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Waiting for a train: Fort Collins courts Amtrak

This past Tuesday, Fort Collins City Council voted to “support …a future Amtrak passenger rail service stop in Fort Collins as part of the national ongoing study for possible reinstatement of Amtrak’s Pioneer route. ” (See Coloradoan story).

The Pioneer route ran 1977-1997 from Seattle to Chicago, via Denver. Last year, the Federal Government ordered Amtrak to study returning the Pioneer to service. That study should be finished next week, October 16, 2009, according to the website http://www.pioneertrain.com.

The original train never passed through Fort Collins, but rather rolled along the highway 85 corridor from Cheyenne to Denver.


Pioneer passing through Nunn, Colorado

The folks at PioneerTrain.com  have been urging cities along the 287 corridor to show Amtrak support for bringing the Pioneer through the more populated areas of the front range. Boulder, Longmont, and Loveland councils have already signed on.

The thinking is that more people = more passengers = better chance of success for the Pioneer.


Old Pioneer Route Guide. Click for readable size.

But other train fans note that rerouting the train will add more than an hour to the timetable as the train slows through city after city. The original train took 2 hours to run from Cheyenne to Denver. If it goes through Fort Collins/Loveland, it will take more than 3 hours, they say. And that could lower overall ridership.

That’s not the only barrier to Fort Collins’ dreams of seeing Superliners on Mason Street. According to Pioneer Train.com, “Amtrak’s current position is that the law requires Amtrak to look at the Pioneer as it was operated in the past, rather than as it might be in the future.”

Sounds like a long shot, huh? I plan to root for it nonetheless.


Big thanks to Jim Burrill for his Amtrak Pioneer photo and Route Guide.

16 comments to Waiting for a train: Fort Collins courts Amtrak

  • Mark Waite

    I’m curious about your enthusiasm for an Amtrak route through the spaces of the great American west. I think the distances are so great in the west and the ridership likely to be so small that there is little hope for Amtrak to ever be profitable.

    Air travel and car travel have it “sandwiched”, air travel is faster (and almost as cheap in many cases), and car travel is more convenient for short distance runs.

    For me, as an example, even if Amtrak ran from Fort Collins (or Loveland) to Denver, I would not be likely to use it for a Denver trip because arriving at the station in Denver would still mean transportation to other locations.

    Can you expand on why you’re rooting for a long shot?

  • taggart

    I think I agree that routing through town is a bad idea, but 85 is way too far away. It needs to be somewhere that is quickly bikable or busable, maybe near Sumitview or something (except the new suburbs built out that way might now be hard to route through).

    I live in Seattle and here we have the Cascades line which runs from Seattle to Eugene. You have to book tickets at least a week in advance as all the trains fill up (I think only 4 a day), and it’s nearly the cost of flying and slower and more expensive than a single occupant car driving. Because of that I don’t think it gets used as much as it could.

    I won’t use it regularly until I I can show up 15 mins before departure, for one of at least 10 daily trains, buy a ticket that costs no more than $20, and the train gets me there in the same time as driving. That’s the way it is on trains I’ve taken in the UK and Europe. If that requires some sort of government subsidy then fine, better that than bailing out bankers….

  • Jim Burrill

    Gee, that picture never looked so good. :-)

    Seriously, no one would be more of a fan of bringing Amtrak to the Fort than me. There is a big problem, however, that being it would have to operate over the tracks of the “Crooked and Slow” route of the Front Range sub of BNSF. It simply will take too long to get between Cheyenne and Denver by this route, probably 4 hours at best and 6 hours most times. The BNSF freight trains which operate between Denver and Cheyenne take 12 hours.

    Here is an alternative I would propose: Shuttle buses operate between the Front Range towns to either Greeley or Cheyenne, and the train operates over the much faster “Denver Pacific” Greeley sub of Union Pacific. The shuttle service could be contracted to the same company who operates the airport shuttle. This would work for the long distance travelers.

    The commuter service from Denver to front range cities would have to be addressed in a separate issue. If it operates over the BNSF, something will have to happen to speed up the track and trains for it to be successful.

  • noë

    I have my fingers crossed for restoring the Pioneer route. I don’t know enough about Fort Collins to agree or disagree with the proposed route. But if you’re in a hurry, fly. Many of us prefer to enjoy the trip on the train. Enough of us, by the way, to fill the Cascades every day. That’s why you have to order so far in advance.

    One word more about the Cascades: It is targeted to become a high-speed rail route. So it will soon be much faster than it is now.

  • Well, sure. I can jump in a car whenever I want and go.

    And once I get there, I can get around.

    And, okay, it’s not nearly as slow. Google maps gives the drive time from Cheyenne to Denver as 1hr. 42m.

    But, although the Cascades line fills up despite the fact that it’s slow, inconvenient, and expensive, that’s only because I’m forced to pay for it.

    As are you. Taxpayers in Fort Collins fund the Cascades line, and the Federal bureaucracy that operates it.

    If it could cover its costs, a business would run the service. More economically than the government does.

    It can’t. Making passengers pay the cost would empty the trains completely. Popular modes of transportation are cheaper. Which is why commercial passenger service died.

    You’re asking yourself, “Why should we drive when we could get a less convenient, much slower trip on a government-regulated boondoggle that the IRS will tax everyone else in the country to help pay for? It’s historical and romantic.”

    That’s thinking small.

    To heck with the Pioneer route. I want to force farmers in Indiana and lobster fishermen in Maine to buy me a pony.

  • catfc

    Been thinking for a while how to answer your question Mark. And I guess I implied in my teaser that I would back up my statement (I plan to root for it) in the article. And then didn’t.

    I just like trains. So I want train travel to work out.

    That’s it. Give me a D- for this “Persuasive essay.”

    But to be more thoughtful. All your arguments against local rail are excellent, and I’m not sure I can make a convincing rebuttal. But I’ll do my best.

    There are two parts to this, commuter rail and cross country.

    My understanding is that commuter rail is turning profitable in high density corridors along the west and east coasts. We might not be dense enough to support it yet. But if we wait for fuel prices and population to grow enough, I think we’ll regret not planning for it now. At least we should claim whatever infrastructure we need before it’s overly developed.

    I’m a long-distance commuter. It is faster and more convenient to drive. But if I took rail instead of auto, I could make my commute time part of my work time. Or part of my down time. I could write my blog on the train! Driving 3 hours on office days is wasteful in so many ways.

    Every commuter train I’ve been on recently accommodates bicycles. That makes getting around slightly better, if it’s not snowing. And if it is snowing, all the more reason I don’t want to drive.

    The most convincing argument I could come up with for supporting cross country rail is that for many handicapped people, it’s the only realistic way to go. Air travel can be demeaning. The seats barely fit most men, let alone someone with special needs or even a few extra pounds. On planes, you can’t count on access to restrooms…like if there’s turbulence and the seatbelt sign is on.

    I think high-speed rail supporters believe that high speed can be much more effective than standard cross country rail. But I haven’t researched it much. (Give this essay a D+)

    My main argument for cross country rail is still mostly selfish. It’s just more fun for me. So, as they say in English 101, “clearly, an Amtrak stop in Fort Collins is good.”

  • Mark Waite

    “It’s more fun for me” is a great reason, and I appreciate it especially because it expresses joy and enjoyment rather than economic benefit.

    I like trains. My grandfathers were both railroad employees for at least part of their lives. My wife’s grandfather was a railroader as well. She and I still dispute whether the Union Pacific or the Santa Fe is the one true railroad.

    I support commuter rail in high density areas and I believe it is economically viable in high density areas. I think that matches with the European rail systems, the Japanese rail system, and the eastern U.S. rail system.

    I’m not as persuaded of the economic viability of high speed rail in the U.S. No data, just a hunch that the cutthroat airline competition makes long distance rail traffic economically infeasible.

    Thanks for a thoughtful posting!

  • catfc

    Here’s another interesting angle on the value of intracity rail from Citykin in Cincinnatti. He argues, I think correctly, that rail leads to more livable cities compared to roads, because development that follows rail is built for people rather than cars. http://www.citykin.com/2009/10/rail-builds-better-cities.html

    Also, some more details on the local deal over on Jim Burrill’s blog. Note that Jim has many railroad connections and brings a lot of inside cred to the discussion. http://lapoudre.multiply.com/journal/item/345/Amtrak_Pioneer_can_it_run_again_

  • If there was a train that got me from Fort Collins to down town Denver in under 2 hours, I’d use it.

    One thing I really like about taking a train is that I can read while I’m traveling. Granted, now-a-days it’s pretty easy to grab a book on tape and listen to it in the car. But curling up with a good book is cheaper. I also prefer getting around urban areas by bike or by foot. So the thought of being able to take my bike down to Denver kinda thrills me.

    I suppose my main exception to this is when traveling with the kids. It would probably be cheaper to take a full car, in that case. (And taking kids always means lugging around extras like food and books to read. In which case it would definitely be easier to have the car.)

    … Now how does this fit in with the whole Mason corridor idea? Isn’t that supposed to, one day, hook us up to Denver as well?

  • Mark Waite

    I think the idea of a train between Fort Collins and Denver is interesting, but I don’t think Amtrak is the system to provide it, nor is the Pioneer route the correct route for a train system within Colorado. If the estimates which Cat quotes are correct, then the ride from Fort Collins to Denver will likely be up to two and a half hours, and it will be at the mercy of the Pioneer schedule. I would not expect a cross country train to pass through any one city on its route more than once a day in any direction, so a trip to Denver on the Pioneer would likely need to have an overnight stay to catch the next train out of Denver to return home. I think that would kill ridership. Even if it stops in each city once a day, that still requires an overnight stay before most return trips.

    If we really want a train from Fort Collins to Denver, then I suspect we’re more likely to have riders if we use light rail akin to the current Denver light rail system.

    I’m skeptical of the Denver light rail system as well (and of most public transit that does not become self funding within 5 years of installation), since it appears to be expensive and likely to lose in the efficiency race with cars. Chuck Plunkett writes in the Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_13059445) about the undercutting of light rail benefits by increasingly fuel efficient cars.

  • Nisperos

    I’d be willing to take a spur up to Cheyenne or Laramie to catch the Pioneer and leave the Front Range to Light Rail (though I wouldn’t complain if the route passed through our town and I’d personally love it).

  • “I’m skeptical of the Denver light rail system as well (and of most public transit that does not become self funding within 5 years of installation)” –Mark

    private transit (motorized vehicles like cars, SUVS, etc. and bicycles) aren’t self funding are they? sure, part of our gas tax goes towards roads, but i’m pretty sure even more comes out of the general tax fund.

  • Mark Waite

    You make a very good point. I believe (from my few google searches) that Colorado highway maintenance is not self funding.

    I may be misreading the articles, since CDOT also published their 2005-2006 year budget and seems to say that no general funds were used for the CDOT budget that year (http://www.dot.state.co.us/budget/FY06%20CDOT%20Budget%204-21-05%20WEB.pdf)

    Even with that article, I doubt it is currently self funding, since there is mention in a 2006 item from the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association (http://www.co-asphalt.com/documents/HighwayConditionBrochure.pdf) which says (among other things) “While the underlying foundation of highway revenue is the user fee assessed on motor fuel sales, in recent years Colorado has increasingly relied on state General Fund revenues to supplement user dollars to meet state highway needs.”

    I doubt a highway repair advocacy organization like the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association would have mentioned the Colorado general fund as a source of recent highway funds if that were not the case.

    However, my hunch is that the per user cost of road travel in Colorado is much closer to self funding than the per user cost of light rail travel in Denver. I admit it is a hunch, unsubstantiated by facts, but I think it is a reasonable hunch given the earlier quoted Denver Post editorail. I’m not as sure about the comparison between bus travel within Denver and road travel within Denver, since it appears the Denver metro bus lines have larger usage than Denver light rail.

  • Mark Waite

    Oops, looks like my link to the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association PDF file is bad. I used the Google HTML viewer link to see it earlier today

    No idea if that will still work a day from now…

  • catfc

    I think you’re right regarding costs of transportation systems. Wikipedia has the whole argument mapped out here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_light_rail_in_North_America. But I especially gravitate toward the arguments that asphalt leads to sprawl which leads to increased hidden infrastructure costs. But I’m just taking that side because I hate driving.

  • catfc

    Okay, just read teh Denver post article. First, all his arguments assume gas prices won’t quadruple. Which would increase ridership. BUT, as he says, it’s construction that makes it expensive economically and environmentally. So, now I’m ready to ride a bus to Boulder. But is it unreasonable to ask for a little subsidy for a bus that’s direct and where the heat works?