Northwest Rail – Say what?

RTD Denver[1] is hosting a selective set of public meetings for the long promised frontrange #NorthWestRail corridor that was supposed to connect Denver to the ‘burbs and Boulder plus Longmont.

There is a very long story to this, which goes back to at least 2004 and has been heroically covered by CPR news reporter Nathaniel Minor since 2014[2]

The current slate of public meetings is to get feedback on the proposal to run trains to and from Denver, in the mornings there will be just three trains from Longmont via Boulder through the ‘burbs which cover Lafayette, Louisville, Broomfield and connect up with an existing commuter rail service in Westminster.

Having looked briefly at the proposal, I’d decided it didn’t even justify attending, just to go argue with the people who want a better bus service, because really they are right based on this proposal. It’s a trojan horse.

I mean who is going to DEPEND on a train that has only 3 trains in each direction in a day? It’s not train service, it’s a trojan horse. “We built a train service, no one used it”. #Time2MoveBNSF 3-trains per hour in each direction, all day is a train service!

Think about it. Longmont to Denver is a 36-mile drive, it takes 45-minutes on a good day, at peak time you could spend double that. The train makes sense. Except the first return train wouldn’t run until say 3:30pm. You need to leave work early for some reason, family, home issues, etc. An Uber to get home will cost circa $45.

Also, for loads of us, retired, off-peak commuters, family’s, no off-peak service, no late-night service, those in the service industry who have to be in Denver very early, or stay very late are just SOL. Take the bus, and we know thanks to CPR News that the off-peak buses and so called “rapid bus” are not really viable if you have to connect.

To Attend Or Not To Attend – That is the question?

I sat down this morning to complete the RTD survey, as that would likely get me as much traction in terms of feedback as attending the meeting, so I went ahead and started. Oh dear. #LouisvilleCO was missing from the list of towns, even though it’s clearly shown on the map and they held a largely surprise pop-up consultation here on January 21st

I’ll speculate later on why that might be.

Having completed the survey, I have so many questions that the survey bought up that were not answered, I’m going to the Broomfield consultation tonight.

What Questions Came Up From The Survey?

Here is the survey[3]

“RTD is evaluating an initial peak service approach as a first step toward full day rail service to Boulder and Longmont”

They give no clue as to what they are actually evaluating and how they will measure success or failure. No, we are not in the early stages of consulting, they carried out a similar exercise 10-years ago. Surely someone should know by now what success would look like?

“What is the Peak Service Study?”

“Assessing initial peak period service from Longmont to Denver:

  • 3 weekday morning trips
  • 3 weekday evening trips”

My guess is this is going to be a single train going from Longmont to Denver, non-stop back to Longmont and then stopping back to Denver, repeat. If the train has technical problems, service will just stop. Hopefully by the evening or next morning the train will be fixed or another train bought into service.


  • potential train types and technologies”

This will allow them to use a diesel powered train for the Peak Study Period. This line is NOT electrified at all. Electrifying it for a single train or whatever is used to provide six journeys per-day makes no sense.

Input Opportunity: Why is Peak Service Feasible for Northwest Rail?”

“Given limited resources, peak service is a possible first step to bring train service to the northwest area sooner than later”

Remember sooner here is already 20-years after the vote to start taxing to pay for it. Also, see above, how will you measure success or failure?

The input opportunity is as follows. No it doesn’t meet my needs, but I’m not the target audience for a peak-time service. But yay for reduced vehicle emissions. Except…. wait for it….

“What Does a Commuter Rail Station Look Like?”

It’s not clear what this tells us.

  • How long are the platforms?
  • How many carriages can they accommodate?
  • Is the expected length of train 2x carriages as shown?
  • Are the trains electric as shown?
  • Are the stations all single platform?

“How can commuter passenger service operate on a shared freight track?”

This topic is really at the heart of this proposal. It’s a mostly single-line, non-electrified line that has it’s roots(no pun intended) in a rail line from 100-years ago.

They say:

  • Freight trains pull over onto “siding tracks” – short segments of track parallel to the mainline track – and wait for commuter trains to proceed
  • Freight trains must wait for commuter trains to pass
  • Building siding tracks is less expensive and has fewer impacts than building a second track the entire length of the railway
  • Four sidings are proposed throughout the corridor to accommodate peak service

I guess that seems ok, right?

They also say:

  • Sidings are 1 to 2 miles long
  • Some sidings may cross roadways
  • During peak service operations, freight trains may spend 60-90 minutes at a siding
  • Freight trains typically idle at sidings with engines running

Woah… wait a minute. So they might build sidings for up to 8-miles to allow passenger rail to pass. Eight miles on what should be a 23-mile journey but will likely end up being 30-miles.

The sidings could block some roads for 60-90 minutes and the freight train diesel engines will be idled during that time. How does that balance reducing vehicle emissions?

There is also the problem of scheduling. Assuming either train is running late or slow, the other will have to slow, sit in the siding, or at worse, reverse into a siding. I know what that is like from last years Amtrak California Zephyr journey

“Environmental Justice”

Asides from conflating equality with environmental action, this part is just too confusing. The map shows two large areas of where “People of Color” and “Low Income Population” are, the proposed line serves neither.

That is the real point of this study I suspect. They either know, or will find out that lot’s of the hoped for funding for this passenger rail line won’t be available because they are ignoring those areas. I’ll ask.

Perhaps that’s why Louisville is missing from the survey, the are thinking about moving the rail line to the west side of I36 and bypassing Louisville.

and those are my obvious questions. I’m sure I’ll think of more.

So What Would I do?

The time for the front #NorthWestRail that shares with BNSF has come and gone.

I know nothing about the BNSF rail route on this line, except that when the trains go through town they are really long and there are not that many of them. Since the quite zones were started last year I have even less idea since I don’t hear the train horns signaling. The only time I see the trains is when South Boulder Road is closed at Main St in Louisville to let the trains cross.

On the assumption that we are creeping towards a climate emergency, and that diesel, or even trains that are electrified via huge battery banks are heavy and inefficient, it is time to #MoveBNSF via eminent domain?

Yes, I understand that’s a really radical, controversial and expensive option. However, the circumstances seem to be heading towards justifying it. The state could acquire land near I25 and reroute this whole section of the BNSF line, moving the freight trains away from built-up areas and freeing up the existing line for full overhead electrification.

It would be simple, build the new line, move BNSF, then electrify and computerize the existing line. Passenger trains would be driverless. There could also be bulk by train smaller freight deliveries, which would eliminate the need for massive, 1-mile long freight trains to pass through small towns.

I’ve taken a number of Amtrak trips over the past 2-years and all bar one were delayed, or seriously delayed by freight trains. The Amtrak California Zephyr trip I took from Chicago had to reverse in Nebraska for nearly 4-miles to accommodate a freight train. Fast and effective rail can never work within that constraint.

A dedicated 2-track electric line over the route as the northwest rail proposes with a mix of short, driver-less trains would run much more frequently and effectively. We could also consider moving a lot of freight deliveries to towns served by the route to bulk by train and offload in strategic zones served by branch lines or spurs. This could have a massive positive impact on pollution etc. but would only make sense as electric.

I commuted into London using the newly electrified Thameslink[4] train from
1987-1993. Trains were packed everyday and often the trains were 9-full cars long for a 30-minute journey. It was initially just a straight line that connected Bedford to London(54-miles), stopping at Kings Cross/St Pancras on the north side of central London.

It was then extended underground another mile or so to Blackfriars. Later from Blackfriars to Brighton and has grown from there and now connects Gatwick and Luton(both London airports) to central London. The line carries some 28,000 passengers in both directions during the morning peak hours[5]

The Blackfriars station was later moved onto the rail bridge, and the former station site redeveloped. It’s not just a station on a bridge though. It has a “solar roof with 4,400 panels generating up to 50 per cent of the station’s energy needs”[6]

And that’s the thing about effective rail. It has an enormous impact on local re-vitalization. Rather than typical Amtrak cross-country routes which pass endless dead downtown and industrial areas, effective rail is both environmentally effective and opens up new opportunities.

What happened to can-do American spirit, why are we aiming so low?

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