight train moves through Routt County near Yampa, Oct. 9, 2023.

CDOT has started an initial study that will shed light on estimated costs and possible revenue sources, station locations, an operator, service frequencies, and other basics, Lew said. Her initial assessment was that the project would run in the “hundreds of millions of dollars” — in the same ballpark as some of the department’s various highway expansion projects. 

The presumption that trains could use existing freight tracks is a key reason Lew believes the cost will be relatively modest and the project could be built in less than a decade. 

“Building tracks is, in most projects, the most cumbersome barrier between idea and reality,” she said. “If you don't have to build tracks, it means that the infrastructure costs go down.”

So, could trains roll in just a few years?

“I think it's within the realm of the possible,” Lew said.

CDOT is also gathering information from train manufacturers to determine what kind of locomotives and train cars might work on the mountainous terrain. Lew is hoping for a zero-emission train car — perhaps like the type she and other state officials recently rode on a test track outside of Pueblo.

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
A train car manufactured by Stadler Rail and powered by both hydrogen and batteries at the federal Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo County, Colorado on Sept. 19, 2023.

The success of CDOT’s various transit services to the mountains suggests that new rail service to the Yampa Valley would succeed, too, Lew said. Studies will show where track improvements are needed, but Lew surmised that train travel would be comparable time-wise to driving — and much more relaxing.

“It's a lot more pleasant to sit and read a book or check your email or look at the beautiful mountains than to try and navigate Berthoud Pass in the snow,” she said.