Friday, August 22, 2008

RTD FasTracks Longmont Woes and a Vision from 1983

Ok, maybe the Longmont Flour Mill will actually be around for a few more decades!

With today's gloomy news that the RTD FasTracks rail line to Longmont could be delayed until 2034, it may be time for a diversion to 25 years ago, to recall a vision of an RTD board member at the time.

1983: The year of the IBM PC-XT computer, Flashdance, gas is 81 cents/gallon, Colorado is in an oil-bust depression, and Jay Cutler is born (the quarterback, not the body builder!)

The headline in the March 23, 1983 Times-Call read:
RTD considers daily train run to Longmont
which was proposed by then RTD board member E. E. "Casey" Hayes, a Rio Grande trainman at the time. (Mr. Hayes went on to be the Mayor of Commerce City at age 71, in 1999). What spurred this idea was the imminent shutdown of the famous Denver & Rio Grande Zephyr passenger train line between Denver and Salt Lake City, scheduled for April 24. I'm way out of my league here and any Railfan can jump in and correct me, but the existing route between Denver and Salt Lake City went through Cheyenne (and thus Longmont) on Union Pacific tracks, instead of using the Amtrak route through Moffatt Tunnel. Amtrak continued to operate the Zephyr after April 1983, but it no longer went through Cheyenne.

Mr. Hayes suggested in earnest on Tuesday, March 22 that the soon-to-be-bypassed Zephyr trains and tracks be used for a daily commuter train between Denver and Longmont, going through Westminster, Broomfield, Niwot, and Boulder. The board voted 9-4 to consider the proposal. In addition to providing a commuting solution, Mr. Hayes also wanted to preserve a world-famous train.

One approving board member, Byron Johnson was quoted that night:
I know of no better way to test the demand for a light rail system that to put a rail system in place.
Opposition came from other board members who claimed:
  • RTD wasn't equipped for running a train business, and that it was actually against the law for RTD to do so.
  • The Zephyr equipment was antiquated and didn't match RTD's future plans of rapid transit
and the track owners, Burlington Northern were "very doubtful" that they'd be interested in the idea.

Obviously, this idea never materialized but here it is twenty-five years later, and we still don't have a train, and the news is getting dimmer about when we will have one.

What if the Zephyr idea had been implemented? Even if it only operated for five or ten years, could it have bootstrapped a real light rail system that would have been running today?

One final thought: Longmonters could take a train to Denver 126 years ago!


Steve Walden said...

The Rio Grande Zephyr was the last remnant of the California Zephyr, once operated as a joint venture between the Denver & Rio Grande Western, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, and the Western Pacific.

I was on the final outbound run of the Rio Grande Zephyr in April 1983. We left Denver Union Station and travelled the Rio Grande's Moffat Route through Frasier and Granby to Glenwood Springs. We were chased by the media and a chopper or two covering the Rio Grande's last long-haul passenger train. The engine that pulled us now sits at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

Later that year, Amtrak discontinued its San Francisco Zephyr via UP between Denver and Utah for the original route of the California Zephyr, but using their own equipment. The remaining RGZ equipment was surplus but some of it was purchased by private owners or preserved at museums. They are beautiful examples of intercity passenger cars, but in 1983, they were showing their age.

As for the tracks, Burlington Northern (BN of BNSF) wouldn't have been too crazy about commuter rail because it would complicate their freight train schedules with little benefit for them.

Now, CDOT is working with BNSF and Union Pacific to re-route the north-south rail lines through Colorado to allow commuter service along the Front Range. They need to know that the public supports the idea, because you can bet that other folks opposed to the idea will be noisy and unwilling to help move Colorado forward.

Ever the Railfan,

Steve Walden
Colorado Railroads blog

Steve Walden said...

One other thing I want to mention is that I've been covering RTD's FasTracks funding issues for a while. My latest entry is from July 19th: RTD Ponders Future of FasTracks.

In a Van Down By the St. Vrain River said...

Thanks, Steve, for providing the great information, done in excellent railfan style! I'll have to get over the Colorado RR museum again.

I occasionally hear people in Longmont reminisce about passenger trains going through here. The Zephyr must have been what they were watching go through.