Study puts Colorado high-speed passenger rail price tag at $22 billion

High-speed passenger rail service on dedicated tracks along the Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 corridors will cost $22 billion and likely require up to 50-percent funding by Colorado taxpayers, a Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) spokesman said this week.

high speed rail

The RMRA’s Harry Dale, speaking ahead of today’s release of a $1.5 million feasibility study funded mostly by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), said the higher cost of building dedicated lines rather than using existing freight lines or right-of-ways makes long-term financial sense.

High-speed trains traveling in excess of 100 mph would command premium fares allowing for a model of $2 in fare revenue for every $1 of operational costs. That means a private company could operate a Colorado franchise at a profit, eliminating the need for annual operational subsidies.

Upgrading freight railroad tracks or building adjacent tracks in freight rail corridors would be cheaper in terms of capital costs, but the system would run at a huge deficit requiring taxpayer subsidies, Dale said. And ridership would suffer because passenger trains traveling on freight lines go much slower and don’t necessarily wind up where people want to go.

“[Freight lines] were never designed for moving passengers at high speeds to the destinations people want to go to,” Dale said. “In the West, our cities and towns are newer and we’ve really grown up along highway corridors in the last 50 years, and the railroad corridors are where they were before the highways.”

That means they go to industrial areas, freight distribution centers or power plants. A passenger train using existing freight corridors near I-25, for instance, could stop in Littleton and Castle Rock, but would miss the Tech Center. A dedicated high-speed rail line could stop in Lone Tree and connect to existing Regional Transportation District (RTD) light rail at Lincoln Avenue.

Another problem with using freight lines is the railroad companies charge heavily to use their tracks or even be near their tracks — a problem RTD ran into when negotiating light-rail right-of-ways. And the freight companies want to be absolved of liability in case of collisions or derailments.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires “buff-strength compliant trains” that can survive such accidents, whereas European and Asian passenger trains have crumple zones that allow for lighter construction that can absorb the energy of collisions. They can also tilt and therefore travel at higher speeds on the curvier tracks freight trains use.

Heavier, sturdier trains means slower speeds. Upgrading freight lines on the Front Range to 110 mph systems (on which Euro-style trains could travel an average of 50 to 60 mph) would cost $3 billion. The current system is only rated 79 mph, which means passenger trains could only travel 25 to 30 mph, which is prohibitive over long distances.

And even upgrading to 110 requires using currently non-compliant Euro-style trains like the Spanish Talgo T-21, meaning there would need to be significant FRA rule changes.

“When you take the 100,000 foot view of this, you say, ‘Why on earth would we want to use freight railway right of ways for passenger rail service,'” Dale said.

“Leave them alone. Let them run freight trains. There’s a great benefit in moving freight on rail, and if we’re going to build passenger rail infrastructure, let’s build it in the highway corridors and on state-owned or federally-owned highway right-of-ways.”

The cost of dedicated, high-speed passenger rail along I-25 is $6 billion. High-speed rail from Denver International Airport to the Eagle County Regional Airport 40 miles west of Vail would be $16 billion. An alternative is DIA to Summit County, where the majority of Front Range day-skier traffic goes, which would cost $9 billion.

Using freight rail lines and heavy Amtrak-style passenger cars works in some corridors on the East and West Coasts because distances are relatively short and traveling 30 mph is still better than sitting in impenetrable gridlock on the highways.

But longer commuter routes out into the suburbs, especially in the much more spread-out West, makes such speeds problematic for the kind of realistic ridership needed to sustain such a system. The Obama administration, Dale said, needs to change its thinking on passenger rail.

“The corridors themselves as a wide swath makes sense, but using freight railroad alignments in those corridors is where you’re problem is. You will never get true high-speed rail if you’re sharing track with American freight trains. The two are not even compatible.”

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