CHICAGO — When Lily Trienens boarded a train in downtown Milwaukee that would take her more than 70 miles to visit family in the north Chicago suburbs, she got a glimpse of the possible future of rail travel back home in Colorado.
The 35-year-old Lyons resident had flown to Wisconsin’s most populous city for a quick business trip. Looking for an easy option to make the trek south, she found it for $24 — an hourlong journey on Amtrak’s Hiawatha train that deposited her at a station in Glenview, Illinois, close enough to be picked up.
“It’s worked out perfectly,” she said on a recent Thursday morning as the crop fields and barns outside her window in Wisconsin and northern Illinois gave way to Chicago’s sprawling suburban landscape. “It’s been so convenient. It’s been really easy. It’s affordable. It’s fast.”
Trienens’ experience on the Hiawatha, which makes seven round trips between Milwaukee and Chicago most days, leaves her hopeful that Colorado’s long-discussed plans for a passenger railway along the Front Range will come to fruition.
A setup eyed by state officials would put Amtrak in charge of operating a starter train subsidized locally, similar to the national passenger railway’s 32-year arrangement with Wisconsin and Illinois to run the Hiawatha. The potential also is evident in Washington state, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri, which are among 17 states that pay Amtrak to operate trains along short-distance corridors serving commuters and leisure travelers.
Those state-directed trains carried more than 15 million riders in 2019. That accounted for nearly half of Amtrak’s ridership before the pandemic disrupted travel and commute patterns. Many of the trains are among Amtrak’s most cost-effective routes to operate, with tickets offsetting an average 66% of operating costs in 2019 — a metric that reached nearly 90% for the Hiawatha, Amtrak data shows.
The possibility of a similar arrangement between Colorado and Amtrak means that for all the costs and hurdles facing the creation of a Front Range rail line — and there are many — it’s closer to reality than it might appear.
For one thing, a heavily favored 191-mile corridor between Pueblo and Fort Collins mostly would follow existing freight-rail tracks. Even with modifications needed to support passenger trains, starting up a line likely would cost a fraction of the eye-popping $10.7 billion price tag estimated by a state report earlier this year.
That estimate was for a full build-out of dedicated double-track for the entire length — a long-term, gold-standard scenario that by 2045 would allow for two dozen roundtrips each weekday serving an estimated 6,900 riders.
Amtrak, for its part, envisions more modest service on the Front Range in its 15-year expansion plan, at least to start: three daily round trips, with one of them going as far north as Cheyenne. It also sees a potential benefit to connecting its long-haul California Zephyr, which travels east and west through Denver, to the Southwest Chief line that travels through Trinidad in southeastern Colorado, if the Front Range line were to extend that far south.
“We’re not talking about mowing down houses and shutting down businesses,” Chicago-based Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “We’re talking about basically existing railroad footprint. What can be done with that?”
The favored route would travel through Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder and Longmont, overlapping north of Denver with the Regional Transportation District’s unfunded extension of the B Line.
Momentum has built as transportation planners and the state’s Democratic leadership seek ways to accommodate rapid growth along I-25, the state’s most populated corridor. States from Virginia to California increasingly view passenger rail as an alternative to costly highway expansions that promise to add more pollution to the air.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation in June creating the Front Range Passenger Rail District, which by next spring will take over planning from the state’s Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. In the meantime, the commission is starting a study of freight-rail traffic to see how much passenger service could be squeezed in.
The new district covers all or parts of 13 counties along the entire I-25 corridor, including metro Denver. Its leadership will be charged with proposing a service plan and figuring out financial and operational details, with or without Amtrak’s participation.
If tax money is needed — a strong likelihood — the appointed board will have to ask the district’s voters for support, as required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Milwaukee to Chicago in 90 minutes
As Colorado looks elsewhere for inspiration, the 86-mile Hiawatha line stands out as a well-established yardstick.
It costs $25 for the full trip from downtown Milwaukee’s Intermodal Station to Union Station in Chicago, a journey that includes three brief stops in between and takes just under 90 minutes — often faster than driving. Wireless internet is available and electrical outlets are at each seat. In Wisconsin, Amtrak Thruway-branded buses have connected several other cities to the Milwaukee station for two years.
The Hiawatha can reach speeds up to 79 mph in some sections, helping it to grow into Amtrak’s highest-ridership Midwest train prior to the pandemic, carrying nearly 880,000 riders in 2019. Its recent on-time rating was 95%, according to Amtrak data.
Ridership has been recovering gradually since pandemic service cuts were reversed in May, though the early August trains still included three passenger cars instead of the usual six.
As a train pulled out of Union Station just after 5 p.m. on a recent weekday, workers who commute from Wisconsin to downtown Chicago opened their laptops. Other riders sat with shopping bags from downtown stores at their feet.
For the first 10 minutes, the three-year-old Siemens locomotive pulled three older Amtrak coach cars slowly past warehouses and redeveloping westside neighborhoods. Then it accelerated, a change noticed by a 5-year-old boy with curly blond hair as he looked out the window.
“The train’s going fast!” he said.
“We’re getting up to speed,” replied his mother, Amy Bell-Ferries.
She and her wife, who live in Madison, took their son on an overnight getaway to Chicago to celebrate his upcoming sixth birthday. Now they were heading back and planned to drive the last leg of the trip from the Milwaukee station.
“We wanted to take the train because it was his first time taking the train — and honestly, parking in downtown Chicago is just” too expensive, said Bell-Ferries. “It was convenient to take the train in. And it’s a new experience for him.”
Frequent rider Spencer Malcolm, 48, was heading home from his job as an executive at a Chicago consumer products company, a trek he made every weekday prior to the pandemic. Now he travels three days a week. He and his wife chose to live in the Milwaukee suburbs because its cost of living is so much lower than Illinois, he said.
Before hopping off at the Milwaukee airport station, the last stop before downtown, he said he didn’t mind the commute since he can get work done.
“What’s funny,” Malcolm said, “is if you take the train in from Wisconsin, there’s only three stops,” making the trip go quickly. He estimated he would spend nearly as much time on a Chicago commuter-rail train if he lived in its far-out suburbs, given that they stop so much more frequently.
How Midwestern states got involved
Wisconsin and Illinois stepped in to partially subsidize the Hiawatha after Amtrak cut back on the long-established route during the 1980s, said Arun Rao, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s passenger rail manager. In a typical year, the two states now split nearly $4 million in total annual operating costs after ticket sales, with Wisconsin picking up 75% and Illinois covering 25%.
Other states’ subsidies for Amtrak lines are often higher, depending on fare collections and whether they underwrite all trips.
Rao said that since the Hiawatha expanded to seven daily roundtrips in 2003, ridership has doubled.
“Really, the number of frequencies is a key driver of helping to develop ridership,” he said, including by giving commuters more options in the morning and evening.
The states’ ongoing support also has included significant spending, coupled with federal grants, to smooth the ride and upgrade stations, including Milwaukee’s. They’ve built some separated-grade road crossings and added sidings — which allow trains to pull over — alongside tracks the Hiawatha shares with dozens of freight and commuter rail trains each day.
Freight dispatchers choreograph each train’s journey, making use of those sidings and some sections of double-track to route faster trains around slower ones.
One expansion is coming in 2024 with the extension of one Hiawatha trip a day by more than 300 miles to St. Paul in the Twin Cities. Projects costing $53 million, with federal grants and Amtrak covering about 70%, are underway. Rao said the extension will give western Wisconsin and Minnesota riders served by the once-a-day Empire Builder, a long-haul Amtrak route to and from the Pacific Northwest, a second, more reliable option to reach Chicago.
On the current Hiawatha, plans to add three more daily Hiawatha roundtrips are on hold because of political opposition in Illinois to $195 million in upgrades, including new holding tracks in the suburbs.
Despite such complications, a Chicago-area transit leader said the Hiawatha adds an important service to the region.
“The Hiawatha is incredibly popular and one of the sterling examples of how partnerships to benefit a region economically can come together,” said Kirk Dillard, a Republican and former Illinois state senator who chairs Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees and coordinates local transit service.
“Denver and Colorado would be well served, in terms of economic growth, by following the Hiawatha’s model.”
Starting a railway from scratch
But what it would take to pull off Front Range rail — and whether enough people would use it — are questions due for intense scrutiny in coming years.
Trienens, the Lyons resident, speculated that she might even venture from her mountain community to downtown Denver more often if a similarly reliable train saved her from the usual battle with Interstate 25 traffic.
“That would be a game-changer,” she said.
But a challenge facing Colorado, rail experts say, is that unlike many of Amtrak’s state-supported lines, Colorado’s potential routes haven’t carried passenger trains in decades. There’s no Empire Builder or other long-haul train that’s established modern service standards on shared freight tracks, though BNSF Railway and Union Pacific have participated in Colorado’s planning.
The state rail commission’s recent Alternatives Evaluation Report — the one that put the cost for a gold-standard system at more than $10 billion — also took a shot at estimating the cost of building a more modest system, in which two to six trains a day share freight tracks, depending on the segment.
Making necessary upgrades could cost $1.7 billion to $2.8 billion, the report says. Upcoming studies will refine the estimate further, but Jim Souby, who chairs the state rail commission, said Colorado will need plenty of help from the federal government.
Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University who specializes in the transportation sector, said Denver “stands out for being underserved by intercity rail.”
Still, he called starting a corridor from scratch “a long, hard road.”
“It requires years of synchronized investment and schmoozing the freight railroads,” he said. “The corridor’s got enormous potential — although the endpoints are not giant walkable cities, which creates some risk. It’s not so clear that the ‘If you build it, they will come’ premise is anything assured.”
Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Hoover expressed confidence in CDOT’s ridership modeling, which he said is comprehensive while also erring on the conservative side. It projected 2.2 million riders a year for a fully-built Front Range line a couple decades from now, with job commuting between cities filling the greatest demand.
Amtrak’s projection in its scaled-down expansion plan is that three roundtrips a day could draw nearly 200,000 riders a year. That’s more in line with the 171,000 riders who boarded CDOT’s Bustang regional buses north and south of Denver in 2019.
Amtrak officials in recent months have demonstrated interest in Front Range rail publicly — at a time when Congress’ consideration of massive new infrastructure spending could give the railway the means to accelerate the start-up of new lines.
Amtrak hopes to offer greater backing for initial capital and operating costs, Magliari said. Because of the moves the state has already made, he said, “Colorado is ahead of the curve versus a lot of other states.”
“I’m convinced, I’ll say, that we can do it,” Souby said. “We have the right-of-way. We have the engineering skills. There’s enough room. The pinch points will have to be addressed, for sure.”
He added: “When I talk to a chamber or to local officials, I always tell them, ‘If it doesn’t make sense, we’re not going to build it.’ ”
Three other state-controlled train services
Ridership and cost figures are from pre-pandemic years.
State-supported trains: Amtrak’s Piedmont route between Charlotte and Raleigh and Carolinian route between Charlotte and New York City.
Service corridor: 173 miles, with three Piedmont roundtrips daily and one Carolinian roundtrip.
2019 ridership: 458,997.
State’s operating cost: $11 million a year for both trains.
Notable history: North Carolina struck a deal with Amtrak in 1990 to start the Carolinian. In 1995, it added the Piedmont, which now uses state-branded trains. The state has invested heavily since 2010 in improvements to tracks shared with freight trains as well as crossings and stations, reducing travel times and making it possible to add more trips. The work was paid for mostly using stimulus funding and a $520 million federal grant.
State-supported train: Amtrak’s Cascades route between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia
Service corridor: 467 miles, with four core roundtrips daily between Seattle and Portland; some extend north or south.
2019 ridership: 828,247.
States’ operating cost: $23 million a year.
Notable history: The Cascades train began service in 1994 on a portion of Amtrak’s long-haul Coast Starlight route from Seattle to Los Angeles. Tourist and leisure travel attract the most ridership on the Cascades. Operating costs have been fully subsidized by Washington (80%) and Oregon (20%) since 2013, and the states invested $800 million in federal stimulus money since 2010 on improvements to reduce travel times, which pose an ongoing challenge. Some pandemic service reductions are still in effect.
State-supported train: Rail Runner Express between Belen and Santa Fe via Albuquerque (97 miles, 11 roundtrips daily on varying segments)
2018 ridership (most recent available): 787,539.
State’s operating cost: $24 million a year.
Notable history: Service began in 2006, under a private operator contracted by the Rio Metro Regional Transit District. New Mexico spent nearly $400 million in two phases for the railway, including purchasing the freight tracks and leasing them to other users. Local business taxes and federal grants cover most of the costs. Ridership has declined each year from a high of 1.2 million in 2010, with a legislative report faulting long travel times as one culprit.
Source: Denver Post reporting, state reports, Amtrak ridership report for fiscal year 2019.
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