OPINION | Patrick Brower: New railroad hoopla has caught my attention

I share the enthusiasm of many government agencies here in the Rocky Mountains about the potential expansion of mountain rail for residents, visitors and commuters.

But I have to admit that my enthusiasm is influenced by my admittedly romantic ideas about rail travel and its supposed environmental benefits and convenience, if one has the time. But my enthusiasm is tempered by the reality of train travel on these rail lines for tourists and locals in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.

I am talking about a “memorandum of understanding” signed by the City of Winter Park and the Grand County Board of County Commissioners for the Mountain Rail Coalition. In general terms, the document states that renewed interest in passenger rail in the state has created opportunities to bring passenger rail to Colorado’s mountain communities.

These generalities are really about the potential expansion of use of the railroad now running from Bond, Colorado, to points west of Craig, Colorado. Along the way, that line passes through Toponas, Yampa, Oak Creek, Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig.

That line is a spur of the Union Pacific line that runs through Grand County from the Moffat Tunnel in Winter Park and through Fraser, Granby, Hot Sulfur Springs, Kremmling and then down through Gore Canyon.

The Amtrak passenger train that now comes from Chicago through Denver and then to Grand County heads south to Dotsero, Glenwood Springs and then California. The boost going to Routt and Moffat counties is not needed. It’s that rail line, the recent reduction in coal rail usage, and the enthusiasm of Routt County’s resort communities that have really “spurred” this Mountain Rail Coalition.

Essentially, I think what is ultimately hoped for is a new passenger train that would travel from Denver to Routt County, Steamboat Springs and a few points beyond. This new expansion could be aimed at skiers and tourists, potential employees or telecommuters, and even residents traveling back and forth to Denver.

Yes, such a train journey sounds romantic and cool. And we’ve proven right here in Grand County at Winter Park Resort that it’s suitable for day skiers for limited high-season trips. I’m talking about the ski train, the Winter Park Express, that goes from Denver’s Union Station to the Winter Park Resort.

There’s a new Mountain Rail Coalition hoping to expand passenger rail across the state. The City of Winter Park and the Grand County Board of County Commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding with the coalition.
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News archive photo

It also works quite well for travelers in general, which we have proven to a limited extent with the Amtrak/Zephyr, which runs through Grand County twice a day, one westbound and one eastbound.

But I’m really starting to scratch my head about this idea when I wonder how much space there is on the rail line from Denver to Bond. I wonder how “on time” such a ride can be, given Amtrak’s notorious inability to be consistently on time. And I wonder how in the world such a likely expensive endeavor, based on running the train back and forth between Routt County and Denver every day, could ever pay for itself.

In conversations with train enthusiasts, the last question was answered first: the train does not have to pay for itself, because it would probably have been planned as a heavily, if not fully subsidized train. Subsidized, that is, by the government.

Is there room on the line? I’m told it is, and there are now about ten trains running regularly on the Denver-Bond line. That leaves room.

On time? Let’s hope for the best. It would be a four and a half hour train ride to Steamboat from Denver, making it quite a long ride and slower than a car. I suspect it probably wouldn’t run smoothly, because it couldn’t run smoothly with such a long run and as many sections of single rail as exist along the line.

Oh, and I forgot to wonder: would it compete directly with the Winter Park Ski Train, or just add to the market?

Anyway, the romantic in me wants it to work. The realist in me says it could take a long time (train).

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He offers free and confidential business management coaching to anyone looking to start or grow a business in Grand County. He is also the author of “KILLDOZER: The True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage.” He can be reached by calling 970-531-0632 or at [email protected].