Front Range High Speed Rail?

New Mexico Governor and potential Democratic party political candidate Bill Richardson, has publicly floated the idea of a high speed rail corridor from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Casper in Wyoming, generally parallel to I-25.  Now a non-profit group called Front Range Commuter Rail wants to do a $4.4 million study of the possibility with contributions from the impacted states.

Backers claim that it could be done at a “total cost much cheaper than the proposed Super Slab concrete roadway”, a toll road which would run parallel to I-25 on the rural Eastern plains of Colorado, because it could be built on existing railroad rights-of-way.  Superslab would also have rail and possibly pipeline components and take a massive swath of land to accomodate all of its components.  The Superslab project hit a bump in the road in the 2006 legislative session when Colorado law was changed to require it to obtain state approval before beginning construction.Currently, Amtrak, which has a monopoly on intercity passenger rail in the United States, provides rail service to Colorado only on the I-70 corridor (California Zephyr) and a small corner of the Southeast part of the state (Southwest Chief) with stops at Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad.  It also provides bus service, generally along I-25, between the two lines, and North to Cheyenne, and to Vail.

Thus, there is no passenger rail service connecting Colorado’s major front range population centers (Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Greeley and Fort Collins).

Amtrak’s slow speed rail service takes two times or more as long as a comparable trip in a car, and tends to be roughly comparable in travel time to travel by bus.  It costs a little bit more than a comparable bus ticket.  Sometimes, rail is even slower than a bus.  This makes it hard for passenger rail to compete with the alternatives.

For example, an Amtrak trip from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado takes 7 hours and 52 minutes.  Taking a Greyhound bus would take 4 hours and 20 minutes.  The price for a one way trip with no special discounts is identical for Amtrak and Greyhound.  Driving a car that 245 miles from rail station to rail station would take 3 hours and 55 minutes, according to Map Quest.

The only high speed intercity passenger rail system in the United States right now is Amtrak’s Acela Express service from Washington D.C. to Boston, along the Northeast corridor (the only part of Amtrak that makes an operating profit), on rail lines dedicated to passenger service.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak shares rail lines with the freight rail system which owns and maintains the lines.  While, in theory, Amtrak has priority over freight traffic on these lines, in practice sharing freight and passenger service on the same line slows service.  Also, freight rail lines are not designed for high speed rail traffic, which requires gentler curves and different rail crossings where the line crosses roads.

A trip for the entire length of the Acela line takes six and a half hours (an average of 69 miles an hour with peak speeds of 150 miles per hour) and serves sixteen stops.  The roughly 450 mile trip would take about 7 hours, 50 minutes to traverse by car (an average of about 58 miles an hour mostly on urban interstates).

The proposed 737 mile Front Range Commuter Rail corridor takes about 10 hours, 32 minutes to traverse by car.  A high speed rail line comparable to the Acela (which is at the slow end of high speed rail systems) would take about the same length of time, although straighter right of ways and a different choice of rail equipment could make for a speedier rail trip in Colorado than in the Northeast Corridor.

Intercity high speed rail is far more common and has a far larger share of the intercity passanger traffic market in Japan and Western Europe, which, like the Northeast Corridor of the United States, have high population densities.

A number of new high speed rail lines are being considered across the United States.  Plans to build lines connecting major Texas cities and to connect California cities from San Diego to San Francisco, are among the most serious proposals now being considered.  The high density of population centers along the front range make it one of the most attractive places to build a high speed rail line in the non-coastal United States, although the fact that interstate highway traffic is faster in the West than it is on the urban highways of the Northeast Corridor.

Estimates of the cost of building a California high speed rail proposal are on the order of $13 million a mile, and the cost of a front range rail line would be unlikely to be much higher, so the construction cost would likely be on the order of $9.6 billion, and possibly less.

Whether the full proposal can successfully be sold to Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico officials is another story.  The bulk of the population served by a front range rail system would live in the 174 miles from Pueblo to Fort Collins, yet this portion of a high speed rail system would account for only about a quarter of the cost.

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