John Hazlehurst

John Hazlehurst

In the idyllic early 1950s, Downtown Colorado Springs was the center of everything. Platte and Colorado avenues ran east and west, while Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street ran north and south. Public schools were organized radially, with four junior high schools (West, East, North and South) funneling students into the mighty Colorado Springs High School.

If you wanted to drive to Denver, your only choice was Highway 85/87, better known as “The Ribbon of Death,” 65 miles of winding, icy and poorly maintained two-lane blacktop. You could risk getting killed by the drunks, speeders and incompetent drivers — or take the train. 

I vividly remember going to Denver with my mom in the late 1940s. We boarded the D&RGW morning train at about 8, arriving at Union Station in an hour or so. After a leisurely day shopping and sightseeing, we left Denver at 4:30 p.m. and were back home in time for dinner.

Colorado Springs was then an easy, compact city. Public transportation by bus or train was quick and simple, although automobiles were ubiquitous and convenient. Residents had multiple choices, but passenger trains were on their last legs. The federally funded interstate highway system replaced two-lane blacktop with safe, uncrowded limited-access freeways, and Detroit-built fast, fun, affordable cars. The train ride was fine, but driving from Connecticut to Colorado Springs for summer vacation in 1959 in a classmate’s (wait for it, car guys!) 1958 black-and-silver Chevy Impala convertible was transcendent.

Sixty-two years later, the Impala is probably tucked away in some rich guy’s heated garage and there’s a serious effort afoot to bring passenger trains back to the Front Range. Can passenger rail make a comeback in today’s Mountain West?

Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo are no longer discrete cities with defined suburbs, but polycentric work/living environments. Forget boundaries, names and governance and look at function. This isn’t a “last mile” problem but a non-shareable destination problem.

If you work regular hours in Denver and live reasonably close a train station, you’re a potential daily passenger. Yet many commuters will have to commute by car because their residences/jobs aren’t compatible with train schedules. As presently envisioned, Front Range rail would begin with three round-trip trains connecting Colorado Springs to Pueblo, Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. The cost? For bare bones service along existing track — at least $2 billion, while full build-out along dedicated double-track between Fort Collins and Pueblo might cost $14 billion. 

While train backers project 3 million riders annually by 2045, that estimate assumes double-tracking 25 round trips daily. Residents of the newly formed Front Range Passenger Rail District will likely be asked to approve a .08 percent sales tax on fares, and it’s assumed that the Feds will kick in as well. Backers are also fond of doomsplaining, predicting that absent passenger rail, Interstate 25 will need six more lanes.

But rather than embracing 19th-century technology to solve 21st-century dilemmas, maybe we should trust today’s innovative technologies. Pair self-driving cars, remote working capabilities and dispersed, decentralized office environments, and we’ll travel less. Look at our renascent Downtown and its aspirational live/work environment, a place where you can walk or bike to work. As commuting becomes less necessary, other work/live centers will blossom across the region. Why waste your precious time driving your car or riding a train?

Perhaps we’re looking at the wrong routes for future trains. What about going west and east, instead of north and south? Train buffs treasure the old narrow gauge lines that linked Front Range cities to the mountains — The Denver, South Park and Pacific, the Colorado Midland, the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek Railway. In a low-commuting environment with radically decreased individual auto ownership, maybe it’d make more sense to build a Denver-Grand Junction route along Interstate 70, or a Colorado Springs-Buena Vista-Alamosa route. More fun, more interesting, more sustainable, less noisily disruptive and more useful to every resident of Colorado Springs, Denver and points west.

But in the end it’s all about politics. Although three trains daily won’t have any impact on I-25 traffic, fed-up voters might prefer to believe the hype and ignore the numbers. And if I’m still around, I’d love to go on that first trip!

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.